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Original Issue

THE TOP 20

1. USC

Give a Top-20 coach half a chance to point out his squad's chief weakness, and he'll gratefully pounce on it. Why? Because by mentioning even the smallest of defects he spotted in his juggernaut during spring practice, he may well save his job come late fall. But ask John Robinson what USC lacks and he's stumped. After hemming and hawing, the best he can come up with is, "Talented players don't always repeat productive seasons."

Preseason pickers like to cover themselves, too. So we'll try to help Robinson out. Uh, well, there are nearly a dozen regulars from last year's UPI national championship team coming off injuries, and, uh, six games are on the road. But in all honesty, all of those players were hale last week, and aside from trips to Notre Dame and Washington, the road schedule isn't threatening. Certainly not nearly as intimidating as the Trojans who will be making those journeys. Among them are 15 returning starters, including lefthanded Paul McDonald, the only proven star at quarterback on the three or four teams that figure to be vying for No. 1. Last year McDonald completed 57% of his passes for 1,690 yards and outfoxed enemy defenders for a Trojan-record 19 touchdowns. Based on the NFL formula for rating quarterbacks (a computation that weighs percentage of completions, touchdowns, interceptions and yards per pass attempt), McDonald had a 101.6 rating—which is higher than that for any of the last 19 Pac 10 (or Pac 8 as it was known until the 1978 season) passing champions.

McDonald will often throw to Kevin (Scoring Bug) Williams, a 5'8", 155-pound former California prep 100-yard sprint champion (9.4), who converted 10 of his 17 receptions into touchdowns last season. Still, the passing game produced only 38% of USC's 4,979 total yards, and because Charles White (page 34) is returning at tailback, it's safe to assume that percentage will not rise. All-America Guard Pat Howell is gone, but otherwise the line is intact and so mammoth that one dog-whipped opponent exclaimed, "When they stand up, they see Denver." Brad Budde, an All-America candidate at guard, is 6'5", 253 pounds, and Tackle Anthony Munoz (who also pitched in relief on the Trojans' No. 1-ranked baseball team in 1978) is 6'7", 280. Line Coach Hudson Houck won't soon forget how Munoz drove a defender from the 15-yard line all the way back into a goalpost last season.

In 1978 USC yielded just 91.3 yards a game rushing, second-lowest in the nation behind Penn State. Linebacker Dennis Johnson, last season's leading tackier, is back, and Ty Sperling is the starter at nose guard—no big fall-off there, considering that against UCLA last year, with a Rose Bowl berth at stake, he sacked the Bruin quarterback for losses of 12, 12 and nine yards.

And here's one more non-excuse for Robinson. Joe Terranova, a market researcher who watches hundreds of high school game films a year and reports on who does best in the scramble for high school prospects, concludes that USC came out on top for the second straight year. If you doubt that opinion, perhaps you'd like to debate it with any of the seven freshmen linemen Robinson landed. They average out to 6'5" and 243 pounds.

"We're faced with the myth that our athletes are invincible," says Robinson, still scratching. "We like it, but it's still a myth." So are national championships, and they are liked, too. Barring an epidemic of swelled heads, USC should win its ninth.

2. Alabama

Not long after Alabama's Sugar Bowl upset of top-ranked Penn State in January—which earned the Tide the No. 1 rating in the AP poll, Coach Bear Bryant cracked a few ribs and was taken to the hospital. News reports said that Bryant hurt himself when he fell stepping out of the shower, but the real story, as Alabamans tell it, is that while Bear was out walking his ducks, he was hit by a motorboat. Among card-carrying Crimson Tide rooters such deification is understandable. Though national titles elsewhere are as rare as a 'Bama undergraduate who has never heard of parlay cards, Bryant has won five in 21 seasons at Alabama.

This year, thoughts of anything less than a clean sweep in the regular season and another national title are considered heretical in Tuscaloosa. After all, 'Bama has never lost more than one game in a season following a No. 1 ranking. And the schedule is heaven-sent, with workouts against Georgia Tech, Baylor, Wichita State and Miami replacing tests against the sterner likes of Nebraska, USC, Missouri and Washington. As one student entrepreneur observed, "I guess Bear is mad at the scalpers. We'll have to come up with something to unload our tickets."

