Once the least distinguished of the nation's major football conferences, the ACC now commands attention, four of its teams having gone to bowl games last season. The conference also is home to some of the country's best running backs. Moreover, there should be a season-long dogfight for the conference title.
The leading contenders are Clemson and North Carolina, but North Carolina State will be in the thick of things. The Wolfpack attack features Ted Brown, the NCAA's current career rushing and scoring leader. A 5'10", 188-pound senior with a slashing running style, Brown has had 3,252 yards, 246 points and 18 100-yard games. His running partner is Fullback Billy Ray Vickers, who gained 726 yards last season. The line is big and experienced. Coach Bo Rein would be more optimistic if Quarterback Scott Smith were equally experienced; Smith has played less than one quarter.
Maryland, another team with a quarterback gap, suffered an unexpected misfortune in August when George Scott, the Terps' leading ground-gainer, was lost for the season because of leg surgery. Still, Steve Atkins and Preacher Maddox are capable running backs. At quarterback, Coach Jerry Claiborne must decide between Tim O'Hare, a fifth-year non-letterman, and 6'7" sophomore Mike Tice, who once told a Washington Post reporter, "When I say my prayers before I go to bed at night, I say, 'God, please let me start for Maryland in 1978, 1979 and 1980.' I mention the years so I won't have to redshirt."
Thin defenses will prevent Duke and Wake Forest from being contenders. The absence of an offense will do in Virginia, a team that scored only six touchdowns last season.
Arkansas, Texas and Texas A&M are such heavy favorites it hardly seems worth mentioning that there are six other schools in the race. But there are and one only has to look back 12 months to when Texas was written off as an also-ran to see the danger of predicting anything in this conference.
Baylor had a disappointing 5-6 season largely because of injuries that forced Coach Grant Teaff to start three different quarterbacks. Whoever the quarterback is this season, he'll have a strong offensive line to work behind and All-America candidate Ron Lee at tight end to throw to. In all, nine starters return from the offense, and seven more—including linebackers Jerry Harrison and Mike Singletary and 6'4" Nose Guard Gary Don Johnson—are back from the defense. The Bears look like a 7-4 team.
Houston tied for the conference championship in its first SWC season in 1976. But last year was a 6-5 bummer. Now the Cougars may be ready to pounce again. Linebacker David Hodge, who dropped out of school last season, is back and healthy, as is Quarterback Danny Davis. Davis is a dazzling ball-handler, and it would be nice if he had someone to hand off to. The rest of the Cougars' starting backfield has graduated.
Quarterback Randy Hertel is among 17 returning starters at Rice. He won the conference passing championship with 14.2 completions per game as a freshman in 1977, and with excellent wide receivers such as Doug Cunningham and David Houser, he should do it again. The Owls are likely to give new Head Coach Ray Alborn a more pleasant baptism than the 1-10 sendoff Homer Rice got before leaving for an assistant's job with the Cincinnati Bengals.
Another team with a hot sophomore quarterback is SMU, where Mike Ford passed for 2,064 yards in 301 attempts in '77. His favorite target was Emanuel Tolbert, the No. 2 receiver in the nation last year—and he's still around.
TCU looks fairly pathetic, but fairly pathetic is a pretty good season for the Horned Frogs these days. They were 2-9 in '77, and should be 4-7 this year. Steve Bayuk is a gifted quarterback, but he needs more protection than he is getting.
Texas Tech lost its bright young coach, Steve Sloan, and many of its best players after last year's 7-4 season. The Red Raiders aren't experienced, aren't deep, and aren't going to win many games.
In each of the last 10 years the Big Ten title has gone to Michigan or Ohio State (or both). Michigan State, however, finished only half a game behind the Big Two in the conference standings last season, and with its NCAA probation due to end in time to permit a Rose Bowl trip, the Spartans have extra incentive for mounting a challenge.
The Spartans' success is likely to hinge on Quarterback Ed Smith's passing. In two previous seasons at East Lansing, he has thrown for 3,480 yards and 23 touchdowns. Split End Kirk Gibson and Tight End Mark Brammer, who combined for 49 receptions, 916 yards and seven touchdowns a year ago, head the receiver corps, along with Flanker Eugene Byrd, returning after a shoulder injury. Leroy McGee, who gained 720 yards in '77, is Coach Darryl Rogers' best runner. Apart from Linebacker Dan Bass, who accounted for 134 tackles, and a secondary headed by safety Tom Graves, the defensive unit is woefully short on experience. It also has little time to mature. By the end of the season's fifth weekend the Spartans will have played USC, Notre Dame and Michigan.
