This is the time of the year when football experts and tyros alike retire behind cloudy crystal balls, and some are even caught pitching pennies in the air in the ever-optimistic hope that heads or tails will tell them which of their favorite teams are likely to prevail.
There is absolutely no discernible method in this autumnal madness. The prognosticator must invent his own personal ouija board for determining which of the nation's 110 major football teams is likely to be in the forefront of the rankings when the results are in at the end of November. The banners and buttons which you see me sporting in the drawing on the right merely represent my own personal choices for the nation's Eleven Best Elevens of 1959; but I hardly expect you to agree.
You will note, perhaps even with some consternation if your favorites are located in other sections of the country, that eight of the teams selected hail from the Midwest and the South. There can be little argument that year in and year out some of the nation's best football is played in these two areas. So it should be no great surprise to find Oklahoma, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Iowa, Louisiana State, Auburn, Mississippi and North Carolina among the Eleven Best. The Southwest, with its unpredictable and spectacular brand of football is, in my humble opinion, rapidly pushing aside the Midwest as a producer of fine football teams. It furnishes Texas Christian and Southern Methodist, while the East, aptly-enough, has a lonesome representative in Army. The West, beset with troubles which have reduced the once-great teams to everyday status, has failed to come forward with anything on a par with the Eleven Best, although hopes are high that the worm may soon begin to turn.
There were many who were considered, and a good case could probably be presented for such talented teams as Navy, Syracuse and Penn State in the East, Purdue, Northwestern and Notre Dame in the Midwest, Clemson in the South, Texas in the Southwest and Air Force, California and Southern California in the West. But, in the final analysis, they had to be relegated to the also-rans.
Now that we are committed, suppose we examine the facts which eventually forced me to conclude that these are indeed the Eleven Best Elevens.
Auburn made many an opposing coach drool with envy when its pro-sized line trotted on the field last year, and the Tigers will be just as big and just as powerful again this season. Coach Shug Jordan has the happy facility for enrolling these king-sized linemen and sharpening their skills. There is certainly no reason to believe that his lusty defense will be any less effective than it was in 1958, when it was the stingiest in the nation. Unbeaten in 24 straight games but still bowl-banned by the NCAA, Auburn will find its comfort in battering the opposition in the Southeastern Conference. If Jordan can prevent a letdown somewhere along the line, the Tigers might even be the best in the South despite a less-than-frightening schedule.
Louisiana State, fresh from its unexpected success last year as everybody's national champion, will still have its imaginative Chinese Bandits and its explosive halfback, Billy Cannon. Coach Paul Dietzel richly deserved his reward as Coach of the Year, but he knows that success often brings problems, and one of them will be the obvious fact that every opponent on the tough LSU schedule will be pointing for his team. Cannon, a truly great runner, can expect to find himself double-teamed and will be hit just a little bit harder by eager defenders. However, Dietzel's diversified attack is difficult to contain, and the hopped-up Tigers enjoy winning.
Oklahoma has become synonymous with victory and the reasons are simple. Coach Bud Wilkinson is a football perfectionist who recruits only the best players and insists on speed in his line and backfield. He finds halfbacks who can pass as well as run, fullbacks who can run like halfbacks and quarterbacks who can handle the option play. He puts them behind a big, fast and mobile line and gets more offense off the split-T than anyone else. And, just as important, he is a discerning schedule maker with a knack for keeping his tough games well spaced. If Oklahoma can get safely by Northwestern in its opening game, the Sooners should march through the Big Eight on their way to an unbeaten season.
Wisconsin's precocious juniors came within a whisker of winning the Big Ten championship a year ago, and now the juniors are seasoned seniors. Of course, seniors sometimes have a habit of succumbing to complacency, but Coach Milt Bruhn is convinced that his Badgers are eager enough to seize one of college football's juiciest plums. Wisconsin has one of the country's best quarterbacks in Dale Hackbart, a big fellow who can run when he isn't passing, and a strong defense. For what it is worth, the Badgers will know their fate before the season is half over. They meet Purdue, Iowa and Ohio State in their third, fourth and fifth games.