Bryant's biggest task will be replacing Quarterback Jeff Rutledge, a three-year starter who threw 30 touchdown passes to break a Tide record held by Joe Namath. Steadman Shealy, a typically handsome, blond, blue-eyed Omicron Delta Kappa who last fall ran and passed—he completed nine of 14 attempts—for 473 yards as Rutledge's understudy, gets first crack at the job. But Shealy has undergone knee surgery, and "He's not as quick as he once was," world-class pessimist Bryant says. But even Bear is obliged to add, "Still, he's not slow crippled."

Otherwise, the offense is robust. Split End Keith Pugh twists, lunges, soars (pick any two on a given pass play) as he makes eye-popping catches. Halfbacks Major Ogilvie and Mitch Ferguson and Fullback Billy Jackson all gained 5.5 yards or more a carry. The line features a trio of All-SEC blockers: Dwight Stephenson, Jim Bunch and Mike Brock.

On defense, 'Bama has lost five stars, among them first-round NFL picks Barry Krauss, a linebacker, and Marty Lyons, a tackle. But the line still includes faces all too familiar to Penn State—Byron Baggs, Curtis McGriff and Wayne Hamilton. And if Tackle David Hannah, a 1977 starter who missed '78 because of a knee injury, stays as fit as he was in the spring, Bryant can buttress the secondary by shifting All-SEC E. J. Junior from the line to safety.

The Tide has seven home games, four of them in Tuscaloosa, where it has won 45 straight. The big one won't come until...the Sugar Bowl against—Notre Dame? Georgia? Penn State? The only regular-season upset possibilities would seem to be in an October outing at Florida and in the season finale against archrival Auburn.

Not that Bryant agrees. "In the first place," he growls, "the schedule isn't easy. In the second place, every one of those teams would rather beat Alabama than anybody they play." Hey, Bear, you just won another award—from the Tuscaloosa Scalpers' Society.

3. Nebraska

If there's one thing Nebraskans love even more than seeing Running Back I. M. Hipp break a tackle on the way to another 200-yard game (he's rushed for that distance or more in three games), it's a bonfire. Like the blaze before the Corn-huskers upset No. 1-ranked Oklahoma last November, which, among other things, was fueled by a piano, beds, police barricades and several vending machines. Or the one during spring practice in April when six live turkeys got barbecued.

The ASPCA rightfully hit the roof, and Lincoln cops moved in to make arrests. They collared three Cornhusker players, who subsequently were arraigned. There was no excuse for such behavior, because the players should have had more than their fill of roasting turkeys—read opponents—on the field.

In '78 Nebraska incinerated six teams and made the Top Ten in the polls for a 10th straight year. Nonetheless the season was a disappointment. Late in the fourth quarter of the finale against Missouri, the Huskers led 31-28 and appeared to be headed for the Orange Bowl to play Penn State for the national title. But the Tigers rallied to win 35-31, and Nebraska was rematched against Oklahoma, in the Orange Bowl, with no chance of becoming No. 1.

But, disappointments aside, last year provided some heady portents for this season. Moreover, during the regular season Nebraska averaged 501.4 yards a game. Because the ballcarriers who amassed 73% of the rushing yardage and the receivers who caught 81% of the passes are still on hand, the Huskers figure to be tougher than they've been since they won the national championships in 1970 and '71, especially because they'll be driven by the desire to gobble up the honors they missed last year.

No Nebraskan is more fired up than Tight End Junior Miller, whose 33 receptions produced five touchdowns and 609 yards. After he caught five passes and ran roughshod over Kansas State, Wildcat Coach Jim Dickey groaned, "The way he mowed down our defensive backs, maybe the Humane Society ought to send him a letter." The Huskers will also throw to Tim Smith, the No. 3 receiver in 1978 despite doubling as a play messenger. Or to Wingback Kenny Brown, a breakaway threat any time he has the ball down-field, who, former Coach Bob Devaney says, "is as valuable to this team as Johnny Rogers was to the 1970 and '71 national champions." And then there's Hipp, the first Nebraska runner to gain 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons. The Huskers do have to replace Quarterback Tom Sorley, an able runner and a 58% passer. Candidates Jeff Quinn, Mark Mauer and Bruce Mathison all have promise.

