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THE RUN FOR NO. 1 <br> CONTENDERS MUST DRAFT BEHIND BUCKEYES, WHO AGAIN ARE LOADED WITH FIRST-ROUND TALENT

Scan the list of college football's national champions in the 1990s.

Now take a look at the last nine National Football League drafts.

One school is missing from the champions list, but very prominent in the NFL draft list.

It's Ohio State.

Under coach John Cooper, the Buckeyes turned out 10 first-round draft picks since 1992 -- Alonzo Spellman, Robert Smith, Dan Wilkinson, Korey Stringer, Joey Galloway, Craig Powell, Terry Glenn, Ricky Dudley, Eddie George and Orlando Pace. In addition, other Ohio State products such as Chris Sanders, Bobby Hoying, Lorenzo Styles, Marlon Kerner and Raymont Harris were early NFL picks.

Yet with talent like that, Ohio State made it to only one Rose Bowl this decade and is still looking for its first national championship since 1968.

It's time for a Buckeye breakthrough.

"We're knocking on the door," said Cooper after his team was ranked No. 1 by both the Associated Press and ESPN-USA Today coaches poll. "There's a difference between knocking on the door and opening the door. We haven't gotten there yet, but we're close."

If great players make great teams, then Ohio State is in great shape. The Buckeyes will have at least four prospective first-round picks: linebacker Andy Katzenmoyer, the Butkus Award-winner last season; cornerback Antoine Winfield, who may be the best in the nation; speedy wide receiver David Boston; and guard Rob Murphy.

Throwing to Boston, the Big Ten receptions leader last year, and speedster Dee Miller will be Joe Germaine, the conference passing leader. It looks like a potent mix, especially if the Buckeye running game comes around.

The schedule-maker gave Cooper's team a slate that is rugged enough to satisfy the pollsters, but not overwhelming. The opener at West Virginia, a legitimate Top 10 contender, is a potential stumbling block. Then come home games against Toledo and Missouri before the Big Ten opener against Penn State. That one is in Columbus, where the Bucks also get Michigan State and Michigan. Also, OSU is spared from facing Wisconsin, a potential first-division team in the conference, and Purdue's Spoilermakers.

Two reminders: Ohio State was rated No. 1 in the preseason five times since 1958 and failed to finish on top. And only once in this decade, Florida State in 1993, has the top team in the preseason AP poll won the national title.

It's an odd year in college football.

To start with, Tom Osborne will be missing from the scene. The veteran Nebraska coach retired and turned over the reins to long-time assistant Frank Solich. That was easily the biggest coaching change in an offseason which produced less upheaval than usual among major college coaches. Another major change took place at the University of Southern California, where former Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Paul Hackett succeeded veteran John Robinson in what turned out to be a messy changeover. Also, Mack Brown moved to Texas from North Carolina, where he was succeeded by Carl Torbush.

It's also an unusual year because several traditional powers are being lightly regarded by some of the preseason predictors. Some grid annuals don't rank big names such as Penn State, Southern Cal, Alabama, Auburn, Miami, Texas, Colorado and Oklahoma among the top 25 teams and Notre Dame didn't make many Top 10 lists.

One publication, Athlon Sports, didn't include any Penn State players on its All-Big Ten preseason team, let alone its All-America team.

Here's our annual stab at the Top 25:

Ohio State -- The key will be solving Michigan's defense Nov. 21.

lorida State -- Cagy old Bobby Bowden just keeps reloading. This year's quarterback will be 25-year-old former pro baseball player Chris Weinke. Tailback Travis Minor is a name to remember. Except for NFL first-rounder Tra Thomas, virtually the whole offensive line is back. 'Noles get Florida and tough ACC games -- Clemson, Virginia and North Carolina -- at home, but must go to Miami.

Florida -- Terry Jackson replaces Fred Taylor at RB and soph Jesse Palmer may have to come through at QB. An imposing pair of linebackers (Jevon Kearse and Johnny Rutledge) leads the defense. Schedule begins with Citadel and Northeast Louisiana. Look for Gators to return to SEC title game after a year's absence.

Michigan -- Wolverines begin the defense of their national championship against Notre Dame away and Syracuse at home. Tom Brady or Scott Dreisbach will be the new QB. The defense will be solid as usual, even without Heisman winner Charles Woodson. Most of the O-line is back. TE Jerame Tuman and WR Tai Streets are big offensive stars.

Kansas State -- For decades the Wildcats were a perennial doormat in the old Big Eight, but this is a new day in Manhattan. One publication got a bit giddy and ranked K-State No. 2 in the nation. That's a little too high, but the Wildcats are good. The non-conference schedule (Indiana State, Northern Illinois, Northeast Louisiana) is an embarrassment for a Top 10 caliber team. The Nebraska game Nov. 14 is at home. Senior QB Michael Bishop and a defense that returns nine starters are the strengths.