At Indiana, where Coach Lee Corso says his team is getting better, Quarterback Scott Arnett is a threat to run or pass. His effectiveness could be greater because of the recovery from injury of Tailback Mike Harkrader, who in 1976 became the only freshman in Big Ten history to gain more than 1,000 yards.
The Big Ten's best passer is 19-year-old Mark Herrmann of Purdue, and he may be the best in the nation. Herrmann was second in NCAA rankings a year ago as a freshman when he threw for 2,453 yards, 18 touchdowns and a 55% completion rate. If he cuts down on his 27 interceptions, Coach Jim Young's team will resume its traditional role as "Spoilermakers."
Fresh from a bowl appearance (Hall of Fame) that was its first since 1962, Minnesota now must rebuild its offensive line or even yeoman Fullback Kent Kitzman won't be getting much yardage. Kitzman set NCAA and Big Ten records for most carries and yardage last season when he ran 57 times—13 times in succession in one span—and picked up 266 yards against Illinois. Paul Rogind is an accomplished field-goal kicker.
The bottom half of the Little Eight is, as usual, up against it. Some questions: What does Iowa Coach Bob Commings say to his quarterback when he blows a play? His quarterback is his son, Bobby. How many scoreless ties would it take to make a smashing season for good-field, no-hit Wisconsin? Can either team win the Illinois-Northwestern season opener?
Now that Arizona and Arizona State have turned their backs on the WAC and the Fiesta Bowl and joined up with the coastal states to form the Pac 10, the first clue as to the possibility of a Rose Bowl host from Cactusland comes on Oct. 14, when USC plays State at Tempe. By then the Sun Devils could be 5-0, thanks to an early schedule that is far from frightening. And Coach Frank Rush's players are rough and ready, notably Defensive End Al Harris and Tailback Arthur (Turtle) Lane. Arizona State has another schedule advantage: it doesn't have to play UCLA this season.
Downstate in Tucson, the other new member of the conference does meet UCLA, but not USC. Second-year Coach Tony Mason admits that his squad enters the conference "without the depth and skill people to be able to compete right away."
California, with a highly respected defense and a new coach, is the conference dark horse. Coach Mike White was fired last year after a 7-4 season and the new boss is Roger Theder, one of White's assistants. He is high on his defensive line, led by End Ralph DeLoach, a hero in last year's upset of USC, and sophomore Tackle Pat Graham.
With the departure of three offensive stars—Quarterback Guy Benjamin, Wide Receiver James Lofton and Tackle Gordon King—Stanford is going to have to depend much more on its defense this year. The Cardinals will use a 3-4 lineup to take advantage of a wealth of linebackers. The standout is Gordy Ceresino, who set a Cardinal record last season with 174 tackles.
Washington State has done its annual coaching switch. This year's head man is Jim Walden, the fourth in four years. Walden had been backfield coach last season under Warren Powers. At least Quarterback Jack Thompson is back for his senior season. Thompson was the first junior in league annals to throw for more than 5,000 career yards and is within sight of several NCAA and Pac 10 passing and total offense records. However, the Cougars are not within sight of the Rose Bowl. Nor are the two Oregon schools, neither of which has been to Pasadena in years. Oregon's Ducks have their leading receiver, Ken Page (40 catches), plus Jeff Wood and Vince Williams, two good fullbacks. Oregon State Coach Craig Fertig has a fine running back in James Fields (740 yards last year) and a quality linebacker in Kent Peyton, but with Washington, USC and UCLA all on the Beavers' schedule, a winning season is unlikely.
With Arizona State and Arizona departing to what is now the Pacific Ten, San Diego State has joined the WAC. Quite possibly the Aztecs are going to make their new rivals wish the league boundaries had remained inland.
San Diego State has a 20-2 record over the past two seasons and has an even longer tradition of winning with a big-play passing offense. How big this year's plays will be depends upon how fast Coach Claude Gilbert's young quarterbacks catch on. Sophomore Mark Halda is returning from shoulder surgery, and Chris Schaefer needs seasoning.
Fresh from a 9-2-1 season that was its best in 30 years, Colorado State counts on the Jones boys, brothers Larry (running back) and Norris (flanker) to keep it moving, and Defensive Tackle Mike Bell to keep the opposition checked.