The defense will field 17 lettermen, including nine of the top 10 linemen who helped Nebraska lead the Big Eight in stopping the rush last season. Unfortunately, the offensive line is in nowhere near as good shape, having lost two sets of quality tackles and guards.

Forgotten in the Chuck Fairbanks-Colorado-Boston Patriots sitcom of last spring was that Nebraska Coach Tom Osborne was offered the Colorado job first. Osborne also holds a doctorate in educational psychology. He didn't turn Colorado down just to watch bonfires.

4. Texas

When Coach Fred Akers took over in 1977, he inherited a once-proud team that had a 5-5-1 record. He figured he would be lucky to match that if he let things remain the way they were. So he retooled the offense, turning Earl Campbell loose. The Longhorns finished 11-1, and Campbell was voted the Heisman Trophy.

Then in 1978 Akers, who had few holdover stars, was forced to play eight freshmen in key positions and watched as his team suffered nearly as many injuries as Leonidas' boys did at Thermopylae. Even so, Texas ended up ranked ninth in the country. No wonder there's a consensus abuilding that Akers is fast becoming—I'll finish this thought in a moment, then back to you, Keith—some kind of coach.

If there are any doubters left, Akers should convert them this fall. With 20 first-teamers back, he has the wherewithal to mount a serious challenge for the national title. Once again, Texas' strength lies in its defense. There are nine starters on hand from the 1978 unit that gave up only 104.6 yards a game rushing and was the SWC's toughest to score on. Ricky Churchman, Derrick Hatchett and All-America Johnnie Johnson are mainstays in a secondary that held Rice, TCU and SMU, the conference's three top passing teams, to zero touchdowns. The luminaries up front are Steve McMichael, called Bam-Bam by his teammates, who made a team-high 142 tackles, and Bill Acker, whose specialties are sacks (14) and forcing fumbles (six).

Texas fans gasped last May when it was reported that McMichael had reached under the hood of his car while the engine was on and got his hands caught in the fan. The cuts have all healed, and surprisingly, the fan wasn't damaged. What has been damaged is the Longhorn kicking game, now that All-America Russell Erxleben has moved on to the New Orleans Saints. But even here Akers is not without a leg up; freshman Jeff Guy and sophomore John Good-son are both bright prospects.

Quarterback Donnie Little's fumbling on national TV—he lost the ball twice before network cameras—is not the habit viewers might suppose it to be. Though Little completed just 16 of 52 passes last fall, he excelled in spring drills, and Akers is confident that Texas' aerial game will be improved. "Donnie developed more poise and a stronger arm," Akers says. Little's running has never been questioned.

The offensive line has experience, as does the starting backfield. But depth is a concern. One thing the Longhorns don't lack, however, is Joneses. Though Running Back Ham is gone, Lam, Jam and Ram are back and are rarin' to go. Lam is Johnny Jones, the 1976 Olympic gold-medalist who led Texas in receptions (25) last year. Jam is actually A.J. Jones, who as a freshman was the leading Longhorn rusher in 1978. Ram is Jones Ramsey, 58, Texas' sports publicist who created the nicknames.

The Longhorn schedule reads like an AP poll. The non-conference opponents include Missouri and Oklahoma, and in the SWC, Texas must play Arkansas, Houston, Texas A&M and SMU—on the road. If none of those teams is at the Cotton Bowl come January, Texas will be there. And no doubt you'll be hearing how Akers did it again.

5. Purdue

By his own admission, Mark Herrmann is a stick-in-the-mud, more in the mold of Andy Hardy than Tony Manero. He still dates his high school sweetheart. His best friend has been his best friend since childhood. Evenings he usually stays in the Sigma Chi house. He admits that he has to force himself to socialize with his teammates and says that although he is a junior he is just beginning to know them well. "I think we've got a mutual respect," Herrmann says. "I can give constructive criticism or compliments now." Of course, a stick-in-the-mud is usually calm and controlled at all times, which is just dandy for Herrmann on the field but makes him something of an oddball in West Lafayette these days.