Ohio State's crunching offense has long been Coach Woody Hayes' trademark and the scourge of the Big Ten. Even when they don't win the title, the Buckeyes are close enough to the top to worry the life out of their rivals. But now the rumor is around that Woody may loosen up his offense a bit this fall. Either way, plain or fancy, Ohio State will be hard to beat. They still have a crashing work horse in Fullback Bob White and a fine end in All-America Jim Houston. Then there is Bob Ferguson, a sophomore halfback who will be an adequate replacement for the graduated Don Clark. Add the usual big, bruising offensive and defensive lines and you have the Hayes formula for winning games—and maybe even the Big Ten championship this year.
Texas Christian is the defending champion of the Southwest Conference, where some of the most flamboyant football in the land is played. Every team throws the ball with a reckless zest, and even Texans, inured to the impossible, have come to consider it an upset when one doesn't occur. But TCU stands out as the solid team in the conference. Wise old Coach Abe Martin still has most of the squad which outlasted the field last year, losing only to Iowa and Southern Methodist. Quarterbacking may be TCU's one weakness, and here Martin is depending upon Junior Larry Dawson to provide the passing to go with Fullback Jack Spikes's bone-crushing blasts at enemy lines. The Horned Frogs can, for once, make the SWC predictable—if they can hop over Texas, Rice and SMU in their last three games.
Southern Methodist is even more typical of Southwestern football, but all the Mustang hopes are wrapped up in Quarterback Don Meredith, who is one of the nation's most accurate passers. Coach Bill Meek, who laughingly describes his offense as the split-T, will again deploy spread formations to take advantage of Meredith's passing and running skill. But everything depends upon Meredith's ability to remain sound through a long, hard season. Perhaps Assistant Coach John Cudmore put it best when he recently said, "If anything happens to Meredith we'll have to change our offense. We'll resort to the confused T with the unbalanced coach in motion."
Army's Earl Blaik did football a tremendous service last year when he discarded his conservative style of play in favor of the widely publicized Lonesome End and a wide-open offense. Well, Blaik is gone, but his successor, able young Dale Hall, will continue the pattern set by his old boss. Although faced with the toughest Army schedule in years, Hall can look to Halfback Bob Anderson, who is lightning-quick to the outside and can go down the middle like a fullback, Quarterback Joe Caldwell, a rifle-armed passer, and Lonesome George himself, Bill Carpenter, to carry the attack. Lack of depth, especially in the forward wall, may hurt the Cadets, particularly when they have to face such robust opponents as Illinois, Penn State, Air Force, Oklahoma and Navy. Nonetheless, Cadet pride and will to win are important factors, so Army should rank as the best in the East.
Mississippi generally makes the most of a weak schedule to find its way into the Southeastern Conference first division and a New Year's bowl date. Johnny Vaught, one of the least known and least appreciated coaches in the business, rarely ever turns out a bad football team, and he manages to adjust his attack to the type of players he has on hand. This year he has two of the South's best in Quarterback Bobby Franklin and Fullback Charlie Flowers. Ole Miss could sneak ahead of Auburn and Louisiana State and grab the SEC championship.
North Carolina experienced its greatest loss with the sudden and tragic death of Coach Jim Tatum, who had spent three busy years recruiting, organizing and cajoling in an attempt to rebuild the Tar Heels into a first-class power. However, even with Big Jim gone, North Carolina may be ready to achieve the anticipated greatness under his successor, Jim Hickey, who inherited a typical Tatum hard-nose line and an outstanding quarterback in Jack Cummings. Cummings is the answer to a coach's dream. His ability to throw the long ball will keep the defense from crowding and give the running attack room to maneuver. The Tar Heels will meet their biggest tests (Clemson and Notre Dame) early, and they could breeze to the Atlantic Coast Conference title after that.
