Picking the top NCAA Division II and NAIA football teams is like shopping in a bakery. There are plenty of goodies on display, but who is to say which are the best? Louisiana Tech and Central Michigan, winners of the NCAA Division II playoffs in 1973 and 1974, are no longer under consideration. They have graduated to the major-college ranks, along with Arkansas State, the 1970 champion.
Delaware is content to remain one of the nation's Division II powers. The Blue Hens won wire-service championships in 1971 and '72 and reached the quarter and final rounds of the playoffs, which began in 1973. This year they seek their eighth-consecutive Lambert Cup, symbolic of supremacy among Division II teams in the East.
With a veteran defense and three-quarters of a powerful backfield returning, the Blue Hens should remain high in the pecking order. Their wing T offense averaged 423 yards and 31 points a game last year as Fullback Nate Beasley set a school rushing record of 1,397 yards and Quarterback Bill Zwaan completed 50% of his passes for 13 touchdowns. Tom James also returns, with Larry Wagner stepping in for the departed Vern Roberts.
Although the line will be new, it showed potential in the offense's 37-16 victory over the defense in the spring game. That defense is anchored by last year's leading tackier, Sam Miller, who is joined by Linebacker Curt Morgan and Tackle Paul Toth.
The University of Nevada-Las Vegas hit the jackpot last fall with an 11-0 regular-season record in only its seventh season. Although Delaware bombed the Rebels 49-11 in the playoffs, 17 returning starters are champing for revenge. Nine are on a defensive unit that features Tackle Joe Ingersoll and Linebackers Mike Otto and Tony Sandone. These three participated in more than 100 tackles apiece last year, and Otto set a school record with seven fumble recoveries.
Quarterback Glenn Carano is back, too. He passed for 1,367 yards and 14 touchdowns on a run-oriented team. Unfortunately, 40% of the Rebels' rushing yardage was amassed by the departed Mike Thomas, who also scored 17 of the team's 55 touchdowns. His replacement will enjoy the luxury of a blocking front in which every starter returns.
The Division II playoffs also have a special appeal for the University of California-Davis, since the championship game is played in the Camellia Bowl, 15 miles away in Sacramento. The Aggies did not make last year's playoffs, but they did take nine of 10 games for their fifth-consecutive winning season and fourth Far Western Conference championship under Coach Jim Sochor.
California-Davis has been successful without athletic scholarships or spring practice. Although incoming students must meet strict academic criteria, there are enough of them to provide Davis with more freshmen applicants than any other University of California campus, including Berkeley and UCLA.
The Aggies have 13 starters back from the 1974 team, with Quarterbacks Dan Carmazzi and Jim Speck alternating for the third-straight season. The two combined for 1,969 yards passing and 23 touchdowns last year. Tom Slater was the leading scorer, rusher, punt returner and second-leading receiver. Also available is versatile Anthony Terry, a cornerback on defense, a split end on offense and the National AAU triple-jump champion. Guard Bill Jenkins stays in shape by pushing his fuel-injected 1973 Volvo up and down city streets.
In 1973 Texas A&I had a dismal 2-8 record and seemed doomed to finish seventh in the Lone Star Conference in 1974. Well, sir, the Javelinas won 13 games and the NAIA championship. This remarkable resurgence came about when Coach Gil Steinke, who has won four NAIA titles and eight conference crowns in 22 years of coaching Texas A&I, taught his freshman-and sophomore-dominated team the veer offense.
Quarterback Richard Ritchie is one of nine starters returning to the offense. He accounted for 1,956 yards last year as A&I averaged 454 yards and 33.5 points per game. Although Fullback Don Hardeman, the leading rusher, is gone, there is plenty of yardage in Larry Collins, who netted 1,451 and 17 touchdowns last year. Also back are the top receivers, Glenn Starks and David Hill, and All-Conference Tackles Johnny Martinez and Larry McFarland.
The Javelinas will field 10 experienced starters on defense, including Linebacker David Palmore, who led the team with 89 tackles, and Halfback Leonard Avery, who had seven interceptions.
Texas A&I won the NAIA title by defeating Henderson State 34-23, a pairing that could be repeated, since the Reddies are also well stocked with veteran talent. Last year's team finished 11-2 and won its second-straight Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference championship.
Offensively, Henderson State depends on a strong running attack led by speedy Joe Smith, who popped out of the I formation for 1,409 yards and 10 touchdowns in 1974. Fourth-year Quarterback Terry Blaylock does not pass often, but when he does he completes well over half of them for an average 17-yard gain. His favorite target is Split End Larry Thompson, who lines up with such top blockers as Tackle Larry McAlister and Center Jim Morris.
The Reddies' defense was all but impregnable last season, at least until it faced A&I. Henderson State blanked five opponents and allowed only 186 yards and seven points a game. Six starters return, including Tackles John Gross and Lynn Young, End Rick Minter and Linebacker Jasper Benton.
Among the other NAIA and NCAA Division II teams expecting to do well this year are Elon, Grambling, Butler and Western Carolina.