At Utah, 5'9" Randy Gomez is the man being counted on to improve a 3-8 record. The Ute quarterback ranked 10th on the NCAA passing charts last year, when he threw for 2,126 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Wyoming will continue to get effective work from Myron Hardeman, a running back who set the school's single-season record of 1,165 yards as a junior in 1977. Coach Bill Lewis also has laced a squad of 34 returning lettermen with 23 redshirts and 12 transfers.
There are 44 lettermen back at New Mexico, including Running Back Mike Williams and Quarterback Noel Mazzone, who are both returning from surgery. Williams earned All-WAC honors when he rushed for 1,096 yards in 10 games before being sidelined by a knee injury, while Mazzone, who has 3,703 yards total offense in three seasons, underwent a shoulder operation.
Texas-El Paso, 3-31 over the past three seasons, may have to endure the cellar until the WAC's next westward move in 1979, when Hawaii is scheduled to join the conference.
If on-field performance matches what lately has passed for off-field ethics in the Big Eight, fans will be better off watching a mugging. For a while it looked as if the conference had redshirted morality. Oklahoma State was accused by one of its own alumni of having a slush fund; two of its players pleaded guilty to burglary charges; and it got two years' NCAA probation for recruiting violations. Kansas State has been put on indefinite probation by the conference for exceeding scholarship limitations by 20, among other sins. And at Oklahoma, strife was rife among the coaches.
In any case, the Big Eight season appears to be evenly split between title contenders (Oklahoma, Nebraska, Iowa State and Colorado) and also-rans (Missouri, Kansas, Kansas State and Oklahoma State).
Among the little four, only Missouri has spoiler potential, but Warren Powers, who paid Washington State $55,000 to break his contract so that he could succeed Al Onofrio as the Tigers' head coach, has little chance of getting a quick return on his investment. Missouri leads off with Notre Dame and Alabama before opening its conference schedule at Oklahoma. Flanker Leo Lewis and Tight End Kellen Winslow are two of the best receivers in the league, but Powers has no experienced quarterback to get the ball to them.
At Kansas, where Coach Bud Moore has scrapped the wishbone and added the former KU and pro quarterback John Hadl to his staff, more passing is more than likely even though the team is not particularly well stocked with receivers. Moore's big concern is defense, an area in which the Jayhawks ranked dead last in the Big Eight last season.
In the battle to avoid the cellar, Kansas State should end a streak by beating Oklahoma State in the "Probation Bowl" on Oct. 7. That would be the Wildcats' first conference victory since 1974.
Ole Miss hasn't won more than six games in any season since 1971 and has been without a standout quarterback since Archie Manning in 1970. The Rebels are still without a Manning throw-alike, but Steve Sloan, the man who got bowl bids after taking over doormats at Vanderbilt and Texas Tech, has arrived as coach. Sloan inherits a team that finished eighth in the SEC. But the defense was third in the conference and a junior punter, Jim Miller, was No. 1 in the nation with a 45.9-yard average. With Sloan and luck Ole Miss just might play in a bowl.
Kentucky was a rousing 10-1 in '77, but All-SEC Quarterback Derrick Ramsey and All-America Defensive Tackle Art Still are gone. Ramsey's successor, Mike Deaton, throws more, runs less, and Still's replacement, Bud Diehl, is virtually untested. But elsewhere there are a good many veterans of the squad that held rivals to an average of 10.1 points a game, which is fortunate; come October, Kentucky plays Penn State, Ole Miss and LSU in successive weeks.
However, the Wildcats do not play Auburn, which finished in a tie for third in the conference in 1977 and has 16 starters back. Still, the War Eagles have some mending to do in a defense that gave up an average of 21.2 points a game. It doesn't hurt that Auburn has a quality kicker in Jorge Portela.
Having tumbled from first to sixth in just one year, Georgia Coach Vince Dooley is going back to the I formation which the Bulldogs had forsaken for a veer. Tennessee, 4-7 in 1977, may even up its record if Quarterback Jimmy Streater gets a little help. He passed for 1,139 yards and 12 TDs in '77.
Florida and Mississippi State start all over again in 1978, the Gators because they lost so much talent, the Bulldogs because they have had to forfeit 19 games over the past three seasons for using an ineligible player. After two straight 2-9 seasons, Vanderbilt faces another such year.
In essence, Yale won last year's championship on the first weekend of the season when, in the final minute of play, the Elis mounted a dramatic goal line stand to beat Brown 10-9. This time around, the Bruins should have too much firepower. Quarterback Mark Whipple can throw either short or long and he will again have his favorite receiver, Mark Farnham, who burned Yale with a 52-yard touchdown catch. The Bulldogs no longer have 1,000-yard rusher John Pagliaro to depend on, and for the third straight year they will be breaking in a new quarterback. This one's name, at least, has the authentic sound of greatness: Pat O'Brien.