Aside from Herrmann just about everybody at Purdue is gaga because this could be the year the Boilermakers crack the Michigan-Ohio axis that has ruled the Big Ten for the last 11 years. "You walk around campus and you hear people say, 'We've ordered our tickets for Pasadena, we're going to the Rose Bowl,' " Herrmann says. "Well, I haven't ordered my tickets yet." Herrmann is the man responsible for the state of excitement. He has already passed for 4,357 yards and has only to surpass Chicago Bear Mike Phipps and Miami Dolphin Bob Griese to become Purdue's No. 1 alltime quarterback. "Yeah, but my arm could be stronger," Herrmann says. "And my legs and upper body."

Herrmann cut his interceptions from 27 in '77 to 12 last year, and he hit on 55.5% of his passes—14 for touchdowns. Suddenly Purdue, which hadn't had a winning season since 1972, soared to 9-2-1, beat Ohio State for the first time since 1967 and got a bowl bid (Peach), only its second in 91 years. Bid No. 3 should be forthcoming this November. An invitation to the Rose Bowl isn't too farfetched—not with Ohio State off the schedule. And not with all 11 offensive starters from the Peach Bowl team back, including Running Back John Macon (913 yards in '78) and receivers Mike Harris, Bart Burrell and Dave Young.

In fact, the Boilermakers have an embarrassment of riches and are in a quandary about finding room for blue-chip freshman Running Back Jimmy Smith, a speedster who handled six kickoffs and returned four of them for touchdowns for Westview high school in Kankakee, Ill. How highly sought was Smith? Well, Oklahoma Coach Barry Switzer thought enough of him to phone Smith's coach from New York the night Billy Sims got the Heisman Trophy.

The team's flex defense, patterned in part on that of the Dallas Cowboys, features Purdue's alltime leading tackier, Linebacker Kevin Motts, and All-Big Ten linemen Ken Loushin and Keena Turner. In 1978, Turner tackled opponents for losses 25 times for a total of 201 yards. Three-fourths of the secondary is new, and Coach Jim Young needs replacements at punter and placekicker. Not to worry. Assessing safeties Tim Seneff and Bill Kay, defensive coordinator Leon Burtnett says, "Abilitywise, they're better than what we had last year." And freshman placekicker Walt Drapeza booted a 50-yarder in high school.

"Our starting defense has the ability to be great," Burtnett beams.

"It's the finest recruiting year I've ever had as a coach," chimes in Young.

"We'll be No. 1," is the boast frequently heard at the Chocolate Shoppe, a local bar.

"I hope folks aren't expecting too much," says Herrmann.

6. Penn State

Two years ago Dayle Tate broke his hand. Sorry to hear that, Dayle—whoever you are—but what's that got to do with the Top 20? Well, Dayle Tate is an extremely promising quarterback who has spent the last couple of seasons not playing behind Chuck Fusina at Penn State. Oh, sure, he's gotten into a few games, like last year's early-season outing against Rutgers. Tate suffered a broken collarbone in that one. Thus, in two seasons Tate has played less than one quarter of varsity ball. But now that Fusina, who holds just about every Nittany Lion individual passing and offensive record, is gone, Tate, a junior, is the man. If he goes down, so does Penn State.

"Those broken bones were difficult to cope with," he says. "For me, Jesus was the answer. If I play, I'll praise the Lord, and if not, I'll praise Him anyway. But I have a feeling my time has come."

If he's right, the Nittany Lions could string together a second straight season of the type of football the East is supposed to produce about once a decade. Last year Penn State merely went 11-1, achieved No. 1 ranking for the first time in its 92-year history, slipping to No. 4 only after losing to Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.

The chances for just such a repeat look good. Tate's performance in the spring game was astonishing—19 for 43 for 257 yards and a touchdown. And the forward wall of the nation's No. 1 defense (it allowed only 54.5 yards rushing a game) returns pretty much intact. And in Booker Moore, Mike Guman and Matt Suhey, the Nittany Lions have a set of running backs that accounted for 1,673 yards and 15 of the team's 21 touchdowns last season.

Defensive tackles Matt Millen and Bruce Clark and leading sacker Larry Kubin join three other 1978 starters on a unit that forced turnovers resulting in 101 points—or 9.2 a game. Because State yielded only 8.8 points a game, how effective does the offense have to be? Clark (270 pounds) won the Lombardi Award as the nation's top lineman or linebacker, and Millen (255) was among the four finalists for the award. Back, too, is Linebacker Lance Mehl, the team's leading tackier last season.