Iowa stormed to the top of the dog-eat-dog Big Ten in 1958, but the Hawkeyes will find the going somewhat rougher this time around. Quarterback Mitchell Ogiego, who was considered to be an able replacement for graduated Randy Duncan, and Willie Fleming, a tremendously fast halfback, lost the battle of the books, and it will take all of Coach Forest Evashevski's ingenuity and masterful offensive touch to find capable substitutes for this pair. But Evy has left few stones unturned in his search for good football players, and he might just have the quarterback who can make his devastating wing T click. Even without an experienced quarterback, Iowa will be formidable and, with the help of an upset here and there, could again finish ahead of Wisconsin and Ohio State.
Since these teams are regarded as the best, we can expect them to be typical of the kind of football which will be played this fall. And what kind of football is that? Well, for one thing, the trend toward the wide-open game will continue, and there is likely to be even more scoring and therefore more thrills and excitement for the fans these next dozen Saturday afternoons.
There are several factors which have helped to bring on football's new look. The defenses were beginning to catch up with the offenses, so coaches had to find a way to spread the defenders and provide more running and passing room for their quick backs. Army's invention last year, when the Lonesome End captured the nation's fancy, was perhaps the most sensational development, but coaches like LSU's Dietzel, Iowa's Evashevski and Oklahoma's Wilkinson were just as quick to sense the need for change, and the result was more and better passing and increased use of option plays, flankers and split ends, all of which was designed to produce a greater diversity of attack. The wing T, with its better blocking angles and greater maneuverability, provided the best offensive instrument, but even the staid old split-T, dedicated to crunching out three or four yards at a clip, has been jazzed up by increased use of the quarterback option.
In a further effort to step up the offense, many coaches are now planning to use the man-in-motion, a maneuver which creates all kinds of interesting possibilities, and pro-type spread formations to thin out the packed defenders and keep them guessing. And the team with the top-notch quarterback will be throwing the ball almost as often as it will run with it.
Of course, teams like Auburn and Ohio State, with an abundant supply of huge linemen, will probably continue to put the emphasis on rigid defense and grinding charges through the line. But even in these centers of perennial football efficiency, we may see more frequent use of the pass and some occasional flashes of razzle-dazzle.
The rules makers have helped, too, to provide more scoring opportunities. Although this year's changes are not nearly so drastic or dramatic as those adopted in 1958, when the two-point conversion became part of college football, they indicate that the coaches, or at least those who make up the NCAA Rules Committee, are keenly aware of changing times.
Although reluctant to return to unlimited substitutions and the two-platoon system, the Rules Committee made two important changes affecting the traffic on and off the field. First, they increased the number of time-outs from four to five per half for each team. Then they came up with the "wild card" substitute, who will be permitted to re-enter a game whenever the clock is stopped (except for an injury) without being recorded by the officials. Under the old rules, a player was not permitted to re-enter a game more than twice during a half without incurring a penalty for his team.
How will this help the offense? It means that a coach will now be able to send in a key quarterback, a fresh tackle, a kicking specialist or even a lineman carrying instructions from the bench whenever time is out. The rule will make possible more manipulating of personnel and thus increase the development of offensive specialists, who will further open up the game.
Another change, and possibly the most radical one, was the widening of the goal posts from 18 feet 6 inches to 23 feet 4 inches with the hope that the increased area will stimulate field goal kicking. The legislators resisted all attempts to copy the pros and put the posts on the goal line and offered the "wide look" as a compromise.
However, there seems to be a difference of opinion about the advantages to be gained by having an extra 4 feet 10 inches to aim at. Oddly enough, the coaches themselves are doing the most growling. They argue, and rightly so, that distance and not width is the problem. As one coach put it, "If the gun you have won't carry to the elephant, it won't help to make the elephant any bigger."