Penn once again will have the winning end of the wishbone, which it used to beat Princeton 21-10 last year without benefit of a single forward pass. The offense was so effective in its first Penn season that Fullback Denis Grosvenor gained 743 yards—four more than the entire Quaker team managed in '76.
After several frustrating years at Princeton, Bob Casciola was fired just when the Tigers seemed to be regaining their stripes. Fourteen returning starters should make Casciola's replacement, Frank Navarro, look like an improvement. Harvard, which suffered its first losing season (4-5) in seven years under Joe Restic, has seven home games and high hopes for sophomore Running Back Paul Connors.
Columbia no longer looks like a 150-pound football team: note Tackles Joe Wagner (276 pounds) and Sean Cannon (220), Guard Rich Splain (226) and Center Mark Walsh (219) on the offensive line. Dartmouth's Big Green has only five starters back from a team that lost three Ivy games by a total of 13 points. Coach Bob Blackman's return to the Ivy at Cornell—after six years at Illinois—netted only one victory last season. A good recruiting year promises some improvement, but not all that much.
Louisiana Tech is favored to repeat as conference champion because of the strong right arm of Keith Thibodeaux, who passed for 2,384 yards and nine touchdowns and ranked seventh nationally in total offense last season while leading the Bulldogs to a 9-1-2 record. But if Tech lives by the pass, it could die by it. Coach Maxie Lambright needs quick maturity from a rebuilt secondary if the Bulldogs expect to hold off Arkansas State, another aerial strike force. Dikki Dyson, a 195-pound end with fluid moves and 4.6 speed, is a longshot for selection as an All-America but a good bet to go high in the NFL draft. Kennon Taylor, Dyson's battery mate, passed for 1,404 yards and five touchdowns last year.
Texas-Arlington has 36 lettermen back but unfortunately not top rusher Derrick Jensen. Southwestern Louisiana is looking to sophomore David Guidry, who throws javelins in addition to footballs, to be more than a spear carrier. If the offense gets stalled, John Roveto steps in. Roveto kicked 19 field goals for the Ragin' Cajuns last season.
After a conference title and bowl appearance in 1976, McNeese State fell to a 5-5-1 record, but Coach Jack Doland has 34 lettermen to rebuild with, including an adept cornerback named Charles Jefferson. Lamar, with its strong defense but weak offense, appears destined to finish 2-9 for the third straight year.
Winning last year's conference title was a dubious achievement for West Texas State, the only Valley team with a record of .500 or better (6-4-1). Outside the league, Valley teams were a pathetic 9-29-1, and at one point the Buffaloes themselves were 0-4. They are favorites once again, thanks to Bo Robinson, the senior fullback who gained 1,399 yards and averaged seven yards a carry. He will team with Wingback Robert Mayberry, who led the Valley in rushing two years ago, and with a pair of part-time tail-backs, Kenny Davis and David Johnson, who combined for 852 yards in '77.
Wichita State has improved its record in each of Coach Jim Wright's four seasons. The fact that the Shockers were only 5-6 last year gives you an idea of how far they've had to come. Seven home games, plus the passing of Jim Andrus and the receiving of Bryan Hanning (50 catches for 767 yards), should keep them on the upslope.
After taking four straight conference titles, Tulsa slipped to fourth in '77. However, at midseason the Hurricanes unveiled a home run threat in Rickey Watts, who caught 40 passes for 639 yards. The Tulsa defense, which surrendered an eye-popping 53 touchdowns, just has to be better.
If the timid Bulldog offense doesn't acquire some bite, Drake's busiest player may again be Here Payton, the 200-pound linebacker who as a freshman led the team in tackles with 139. Southern Illinois, which scored two TDs in a game only twice last year, has 18 veteran starters. This could be a plus or a minus, depending on how you look at it.
New Mexico State has a new coach in Gil Krueger, formerly of Northern Michigan, a new stadium—and little chance of making it all click right out of the box. Indiana State also has a new coach, Dick Jamieson, a backup quarterback behind Johnny Unitas and George Blanda during his playing days.