There could be shortcomings in the defensive backfield, because several erstwhile starters—most notably Pete Harris, who led the nation with 10 interceptions—are academically ineligible. Coach Joe Paterno got that bad news just as fall practice began, but he had worked Grover Edwards at Harris' safety spot in the spring and was pleased. Thus, the question is not whether State's defense will be good, but whether it will be good enough to rival last season's. That unit held Alabama 16.1 points under its scoring average and shut out Ohio State, which ranked among the national leaders with 29.5 points a game.

All-America Placekicker Matt Bahr now plays for the Pittsburgh Steelers, but Herb Menhardt booted 50-and 32-yard field goals in the spring game, and Brian Franco kicked one from 42 yards out. Paterno's only serious concern is the offensive line, which he spent most of spring drills rebuilding. Paterno would like the time to develop the young line slowly, but he'll not have that luxury. After opening against Rutgers, the Lions face Texas A&M on Sept. 22 and Nebraska at Lincoln on Sept. 29.

That's when Tate will know for sure if, praise the Lord, this time his time finally has come.

7. Georgia

You can tell Vince Dooley has a real shot at dumping Alabama off its perch at the top of the Southeastern Conference this fall because he is beginning to sound just like Bear Bryant. Bryant is as famous for poor-mouthing his squad's chances in the spring and summer as Alabama is famous for winning in the fall. But Dooley is catching on. Listen: "Our No. 1 problem is finding individuals to fill key positions," he says. "And though it's a problem on offense, it's more acute on defense."

Dooley warmed up his act last year, predicting all manner of dire doings in Athens during the 1978 season. But the Bulldogs surprised everybody by going 9-2-1. This year, mainly because the two fine quarterbacks who led that team are still around and have plenty to work with, Georgia might be even better, never mind what Dooley says. Moreover, because Alabama isn't on the schedule, Georgia has a chance of going undefeated in the SEC. Even Alabama can't top that.

On defense, Dooley's philosophy has always been: if you dress, you play. So, although five 1978 starters are gone, 19 lettermen are back, including the entire secondary. Georgia has some good ones up front, too, especially two-year starters Robert Goodwin, Jimmy Payne and Eddie (Meat Cleaver) Weaver. Last season Payne came out of nowhere—which is to say, high school—to lead the Bulldogs in sacks, with eight. Though he's also only a sophomore, Weaver, a six-foot, 273-pound guard, is already acclaimed the Bulldogs' strongest defender ever.

Jeff Pyburn, the No. 1 quarterback and a 54% passer, is: a) the son of the defensive secondary coach, Jim Pyburn; b) teacher of Bible classes; and c) married to a recently crowned Georgia beauty queen. Behind him is Buck Belue, who is single, stronger of arm and pushing hard to take Pyburn's job away. It was Belue who rallied the Bulldogs from a 0-20 deficit to a 29-28 victory over Georgia Tech to close out their regular season with a win over their traditional rival. Both quarterbacks will throw often to Lindsay Scott. Last season he caught 36 passes, was among the national leaders in kickoff returns and was named the SEC Freshman of the Year.

The SEC Player of the Year was Bulldog Tailback Willie McClendon, who now wears the uniform of the Chicago Bears, but his replacement, sophomore Matt Simon, averaged more yards a carry (5.2) than McClendon. Simon will be working behind pretty much the same line that sprung McClendon for 1,312 yards. The best of the blockers, Center Ray Donaldson, is so good that Dooley, stepping out of character, has called him "the best I've had anywhere, ever."

Other pluses: Rex Robinson is an All-SEC placekicker, and Georgia has plenty of depth because, for the second year in a row, Dooley's recruiting was tops in the conference. Among the signees are four running backs who, Dooley says, are ready to play right now, and Dwayne Puckett, a 6'8", 329-pound tackle, who is the largest Bulldog player ever. Heck, he may be the largest person in Georgia ever. So what has Dooley to whine about?

"Last year we were lucky," he moans. "In five games the difference was a total of six points. Turn those points around, and we'd have had a losing season." Well, hang in there, Vince. You figure to be even luckier this year.

8. Notre Dame

Coach Dan Devine surely would prefer something a bit softer, now that he is in the final season of a five-year contract. But there it is—a genuine backbreaker of a schedule. "We face Michigan, Purdue and Michigan State for starters, and we finish up in Tokyo," he says. "Which may not be a bad place for me to set up residence."

