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Count 'Noles among elite after Saturday

Judgment Day is almost upon us, with three of college football's most celebrated coaching elders knocking hard again at the pearly national championship gates.

Joe Paterno.

Bobby Bowden.

Tom Osborne.

Unbeaten contenders rank 1-2-3-4-5 in polls, the most likely contenders to succeed the suddenly slipping Florida Gators as kings of America. Judgment Saturday is sure to pare the hot possibilities to no more than three.

If you're eager to join the witness pool, I have a plan. For tuneup purposes, to make sure TV colors are sharp and sound well-balanced, take a lunch-time glimpse at Florida-Vanderbilt on Channel 38. After failures against LSU and Georgia, the Gators have gone from headliners to warmup act.

Spotlight intensifies at 3:30.

First, Michigan-Penn State.

Then, FSU-North Carolina.

It will be cold, damp and intense on the Pennsylvania Outback. Highways from Pittsburgh, Philly and other metros will deliver a frenzied multitude to remote State College, stacking Beaver Stadium with 96,000.

Paterno will go to his winter uniform: double white sweat socks. Penn State's coach is into his 70s, doesn't have a gray hair on an uncapped Brooklyn head and predictably will order Curtis Enis to carry the football 25-plus through a gray, shivering afternoon. Watch it on ABC/Channel 28 but don't expect much scoring.

Michigan has an extraordinary defense. Coaching the gents from Ann Arbor will be Lloyd Carr, a graybeard who is still proving himself as a head coach after belated elevation from the UM staff. My guess: PSU by a half-dozen.

Key element? Can Brian "Son of Bob" Griese quarterback the Wolverines to a touchdown or two? Michigan is less-tested than we might have anticipated, with expected stout exams against Colorado and Notre Dame having turned soft due to the Buffs and Irish becoming heavy disappointments.

If we may assume a decision is yet to be made by 2,000 or so eclectic, erratic voters who select Heisman Trophy winners, Enis and two-way Michigan sensation Charles Woodson deserve open-minded Saturday assessment. Peyton Manning probably will get the award, but Tennessee's quarterback is yet to merit a landslide.

Five hundred miles south of Happy Valley, the Judgment Day intensity and importance will be not a heartbeat less in Chapel Hill. UNC will get three ESPN hours or thereabouts to prove the Atlantic Coast Conference is something other than a one-horse, FSU-ruled race.

Tar Heels are notorious slow starters. In five wins, UNC has gone scoreless in the opening quarter. Sixty-four percent of Heels scoring has come in second halves. Conversely, the 'Noles are famous for fastbreaks. In the two latest victories, FSU amassed first-period leads of 21-0 and 27-0.

Bowden, like Joe Pa at Penn State, is an old-timer with a national championship past. Neither grandpa ever seems to lose competitive hunger. In contrast, North Carolina is led by Mack Brown, who still is reaching for his coaching star. FSU is 46-1 in its ACC time. Being a history major, I'll pick the 'Noles by 10.

Matchup of QBs will be intriguing in gorgeous, energized Kenan Stadium. FSU's Thad Busby has big stats, but his winning over of 'Noles fans is a works in progress. At the throttle for UNC will be Oscar Davenport, a kid from St. Petersburg with quick feet, a powerful arm and a shortage of experience.

There's one more . . .

Nebraska, bossed by the low-key but high-production Osborne, is early November's poll dominator and most likely among the current Fab Five to still be flawless by the time you read Sunday morning's newspaper.

Cornhuskers could be moderately challenged, playing on enemy turf against Missouri's best team in a generation. Oh, sure, I really believe that. Just like Nevada oddsmakers who made Nebraska a mauling 29-point favorite.

As Judgment Day nears, the best bets for an alliance bowl marriage are recent national champs Nebraska (1996) and FSU (1993). This is North Carolina's chance to alter the marquee. Sadly, with no NCAA national playoff in sight and one last season of Rose Bowl non-participation in the alliance, the PSU-Michigan winner could stay unbeaten and still get stiffed as far as embracing a legitimate shot at winding up No. 1.