COLLEGE FOOTBALL / GENE WOJCIECHOWSKI : Penn State Hype? Paterno Isn't Buying Into It--Yet

Before anyone starts ordering bronze for the statues, Penn State Coach Joe Paterno wants the world to know that the Nittany Lions are good, really good, but not invincible.

Yet.

"I don't think we're unstoppable," he said. "That's kind of a ridiculous statement to make."

Is it? Penn State, ranked No. 1 in the coaches' poll and No. 2 in the Associated Press poll, is averaging 50.3 points and 542.7 yards. Its turnover ratio is plus-10. The offense is so balanced that the difference in yards passing vs. yards rushing is only 4.1--273.4 to 269.3.

And, yikes, the personnel the Nittany Lions have. Kerry Collins at quarterback. Ki-Jana Carter at running back. Bobby Engram and Freddie Scott at wide receiver. Kyle Brady, a blocker extraordinaire, at tight end. A solid offensive line.

"Obviously, they have a chance to be the best offensive team we've had," said Paterno, who has been at Penn State 45 seasons, 29 as head coach.

For now, though, Paterno is too busy being paranoid to think about his team's place in Nittany Lion history. Rather than totally enjoying the moment--as he often tells his team to--he frets.

"We're not perfect," he said.

Maybe that's why Paterno, like Nebraska Coach Tom Osborne, isn't spending much time pondering the whims and quirks of poll voters. Then again, it is only Nov. 3.

"I haven't even thought about it, really," Paterno said. "As I've said from Day 1, when the season's over we'll see what's going on and I'll start to think about it. Maybe at that time I'll have some comments. But I don't think there's anything to comment on (now)."

Paterno reserves the right to complain, mostly because of what happened to Penn State in 1968, '69 and '73. The Nittany Lions finished 11-0, 11-0 and 12-0, respectively, and finished no higher than second in the polls. In 1973, they were ranked fifth.

"I think the playoff's the only way to do it," Paterno said. "I think it's a disgrace to college football that Division I-A football is the only sport that not's decided on the field.

"I may obviously be affected by the fact that there are only, I think, six or seven undefeated, untied football teams at the end of the bowl season that have not been selected as national champions--and three of those were Penn State teams."

WISHFUL THINKING

Pacific 10 Conference Commissioner Tom Hansen is a progressive enough guy.

Hansen knew all hell would break loose when Notre Dame bolted the College Football Assn. to make its own deal with NBC.

Hansen accurately predicted the trickle-down effect of the expanded Southeastern, Big Ten, Big East and Big Eight conferences--viz., every league for itself.

And Hansen said the bowl alliance would never last if it didn't make some significant changes in its selection process. (It did.)

So, Tom, do you think the Rose Bowl will join the bowl coalition someday, thus guaranteeing America of the true national championship game that Paterno thinks it deserves?

"No," he said.

For starters, the contracts between the Big Ten, the Pac-10 and ABC, which televises the game, run through 2001. So even if the Rose Bowl wanted to make a change, it couldn't for seven more years.

Second, nobody wants to make a change.

"I think it's impossible to predict after (2001)," Hansen said. "All the parties involved in the agreement today are very pleased with it and the two conferences are not interested in a football playoff. Joining the alliance might promote that."

SEEING RED

Several days after Colorado's 24-7 loss to Nebraska, Buffalo Coach Bill McCartney knows exactly why his team got beat.

McCartney gave boffo marks to Nebraska's athleticism on defense, its superior kicking game and also praised the Cornhusker coaches for running a conservative offensive game plan to perfection.

But . . .

If Nebraska wants to win a national championship, suggested McCartney, quarterback Brook Berringer will have to do more than throw safe passes to his tight ends and running backs. Until then, there will be questions.

"Well, I believe he has to keep answering (those questions)," McCartney said. "Against us, he didn't throw to his wide receivers hardly at all and he's certainly going to have to do that. I'm not questioning his ability to do that, I'm just saying that he's got to do that over a period of time. In our game they didn't ask him to do that."

UNIVERSITY OF NOTRE COTTON

It now appears that if Notre Dame doesn't completely gag and lose its remaining games against Florida State, Air Force and USC, the Irish are Cotton Bowl-bound . . . again.

Under coalition rules, Notre Dame, which has been to Dallas the last two years, could decline the invitation and play elsewhere, presumably the Fiesta Bowl or maybe the Sugar. But that would be bad manners and anyway, the Irish are this close to qualifying for Texas residency.

In previous seasons, Notre Dame was too proud to go anywhere with six or seven victories. They passed on postseason play in 1982 with a 6-4-1 mark, as well as 1979 with a 7-4 record and 1975 with an 8-3 record.

This time the Irish are 5-3 and have to travel to Orlando for the game Nov. 12 against Florida State and to Los Angeles for the game Nov. 26 against the Trojans. Air Force plays at South Bend on Nov. 19.

Notre Dame needs one more victory to qualify for a bowl. Now then, will the Irish vote to stay home if they somehow finish with a 6-5 record? Put it this way: Would you turn down a minimum $3-million payday in the name of pride?

