The road to the national championship in college football is paved with good intentions, but as the discerning folks who run the Fiesta Bowl know, there is plenty of room for a detour.
Will the nation's top two teams play for the title Jan. 2 in Tempe, Ariz., as drawn up by the newly created Bowl Alliance?
Or will the champion be crowned in Pasadena, Calif., on New Year's Day, under the Rose Bowl banner?
Heading into the first full weekend of the college season, those are questions that will have to wait for clarification. The bowl system has been patched up again this year in another attempt to get an undisputed champion.
Short of a national playoff, conference commissioners appear to have come up with a workable compromise. Briefly, the Bowl Coalition has been replaced by the Bowl Alliance, which will spread five conference champions (ACC, Big East, Big Eight, Southeastern, Southwest) plus Notre Dame around three different bowls.
The championship game between the Nos. 1 and 2 alliance teams will be rotated among the Fiesta (this year), Sugar (1996) and Orange (1997) bowls. Unlike the coalition, the alliance has eliminated conference tie-ins to its respective bowls.
Now comes the rub.
The Rose Bowl, matching the champions from the Big Ten and the Pac-10, is not part of the alliance. That's bad news if Penn State or Southern California -- the preseason favorites in the Big Ten and Pac-10 -- is ranked No. 1 or 2. In that case, the Nittany Lions or the Trojans would be on the outside looking in.
The prospect of a runner-up repeat was daunting enough to Penn State coach Joe Paterno that this summer he questioned (( whether the Big Ten ought to get involved in the alliance.
"Without taking away from the way things have been done for 50 years, maybe there's a better way to do things and let's not stick our heads in the sand," Paterno told the Philadelphia Inquirer. "Maybe we've already got the best of it all now, but maybe not.
"I think the coalition has created more interest. It's not as good as a national playoff, but it's the best we've got now, and I'd like us or another Big Ten team to be in a position to play in a national championship game in the Fiesta Bowl. Sometimes tradition's OK. Whether or not you put stripes on your uniforms, what's the point of that, just for change? But sometimes you have to look at things differently."
The Big Ten will not break from tradition at least until its Rose Bowl contract expires after the 2000 regular season. That could leave the alliance -- as well as Paterno -- in the lurch again. The fourth-ranked Lions get Ohio State, Michigan and Wisconsin at home this year, and 12-0 is very realistic.
Some other changes to look for this season:
* Cracking down on emotion and prayer: In a rule change seemingly aimed at the Miami Hurricanes, players are prohibited from "excessive" acts that draw attention to themselves. Like taking off a helmet on the field. Or kneeling to pray in the end zone after a touchdown. Or simply raising your arms in acknowledgment of a great catch, which happened at the Kickoff Classic. Two of these violations in one game will draw an automatic ejection.
The ban on end-zone praying was not well received in Lynchburg, Va., where Jerry Falwell's Liberty University filed suit in federal court yesterday challenging the rule. Liberty wants U.S. District Judge James Turk to restrain the NCAA from enforcing the unsportsmanlike conduct rule nationwide, starting tomorrow.
The motion for a temporary restraining order says that barring players from traditional bended-knee gestures of prayer is religious discrimination and violates the Civil Rights Act.
The Aggies may have the best shot, coming out of the Southwest Conference. They have not lost a conference game in four years and went 10-0-1 last season. Four-year starter Corey Pullig is the quarterback, tailback Leeland McElroy is a Heisman Trophy candidate, and the defense was fifth in the country a year ago. But the Aggies could be overrated. The tough game on the schedule is Sept. 23 at Colorado, a game they must win to have a shot at the Fiesta.
Under coach Terry Bowden, Auburn went 20-1-1 while serving its sanctions. Only Nebraska won more regular-season games during those two years. Like A&M;, Auburn has an experienced quarterback (Patrick Nix) and a Heisman candidate to carry the ball (Stephen Davis). The Tigers probably will have to beat Florida twice, though, including in the SEC championship game. If they do, the dream game could match Terry against his father Bobby and Florida State for the national title.
Don't include Alabama in the title picture -- the Tide is going on probation. And Miami, awaiting a verdict from the NCAA, may not be eligible, either.
* Farewell to the SWC: The once-dominant Southwest Conference will fold after its 81st season and its eight remaining teams will splinter. The conference hasn't won a national title in 25 years since Texas did it, and in the past decade couldn't keep its teams off probation. A title run by Texas A&M; would be a fitting last hurrah.
Next year, A&M; will join Texas, Texas Tech and Baylor in the 88-year-old Big Eight, which will become the Big 12. Texas Christian, Southern Methodist and Rice will go into the Western Athletic Conference, and Houston will move into the new Conference USA.