College Football A Mixed Bag So Far

Monday, September 18th 2000, 12:00 am

By: News On 6

When five of the nation's top 15 teams lose on the same day, there's bound to be some changes in the college football landscape.

Take UCLA, a 4-7 team a year ago and overlooked in the preseason polls. After beating a No. 3-ranked team for the second time in three games — a 23-20 win over Michigan — the Bruins catapulted to No. 6 in this week's AP media poll. And coach Bob Toledo declared his team is back to top-notch status.

``This is a five-star game, this game was for the program,'' Toledo said after backup Ryan McCann threw for 236 yards and two TDs against the Wolverines. ``If we are going to be among the elite teams in the country, we had to make a statement today. I think we made that statement.''

McCann made his statement, too.

``I think we proved we were the No. 1 team in the nation,'' he said. ``I don't know who else we can beat, or what else we can do.''

At this early juncture, who's going to argue? The Top 25 underwent a major reshuffling, with Texas, Tennessee, Purdue and Alabama joining Michigan as the big losers.

Stanford beat Texas 27-24 and the Longhorns plummeted 10 spots to No. 15; Tennessee fell two places to No. 13 after a final-seconds 27-23 loss to Florida, Purdue lost to Notre Dame 23-21 on a last-play field goal and fell eight spots to No. 21; and Alabama was outplayed by Southern Mississippi 21-0 and tumbled out of the poll. Michigan dropped seven spots to No. 10.

The results left fans wondering what to make of the 2000 season. For now, we know this:

— The Pac-10 is back, led by UCLA, which started the season unranked. Washington and USC are in the top 10, too. Next up for the Bruins? At Oregon, which has a 16-game home winning streak.

— Alabama still isn't ready to challenge for a national title, no less defend its SEC West crown.

— Penn State is worse than anybody thought, South Carolina is better than anybody thought and Notre Dame is playing with a passion that's been missing for years.

— Virginia Tech isn't a one-year wonder.

— Tennessee still can't beat Florida.

— Nebraska and Florida State remain a solid 1-2 in the polls.

There's more, such as Auburn, Iowa State, North Carolina State and Pittsburgh without a loss and Colorado, Army and Navy without a win. Then again, it's a little early to judge which way these teams will go.

The Pac-10 is 16-4 in non-conference games, with UCLA, Washington and USC all undefeated and owners of a bunch of big-time victories. In addition to their win over Michigan, the Bruins (3-0) beat then-No. 3 Alabama on Sept. 2.; the Huskies won at Colorado 17-14 a week after beating then-No. 5 Miami 34-29; and the Trojans, idle Saturday, have wins over Penn State and Colorado.

A year ago, the Pac-10 was a non-conference flop. A highly-ranked Arizona loss to Penn State; Stanford lost to San Jose State; and Arizona State to New Mexico State, to name a few eye-openers.

What's up at 'Bama? Just when the Crimson Tide thought they were set for a run at the national title, a quarterback controversy — Tyler Watts or Andrew Zow — and plain old uninspired play saw Alabama (1-2) fall from preseason No. 3 all the way out of the poll.

At Birmingham, Ala., Raymond Wall returned an interception 54 yards and Joe Henley returned a fumble 18 yards for TDs for the Golden Eagles (1-1), who lost 19-16 at Tennessee two weeks ago. The loss left Alabama, which managed just 217 yards, with its worst start since 1990.

``Either we are going to separate and fall or we're going to come together,'' 'Bama coach Mike DuBose said. ``I simply have to do a better job.''

Penn State coach Joe Paterno may have to wait until next season to pick up the six more wins he needs to surpass Bear Bryant and become major college football's winningest coach.

The Nittany Lions (1-3) were shut out 12-0 by state-rival Pittsburgh and have lost six of their last seven regular-season games. Upcoming is the Big Ten schedule, starting Saturday at No. 14 Ohio State.

``This team, we need a little luck,'' Paterno said. ``We need a couple plays. When bad things happen, it doesn't seem like they can pick it up and get it done. I really don't know if it's execution or not having the players.''

Pittsburgh (3-0) is off to its best start since 1990 after Jon Turman threw a 62-yard TD pass to Rod Rutherford and Nick Lotz kicked two field goals. Penn State had just 64 yards rushing.

After ending a 21-game losing streak, coach Lou Holtz has his Gamecocks 3-0 and off to their best start since 1990. Derek Watson ran for 215 yards and three TDs in a 41-6 win over Eastern Michigan.

Holtz's successor at Notre Dame, Bob Davie, has to be one happy guy after the 16th-ranked Fighting Irish (2-1) pulled out a 23-21 win over Purdue on Nick Setta's 38-yard field goal on the game's final play.

``You kick a game-winner at Notre Dame, there's nothing like it,'' Setta said.

Davie entered the season on the coaching hotseat after the Irish went 5-7 in '99. That seat has cooled considerably after two wins and an overtime loss to Nebraska, but the schedule doesn't get easier — yet. No. 23 Michigan State and Stanford are on deck before games against Navy, West Virginia, Boston College and Rutgers.

Gary Godsey, who replaced the injured Arnaz Battle at quarterback, ran for one TD and hit a key 15-yard pass to Javin Hunter to keep the final drive alive for the Irish.

At Blacksburg, Va., Michael Vick was at his acrobatic best in No. 5 Virginia Tech's 49-0 win over Rutgers. Vick flipped into the end zone for one TD and threw for another in totaling 224 yards. Lee Suggs had four short TD runs, but the Hokies were talking defense.

``That's how it was last year,'' linebacker Nick Sorensen said. ``Mike did a lot of great things and he's an unbelievable player, but we had had great defense and we had great special teams, and that's what we've always been about. Having Mike out there just makes it that much better.''

Last year, Vick directed the Hokies to an 11-0 regular season and into the national title game, where they lost to Florida State. This year, the Hokies have outscored their first three opponents by a combined 146-51.

At Knoxville, Tenn., the Volunteers outplayed the Gators for nearly 58 minutes, but it wasn't enough to prevent a seventh loss in the last nine meetings.

Jesse Palmer threw a debatable 3-yard TD pass to freshman Jabar Gaffney with 14 seconds left to lift the Gators (3-0) before a stunned Neyland Stadium record crowd of 108,768.

Palmer threw a quick strike to Gaffney just over the goal line. Gaffney had the ball for an instant before it was knocked loose by cornerback Willie Miles. But line judge Al Matthews ruled Gaffney made the catch, and the call stood after a brief conference with referee Al Ford.

``I had it long enough for it to be a touchdown,'' Gaffney said.

``The Gators won, but the world knows about the last play,'' Miles said. ``I thought they were going to overrule.''

After a review of games films, the Vols could decide to file a protest with the SEC.

Florida moved up three places to No. 3.

Nebraska (3-0) was idle Saturday and held the No. 1 spot, while Florida State routed North Carolina 63-14 and remained No. 2.

At Tallahassee, Fla., Chris Weinke threw for 262 yards and four TDs as the Seminoles (3-0) extended the nation's longest winning streak to 15 games.

Texas' high hopes for a national title run all but ended with its loss at Stanford, a team the Longhorns beat 69-17 last season. Major Applewhite rallied Texas to a 24-20 lead, but backup Chris Lewis threw a 15-yard TD pass to DeRonnie Pitts with 72 seconds left for the winning score.

``I didn't think this team was a national championship team, and I've said that every day,'' said Texas coach Mack Brown, whose frustration showed in a sideline tirade in the third quarter. ``We're just going to take our lessons from this game and move on.''

On the other sideline, former Stanford golfer Tiger Woods cheered on the Cardinal.

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