The battle for the 1974 national championship may well resemble a scene from last season's Rose Bowl. As Ohio State's Pete Johnson rumbled 38 yards against USC (right), an array of Trojans trailed in his wake. This fall the Buckeye fullback and his teammates are still out front, but others are in hot pursuit.
As usual, the strongest challenges will come from teams with substantial running power—the kind belonging to such perennial contenders as Oklahoma, Alabama and Notre Dame. Sooner Coach Barry Switzer's simple strategy is "You run the ball first." It might also be said, "You run the ball to be first."
There is ample evidence that ground-oriented teams, especially those with Veer and Wishbone attacks, are more successful than those that pass frequently. Last year triple-option teams had a higher winning percentage, scored more points and, interestingly, fumbled less often. Ten of the country's 15 best rushing teams finished in the Top 20, compared to just two teams with leading passing attacks. Only Arizona State ranked in the top 15 in both offensive categories. The other successful passing team, Kansas, lost David Jaynes and will come busting out of the Veer this season. For many of the best teams, passing has become passé.
Notre Dame's Ara Parseghian offers one logical explanation. "There are simply more good runners around," he says. And Switzer notes, "The offense doesn't make the runner. The runner makes the offense."
Where are all these baby bulls coming from? Joe Paterno of Penn State and Frank Kush of Arizona State credit improved high school coaching. Veer architect Bill Yeoman of Houston points to the presence of black runners in every part of the country.
"The trend toward running," Bear Bryant says, "is directly related to the success that schools like Texas have had with it." Bear should know. When Alabama's passing game fizzled in the late 1960s he dumped it for the Wishbone. Darrell Royal, who developed the Wishbone and shared it with Bryant, holds that consistent winning and strong running are merely factors of the same equation.
Thus, for the time being it is the runners, not the quarterbacks, who are dominating the game and causing the loudest roars. Some of the best are shown on the following pages, along with the rest of the nation's Top 20 teams.