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Who will play in Fame bowl?

It's like watching a roomful of high school seniors take the Scholastic Aptitude Test. They strain to recall stored knowledge. They scratch their heads. They rub their squinted eyes. They fidget. And yes, they guess.

But instead of filling in ovals on a test booklet for college admission, the Hall of Fame Bowl's team selection committee members are filling in boxes on a drawing board, matching college football teams with bowls.

That's how the 48 members spend each Monday afternoon for two months during the football season. And on the weekends, a small contingent is spread across the country, wooing athletic directors and coaches, while the rest huddle around televisions to watch as many games as a satellite dish can pick up.

"This is the fun part," said Fame Bowl executive director Jim McVay. "We have a very, very thorough process. But it can all change on Saturday night. Upsets are the variables. That's why I always carry an eraser (to the meetings)."

So, barring upsets, which teams will they ultimately match with their New Year's Day game at Tampa Stadium? If the football season were over today, the best bet might be:

Clemson and Penn State.

Why that matchup? All you have to do is duplicate the

Fame Bowl's process. Fidgeting is optional. Guessing is mandatory.

First, the committee assembles a working list of maybe 10 teams to chart and court.

They arrive at that list by first trying to determine which teams will wind up in the Sugar, Orange, Rose, Cotton and Fiesta bowls. Those include five conference champions: the Southeastern Conference in the Sugar, the Big Eight in the Orange, the Big Ten and Pacific-10 in the Rose and the Southwest Conference in the Cotton. Usually, the remaining highest ranked teams commandeer the other five spots.

"That's essentially the top 10 teams in the polls," McVay said. "Right now, we know we don't have a shot at them. But that (their elimination) allows us to zero in on the likely teams for us."

Start by assuming that the highest-ranked team in each conference will lock up that league's automatic bowl bid. That would be No.2 Auburn in the SEC, No.4 Nebraska in the Big Eight, No.5 Illinois in the Big Ten, No.7 Washington in the Pac-10 and No.13 Texas in the SWC (because No.6 Houston is on probation).

Now, subtract the other five highest teams that aren't locked into another bowl (such as No.9 Brigham Young to the Holiday Bowl). Adios No.1 Virginia (which would undoubtedly skip the Citrus Bowl for the sweeter economic deal of the Sugar), No.3 Notre Dame, No.8 Miami, No.10 Colorado and No.11 Tennessee.

Next, look at who's left, stressing the Fame Bowl's two overriding criteria _ what they call "the place" game and "the alumni" game.

The place game. Although its affiliation with NBC the last three years has boosted the Fame Bowl's television ratings, a North-South matchup usually assures broad interest.

In 1988, the Michigan-Alabama game earned a 9.3 rating, the fourth-highest among bowls. Syracuse-LSU in 1989 drew an 8.1 (fifth) and last season's game between Auburn and Ohio State received a whopping 9.9 _ third behind only the Orange and Rose.

"We have to have an intersectional game," team selection chairman John Adcock said.

But the key locally is the southern representative.

While a Southeastern Conference team is usually an alluring draw in Tampa Bay, a Florida school would virtually guarantee a sellout of 74,000-seat Tampa Stadium. For example, the Florida-Mississippi State game last year drew an announced crowd of 68,189.

"Florida, Florida State or Miami is always our No.1 choice," Adcock said. "We need a team from Florida more than anywhere else. If we could get Florida or Florida State, we'd definitely sell out."

The alumni game. The Fame Bowl is still gradually building its local fan support, so it must invite teams whose alumni live by the credo: Have ticket will travel no matter how far it is.

That's why the Hall of Fame Bowl won't be courting any West Coast team in the near future. For example, Southern California only brought a few hundred fans for the Citrus Bowl in 1987, although Orlando nonetheless sold out the game.

The Hall of Fame Bowl needs participating teams to sell a good number of tickets. Case in point: LSU sold about 3,000 tickets for the 1989 game. With 8,500 Syracuse fans traveling, the actual attendance at Tampa Stadium was 40,961.

In comparison, Auburn and Ohio State boast big followings and combined for 23,000 tickets between them. A record 68,085 tickets were sold, with an actual attendance of 52,535.

So far this year, the Fame Bowl has sold nearly 22,000 tickets locally, about 5,000 ahead of last year's pace. Still, bowl officials said the participating teams must sell at least 20,000 between them if the game is to sell out.

A sellout means the bowl will pay each team $1.2-million. Without it, the payout falls to about $1-million per team, which would leave it significantly behind the Citrus ($1.35-million per team) and the Gator ($1.2-million), which are also New Year's Day games.

"Until the time comes when we can sell out locally, we have to go for teams that travel," Adcock said. "If we had 45,000 tickets sold by signing date (Nov.24), we could bring in a UCLA or USC. We're going in the right direction and the day will come, but now "

As for the southern team, No.12 Florida State (4-2) is a candidate, but only if the Seminoles lose another game before Nov.24. With an 8-2 record going into the Florida game on Dec.1, FSU will probably move back into the Top 10 and receive an offer at one of the five so-called "major" New Year's Day bowls.

Clemson (6-2), ranked No.19, is perhaps the strongest possibility. The Tigers are a perennial power and their fans travel in droves. For each of the last two Citrus Bowls, Clemson took about 10,000 tickets. Clemson even trained in Clearwater two years ago.

The Fame Bowl would love No.11 Tennessee (4-1-2). Tennessee sold 15,000 tickets for last year's Cotton Bowl appearance and nearly 20,000 for the 1988 Peach Bowl. But if the Volunteers beat Notre Dame on Nov.10, they'll be too hot of a commodity.

Don't rule out another Atlantic Coast Conference team, No.16 Georgia Tech (5-0-1). Although the Yellow Jackets aren't regular bowl participants, they are enjoying a banner year and barring a loss to anyone other than No.1 ranked Virginia next weekend, should be no worse than 9-1-1.

Tech brought 12,000 fans to the 1985 All-American Bowl, its last post-season trip. But Birmingham is closer to Atlanta than Tampa is.

From the north, Penn State (4-2) seems the best fit for the Fame Bowl. The Nittany Lions have a tough schedule left, including Notre Dame and Pittsburgh, but could finish 8-3 and would probably be nationally ranked.

More importantly, nearly 11,000 Penn State fans traveled to Orlando for the Citrus Bowl in 1988 _ against Clemson _ and a little more than 7,000 went to San Diego for last year's Holiday Bowl.

The Fame Bowl has loved its Big Ten teams in the past and despite their records, No.20 Michigan (3-3) and Michigan State (2-3-1) remain possibilities _ especially the Wolverines. They travel extremely well (12,500 tickets sold for the 1988 Fame Bowl) and they assure a national television audience.

Note: Tickets for the Hall of Fame Bowl will go on sale at all TicketMaster outlets on Nov.1. All seats are $25. For more information, call 898-2100 in Pinellas County and 287-8844 in Hillsborough County.


Hall of Fame Bowl: Louisiana State at No.12 Florida State; No.5 Illinois at Wisconsin; No.20 Michigan at Indiana; Penn State at Alabama; No.22 Oklahoma at No.10 Colorado; Duke at No.16 Georgia Tech.

LSU at Florida State: Besides the Hall of Fame, officials from the Orange, Cotton, Citrus, Gator, Blockbuster and Peach bowls will be in Tallahassee.

Miami at Texas Tech: Officials from only the Cotton and Fiesta bowls will be at this game.