West Virginia -- The Mountaineers should be able to handle the rest of their schedule after the Ohio State home opener. They get both Syracuse and Miami at home in Big East play. RB Amos Zeroue, WRs David Saunders and Shawn Foreman, QB Marc Bulger and LB Gary Stills are big-time players.

Nebraska -- Solich has big shoes to fill, but the Cornhusker program is solidly in place and it would take a lot to mess it up. Huskers get a chance to make a mark early with a home game against Washington. DeAngelo Evans is slated to be the new running star. DE Mike Rucker leads the defense.

UCLA -- Bruins finished with a rush last year, winning their last 10
behind QB Cade McNown. They should get off to fast start against Texas and Houston before potential stumble in Miami heat. Key Pac-10 games against Washington and Arizona are on the road.

Texas A&M -- Aggies return QB Branddon Stewart and seven other offensive starters, but their best player is on defense -- LB Dat Nguyen.

LSU -- Larry DiNardo has brought the old magic back to the Bayou. QB Herb Tyler and RB Kevin Faulk lead strong Bengal entry that will make a run at SEC title. Key SEC games against Auburn, Florida and Mississipi are all on the road.

Syracuse -- Tennessee and road game at Michigan may be toughest start in Orange history, and coach Paul Pasqualoni's teams are notoriously slow starters. Coach P has skilled players, starting with QB Donovan McNabb, WR Quinton Spotwood and Kevin Johnson and FB Rob Konrad.

Arizona State -- Winning season opener at home against Washington could be the key for the Sun Devils, who have a pro prospect in offensive lineman Trey Ruegamer and top passing combination of QB Ryan Kealy and WR Lenzie Jackson.

Virginia -- George Welsh is one of the most underrated coaches in the nation. If the Cavaliers win their opener at Auburn, watch out. QB Aaron Brooks, RB Thomas Jones and DB Anthony Poindexter are the top players on ACC's No. 2 team.

Wisconsin -- Badgers may sneak up on rest of Big Ten with veteran team. There were few graduation losses and 270-pound RB Ron Dayne is back to pulverize opposition.

Washington -- QB Brock Huard leads another talented bunch of Huskies, who get right to it with key Pac-10 game at Arizona State on Sept. 5. There will be a big early test at Nebraska. OL Tony Coats and Aaran Dalan are all-star candidates.

Penn State -- Maybe there are no big names in the Nittany Lions camp, but they are being dismissed too soon by some. Opener with Southern Mississippi will be interesting. So will conference opener at Ohio State on Oct. 3. Brandon Short is the latest LB star at Linebacker U. Chris Eberly takes over at RB for Curtis Enis.

Southern Mississippi -- Golden Eagles have schedule to make a big splash with Penn State, Texas A&M and Alabama as big-name opponents. QB Lee Roberts is smart competitive leader with an unorthodox style.

Tennessee -- Peyton Manning is gone but the Vols will survive nicely with Temaurice "Tee" Martin at quarterback. Much depends on rebuilt secondary. Experienced line will open holes for RB Jamal Lewis.

Colorado State -- Rams have a mini-dynasty in the WAC under Sonny Lubick. They are favored to win the conference because they do not face Brigham Young in the regular season and face tough Wyoming at home in big border rivalry. It won't mean much if State loses showdown with Colorado U. at Mile High Stadium on Sept. 5. RB Damon Washington and OL Anthony Cesario are top players, and Lubick is known for tough defenses.

Notre Dame -- Bob Davie has his hands full repairing his image and team morale after revelations in former line coach Joe Moore's successful age-discrimination suit. Senior Jarius Jackson is the new quarterback. TB Autry Denson will break Allen Pinkett's career rushing record if he has another 1,000-yard season. Michigan, Michigan State, Arizona State and LSU are the toughest games on schedule.

Michigan State -- Nick Saban is quietly bringing the Spartans back into the major college mainstream. Versatile RB Sedrick Irvin and DT Robaire Smith lead bid for Big Ten upset. Opener is at Oregon before big home game with Notre Dame.

OKlahoma State -- Bob Simmons won a lot of admiration for the job he did with 8-4 Cowboys last year. Soph QB Tony Lindsay may be Big 12's best. Nathan Simmons (Bob's son) and Jamaal Fobbs are a 1-2 tailback punch along the lines of the Thurman Thomas-Barry Sanders combo in the 1980s.

Oregon -- A potent offense carried the Ducks to a 7-5 season and the QB tandem of Akili Jones and Jason Maas is back to guide a wide-open attack. Damon Griffin comes back after missing the 1997 season to fill hole at WR. LB Peter Sirmon is defensive workhorse.

Auburn -- Tigers will count on dynamic front seven led by DE Jimmy Brumbaugh to approach last year's 10-3 season and SEC West championship. There's a huge question at QB, where Ben Leard takes over, and a need to develop a running game.

Texas -- Longhorns are college football's sleeping giant, but new coach Mack Brown will awake them. He can build around RB Ricky Williams, the leading rusher in the nation last season with 1,893 yards. Williams spent part of his summer playing pro baseball for the Batavia Muckdogs in the New York-Penn League.

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