The kind of big game that usually is not forthcoming until late November may determine the Mid-American championship this Saturday, the first full-scale weekend of the season. That's when Ball State, a team with a .788 record over the last three years, meets Miami of Ohio. Miami, which has won the MAC title four times in the last five years, is well armed. Nine starters return to the offense, including Quarterback Larry Fortner, a 6'4", 215-pound senior who established three Redskin passing records last year with 109 completions for 1,473 yards and 15 touchdowns. More impressive, he was intercepted only four times in 186 attempts. New Coach Tom Reed, a former defensive aide at Michigan, should be just the man to solidify a graduation-depleted defense.
Ball State also has a new coach in 34-year-old Dwight Wallace—and one of the best pitcher-catcher combos in the MAC. Junior Quarterback Dave Wilson completed 115 passes for 1,589 yards and 17 touchdowns a year ago, and he scored nine more TDs rushing. His favorite receiver is Rick Morrison, son of the former New York Giant, Joe Morrison. Morrison the younger ranked fifth in the nation last season with 59 catches for 908 yards and eight touchdowns.
Western Michigan, which suffered six losses by a total of 29 points and had an injury toll that included 22 surgical cases, should be the conference sleeper. In Tailback Jerome Persell, a second-team All-America, the Broncos have the best running back in the league. In two seasons the 5'9", 182-pound senior has rushed for 2,844 yards and 33 touchdowns.
Central Michigan, which ranked fourth on the NCAA total-defense charts in 1977, also will qualify as a MAC contender if Coach Herb Deromedi can remold an offense depleted by graduation.
PACIFIC COAST A.A.
Cal State-Long Beach moved its home games to Orange County's Anaheim Stadium last season and was pleased enough with attendance to return this year. The 49ers' 4-6 record wasn't quite so pleasing. Coach Dave Currey should improve that—maybe all the way up to championship contention—with judicious use of 16 returning starters, led by either senior Quarterback Jim Freitas, sixth in the nation in passing, or junior Quarterback Paul McGaffigan, who started the final two games after Freitas was injured.
Fresno State comes off a 9-2 championship year with plenty left, but Coach Jim Sweeney has joined the Oakland Raider staff, and the PCAA's offensive player of 1977, Quarterback Dean Jones, is now on the Raiders' injured reserve list. Bob Padilla, former Bulldog player and assistant coach, has taken over for Sweeney.
Injuries shackled San Jose State in '77, but the Spartans should be a contender this time, thanks to Kevin Cole, one of the nation's leading all-purpose ballcarriers with 755 yards running and 179 in pass receptions, and All-Coast Linebacker Frank Manumaleuna.
Utah State, the only non-California school in the conference, will be playing its first PCAA season. The Aggies' chief attraction is Jimmy Bryant, third-best punt returner in the nation with a 12.6 average in '77. Coach Bruce Snyder has depth at the skill positions, but not a lot of strength in the trenches. The University of the Pacific, on the other hand, has an impressive crop of linemen. The Tigers were 2-9 two years ago, then 6-5 last year, but it might not be easy for Coach Chester Caddas to continue the positive trend now that league-leading rusher Bruce Gibson is gone.
In a conference dominated by youth, no team has more underclass talent than defending champion Chattanooga. Last season Tony Ball, then a freshman walk-on, became the nation's No. 1 kickoff returner by averaging 36.4 yards a whack. When he stopped running, Mike Smith and Gwain Durden took over and each carried for more than 1,000 yards. Now they are sophomores, too. There also is depth in the defensive front line, and four starters return in the secondary.
That may be enough to uproot co-title holder VMI as the conference's defensive leader. In 1977 the Keydets allowed opponents only 2.7 yards a carry but much of that defense is gone as is three-quarters of the offensive backfield. The quarter that remains is Quarterback Robby Clark, who completed 54 of 105 pass attempts for 867 yards in '77.
Western Carolina (2-2-1 in the conference in 1977) should improve this season despite the absence of Darrell Lipford and Wayne Tolleson, who were among the nation's best in rushing and receiving, respectively. Quarterback Mike Pusey returns, as do 10 of 11 starters on a defense that helped the Catamounts win the final five games in 1977. Appalachian won only one conference game last season after being picked as the preseason favorite to win the title. This year the Mountaineers have an easier schedule, but Tackle Gil Beck, who was named the best blocker for the last two years, has graduated.
Since last season Coach Art Baker has moved from Furman to The Citadel, taking over a team that was last in rushing and scoring in 1977. Meanwhile at Furman his former assistant, Dick Sheridan, inherits an experienced squad, including a quarterback, David Henderson, who completed 56.3% of his passes last year.
All was glum at Marshall last year (0-5-0), but its offense is back intact and the Thundering Herd should corral a victory this season.