CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Of the remaining undefeated teams with a chance at the national championship (sorry Fresno State), it appears that Virginia has the easiest path to an 11-0 season.
The Cavaliers are no sure thing, but compared to unbeaten Notre Dame, Florida State, Nebraska, Tennessee and Auburn, they have the most accommodating schedule. Incidentally, Houston, Oklahoma and Florida are not included in this list of undefeated teams because they aren't eligible to compete in bowls this season.
Now then, consider each team's most difficult remaining opponents:
NOTRE DAME--Miami, Pittsburgh, Tennessee, Penn State and USC. Three of the five games are on the road.
FLORIDA STATE--Miami, Auburn, Louisiana State and Florida. The Miami and Auburn games are on the road.
NEBRASKA--The Cornhuskers still have to play Oklahoma at Norman, Okla., and Colorado.
TENNESSEE--Florida, Alabama and Notre Dame. All three games are at home, but the Gators are tough; Alabama is Tennessee's fiercest rival, and Notre Dame is Notre Dame.
AUBURN--Florida State, Florida, Georgia and Alabama. If the Tigers can get past Florida State, they still have the Gators, at Gainesville, Fla.
VIRGINIA--North Carolina State, Georgia Tech and Maryland. Not exactly murderer's row, is it? All three are home games, which doesn't make them gimmes, but . . . Fast-improving Georgia Tech could be a problem.
Virginia's rise to No. 4 in the Associated Press poll is important to the Cavaliers for two reasons:
--It's the highest football ranking in the school's history.
--It could change the entire bowl picture. Here's why:
When the Atlantic Coast Conference, of which Virginia is a member, signed a four-year contract with the Florida Citrus Bowl in the summer of 1988, a stipulation was included in the agreement. It read that in the first and third years of the contract, the ACC champion was committed to the Citrus Bowl and vice versa. In the second and fourth years, the Citrus Bowl has the option of inviting the ACC champion or another team. This is year No. 3.
But --and this is where it gets interesting--a national championship contingency exists. The Citrus Bowl can opt out of the agreement if it can match the No. 1-ranked team against No. 2, 3 or 4. Likewise, the ACC champion--and let's say it's Virginia--can opt out of the deal if its ranked no lower than fourth and can play the No. 1 team for the national title.
One catch: The ACC champion can leave the Citrus only for the Sugar Bowl, Cotton Bowl or Orange Bowl. That's because the Citrus has no chance at the Southeastern Conference, Southwest Conference or Big Eight champions, all of which are tied to the aforementioned three bowls.
The Fiesta Bowl is off-limits because the Citrus considers it direct competition. The Fiesta has no conference tie-ins.
"If all the bowls would have a similar agreement, we'd have a national championship game every year," said Chuck Rohe, executive director of the Citrus Bowl.
Not so fast. The Citrus Bowl will pay a projected $1.35 million to $1.5 million to its teams this year, which is considerably less than what a school could expect to earn by playing in, say, the Sugar Bowl, Cotton Bowl or Orange Bowl. According to Rohe, if the Citrus has a chance at keeping Virginia for a national title contest, they would ask ABC, which is broadcasting the New Year's Day game, to increase the rights fee. ABC isn't under any obligation to do so, but you can bet it would if a championship game--and championship ratings--were available.
No one really expected Florida to be able to strike a deal with the NCAA's Committee on Infractions, did they? The Gators basically wanted to devise their own punishment for past rules violations. Fat chance.
Recent NCAA sanctions against Florida, 4-0 this season, prohibit a bowl appearance after the 1990 season. Outraged Gator officials wanted to trade 12 football scholarships for the chance to accept a bowl bid and bowl money. The committee heard Florida's appeal last weekend, but wasn't swayed. "(A university) can ask the Committee on Infractions whatever it wants to," the NCAA's David Berst said.
Berst agreed the request was unusual. Not since 1952 has the NCAA removed an announced penalty.
There is one solution to Florida's problem: Don't cheat.
How seriously do they take their football at Alabama? When the Crimson Tide lost its first three games of the season, radio disc jockeys in Birmingham, Ala., and Tuscaloosa, Ala., began giving air time to "Dig Him Up," an awful ballad about retrieving the legendary Bear Bryant from his coffin.
Nobody, especially new and beleaguered Alabama Coach Gene Stallings, deserves that sort of misguided abuse.
And those sightings of Danny Ford at Alabama can be disregarded. Stallings is safe. Ford, a former Crimson Tide player who was forced out as Clemson's coach, is a welcome visitor, said Alabama Athletic Director Hootie Ingram.