Despite the lack of unanimity, the wider posts should serve to encourage field goal attempts from inside the 25-yard line and help to make the point after touchdown, where accuracy and not distance is the determining factor, easier to achieve. Kicking conversions will be almost automatic and, paradoxically, there may be more gambling for the two points by running or passing after touchdown. Perhaps the coaches will now spend more time developing bigger guns.
Speaking of coaches, there will be a lot of new faces as a result of the annual off-season game of musical chairs. For one reason or another, many old familiar names have disappeared from the scene, and their places have been taken by bright new hopefuls, many of whom will find themselves occupying uncomfortable seats in pressure-filled spots.
To mention a few who have taken on large assignments, there is Dale Hall, who succeeded his retired chief, Earl Blaik, at Army: Wayne Hardin, gifted Navy backfield coach who moved up to replace Eddie Erdelatz; Joe Kuharich, who left the Washington Redskins to return to Notre Dame as successor to Terry Brennan; Bump Elliott, the former Wolverine who will try to re-establish Michigan's former glory; John Bridges at Baylor; Sonny Grandelius at Colorado; Tommy Nugent, who moved from Florida State (where he was replaced by Perry Moss) to Maryland; Jim Hickey at North Carolina; Alva Kelley at Colgate; John McLaughry, who brings his side-saddle T to Brown; Ed Doherty at Xavier of Cincinnati; Lisle Blackbourn, the old Green Bay Packer coach, at Marquette; Jim Miller at Detroit; Jim La Rue at Arizona; Tally Stevens at Brigham Young; and Otto Graham, who makes his coaching debut at the Coast Guard Academy.
So, College Football 1959, with its new faces, wide-open offenses, "wild card" substitutes and wider goal posts, promises to be a spectacle that will bring us a lot of fun watching, once again.
RED GRANGE PREDICTS
The first week's games
Navy vs. Boston College
New Navy Coach Wayne Hardin makes his debut, and his two pitching quarterbacks, Joe Tranchini and Jim Maxfield, will be more than Boston College can handle. NAVY all the way.
Pitt vs. Marquette
Pitt begins its usual suicide schedule by meeting Marquette and its new, pro-type slot-T. The Panthers have lost a lot of fine players but still have Quarterback Ivan Toncic, whose passing will win for PITT.
Clemson vs. North Carolina
The Atlantic Coast Conference race may be settled right here. Both teams are strong up front and rich in passing skill with Harvey White (Clemson) and Jack Cummings (North Carolina). A tossup, but my choice is NORTH CAROLINA.
Mississippi vs. Houston
Ole Miss, eager for a chance to go all the way this year, will have too much offense for inexperienced Houston. A good start for MISSISSIPPI.
Rice vs. LSU
This is the NBC-TV opener, so I won't pick a winner. Rice's crafty Jess Neely is sure to have a defensive trick or two up his sleeve, and Billy Cannon and his LSU defending national champions will have to be at their very best.
Georgia Tech vs. Kentucky
Tech has Center Maxie Baughan to bulwark its line, and Coach Bobby Dodd is expected to jazz up his belly series. Kentucky may have the offense to match the Engineers but is weaker up front. GEORGIA TECH.
Penn State vs. Missouri
Penn State has one of the good ones in Quarterback Richie Lucas, a good passer, runner and ball handler, who will operate behind a big line. Missouri's slowness afoot will help PENN STATE win.
Kansas vs. TCU
TCU warms up for the Southwest Conference jousting with a Kansas team which doesn't seem to have the power to dent that big Horned Frog forward wall. The eyes of Texas will be watching, and they should get an eyeful as TCU wins its opening game.
Purdue vs. UCLA
Purdue is loaded with seasoned veterans like hard-hitting Fullback Bob Jarus and a big, eager line will be waiting to swallow up the smaller UCLA Bruins. PURDUE.
USC vs. Oregon State
USC's sophomores, precocious and unpredictable last year, should now be mature enough for so-so Oregon State. Quarterback Willie Wood will help make it easy for USC.