No Irish schedule has started out as menacingly as, well, last year's. And Notre Dame fans won't soon forget what happened then. The Irish, the defending national champions, lost both their opener and Game 2, to Missouri and Michigan, for the first time in 82 years. And if that wasn't bad enough, both defeats came in South Bend. As a consequence, Devine appeared to be headed for the same fate as the Studebaker. The irony is that before he got the job, Notre Dame had tough schedules about as often as it recruited 175-pound linemen. For instance, in 1973 and '74, the last two seasons under Devine's predecessor, Ara Parseghian, Notre Dame played Army, Navy, Air Force, Northwestern and Rice—and outscored them 385-37. In contrast, this year's schedule includes six teams invited to 1978 bowls, plus Michigan State, which is the defending Big Ten co-champion and was uninvited only because it was on NCAA probation.

Gone is the Comeback Kid, Quarterback Joe Montana. In his place is Rusty Lisch, an architecture major who was red-shirted last season. Devine had Lisch penciled in as his starting quarterback in 1977. That didn't last very long as Montana made a specialty of coming to the rescue after the Lischled Irish had fallen behind. This season, however, Lisch must work without a net.

But he may not have to worry, because he has strong runners who should keep the Irish in every game. The best of them is Vagas Ferguson, who holds the Notre Dame rushing records for a single game (255 yards vs. Georgia Tech) and a season (1,192), and is just 648 yards shy of passing George Gipp and Jerome Heavens and becoming the leading Irish career ground-gainer. And Vagas doesn't just pile it up against the likes of Georgia Tech: he blasted for 100 yards and the MVP award when Notre Dame beat Texas in the 1978 Cotton Bowl with the national title at stake. Also lining up behind Lisch will be Jim Stone, who is a step faster and a bit more slippery than the usual Irish bulldozer-type halfback, and sophomore Fullback Pete Buchanan, a terror on third-and-short last fall when he bucked in for scores against such superb rushing defenses as Houston's, Tennessee's and Southern California's.

On defense, the Irish are concerned about replacing two linebackers and Tackle Jeff Weston, who was their top tackier (75) in 1978. John Hankerd, a converted linebacker, replaced an injured Scott Zettek at defensive end last season. Zettek hasn't fully recovered, so Hankerd will remain at end. Sophomore Joe Gramke saw considerable playing time as a freshman at end; he is also remembered for tackling Houston Quarterback Danny Davis on fourth and one with two minutes left in the Cotton Bowl game. The Irish won the game on the next possession.

After that 0-2 start last fall, Notre Dame won nine of 10 and jelled into one of the nation's top five or six teams, although the polls didn't place the Irish higher than 10th until they knocked off Southwest Conference champion Houston 35-34 in the Cotton Bowl.

"We'll have a good first unit on defense, a good first team on offense," Devine says. "But we'll need help from freshmen and players coming off injuries." If Lisch and the younger Irish aren't overwhelmed in the early going, Notre Dame could win nine again. And a new contract for Devine.

9. Texas A&M

After five games last season, the Aggies were unbeaten and ranked No. 5, but then underdog Houston poleaxed them 33-0 and the next week Baylor, of all teams, upset them in College Station. A&M fans were not happy. And three days later Coach Emory Bellard resigned. His offensive coordinator, Tom Wilson, was handed a whistle and told to do what he could. On the first play under Wilson, the Aggies, strictly a run-run-run wishbone team during Bellard's regime, threw a 53-yard touchdown pass. "Know how long I've wanted to send in that play?" asked Wilson afterward. Right then he installed a flashy I formation, which the Aggie players needed time to master. And the new attack fizzled against Arkansas and Texas, producing just one touchdown in each game, both losses. "Ha!" said the wishbone diehards. "Ha!" said Wilson after his players, having grasped the intricacies of the I, finished the regular season 7-4 and whipsawed Iowa State in the Hall of Fame Bowl. Wilson admits that changing offenses in midseason hurt A&M, but he's sure it was the right move. "It helped recruiting," he says. "And in spring practice, our youngsters knew what we wanted. So playing the I last season smoothed the transition for this year."