The Irish could eventually face Baylor in the Cotton Bowl, which means Notre Dame might hit the religious denomination trifecta: losses to the Mormons (Brigham Young), other Catholics (Boston College) and Baptists (Baylor).

THE REST

The Pac-10 still is trying to find a place for its No. 4 team in next season's bowl lineup. So far, the second-place finisher is guaranteed a place in the Cotton or Holiday. The third-place team will play in the Sun Bowl. The fourth-place team will likely play in the Copper--at least, that's what the Pac-10 prefers. Expect an announcement soon. . . . If Notre Dame is invited to the Cotton Bowl this season, the Fiesta is expected to choose Colorado to play the second-place team from the Pac-10, the Atlantic Coast Conference or the Big East. . . .

OK, so Nevada Las Vegas Athletic Director Jim Weaver shouldn't have hired Rollie Massimino and then helped arrange the secret supplemental contract that eventually blew up in his face. But if nothing else, Weaver, who has since announced his resignation, can be proud of his other hire, Jeff Horton. Horton, who ditched Nevada and took six assistants with him to UNLV this season, is 5-3 overall and 4-0 in the Big West Conference. Meanwhile, his mentor at Nevada, Chris Ault, is 7-1 and also unbeaten in the Big West. The teams will meet at UNLV Nov. 19. . . .

If you want to touch a nerve with Missouri Coach Larry Smith, simply ask him about the heat Gary Gibbs is taking at Oklahoma. Smith was forced out at USC and the same thing might be happening to Gibbs. "You pick up that (Oklahoma game) program . . . and they have a picture of the national championship ring on there," Smith said. "I mean, people live in the past, particularly when it's glory days. Everybody thinks just because your name is OU, or SC or Notre Dame or whatever, you're supposed to be undefeated all the time. And if you're not, it's the coach's fault. But what people don't give credit to is that there are other programs in the country, and there are other coaches working hard, there's other people who recruit well, and there's other people who get good recruiting classes and have good talent. The thing that people fail to understand or accept, I think, in every respect--that's the media and everybody--is the fact that with only 85 scholarships it has really evened the field out." . . .

Nebraska has submitted its application to the NCAA, requesting an additional year of eligibility for quarterback Tommie Frazier, who developed a season-ending blood clot after a game Sept. 24 against Pacific. Under the NCAA's injury hardship rule, Frazier is eligible for an extra season if he participated in fewer than 20% of the Cornhusker plays. And there's the rub. If the NCAA includes the Kickoff Classic, an extra game added to Nebraska's schedule this year, Frazier exceeded the play limit by 10 or 12 snaps, said Cornhusker Coach Osborne. If the NCAA exempts the game in its calculations, then Frazier is OK. The irony: Frazier was one of the few Nebraska players who voted against accepting a bid to the Kickoff Classic. . . .

Coaching rumors are like cotton candy. They look impressive, but usually are mostly air. Anyway, some of the latest hot-stove league stuff: North Carolina's Mack Brown, Mississippi State's Jackie Sherrill or--and this can't be true, can it?--Miami's Dennis Erickson to Oklahoma if Gibbs gets fired; Auburn defensive coordinator Wayne Hall to Georgia if Ray Goff gets the pink slip. Iowa State, which is breaking ground on an $8-million athletic facility, is interested in Minnesota Viking defensive coordinator Tony Dungy. Another possibility: If John Cooper gets forced out at Ohio State--and it might happen if the 6-3 Buckeyes lose two of their last three (Wisconsin, at Indiana, Michigan)--Iowa State might look at the Cyclone alum, class of '62; Ohio State alum Glen Mason (class of '72) to Columbus if Cooper leaves. Other jobs expected to be available: Louisiana State's and possibly, if Hayden Fry decides to call it quits after a third consecutive so-so season (5-7, 6-6, 3-5-1 this year) Iowa's. Also, expect East Carolina's Steve Logan and Bowling Green's Gary Blackney to be in demand during the off-season. . . .

Is Penn State's Carter, who still has a year of eligibility left, coming out early? ABC's Dick Vermeil seems to think so and apparently made it clear on a recent telecast. Vermeil's source: Paterno. Or was it? Said Paterno: "I don't know whether I said that. I may have said that. Dick may have asked me. I don't think I said that. If Dick said it, he should not have told you--if I indeed said that. I have not talked to Ki-Jana about it." . . .

Kansas' Mason, fresh from a Nebraska film session, on the Cornhuskers' main strength: "Whatever area I'm looking at." . . . Suddenly USC's 38-14 loss to Penn State isn't looking so bad, after all. Except for the Trojans and Michigan, no other Nittany Lion opponent has come within 27 points. . . . And to all those Nebraska yahoos we have mercilessly mocked in seasons past--and this hurts--we now officially apologize for picking Colorado over the Cornhuskers.

The Top 10

As selected by staff writer Gene Wojciechowski

No. Team Record 1. Penn State 7-0 2. Nebraska 9-0 3. Auburn 8-0 4. Miami 6-1 5. Colorado 7-1 6. Florida 6-1 7. Alabama 8-0 8. Syracuse 6-1 9. Florida State 6-1 10. Utah 8-0

Waiting list: Kansas State (5-2), Washington (6-2), Virginia (6-1), Oregon (6-3), Washington State (6-2).

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