It is a brave man who dips a hand into the treacherous whirlpools of Great Lakes football and plucks out preseason favorites. Traditionally, the toughest and most grimly contested football in the country is played in the Midwest, and if there is any departure from the norm this year it is only in degree—there are more good teams with less to choose between them than ever before. In the Big Ten, any team has a chance to win. From 1954's title-holder, Ohio State, to last year's surprisingly shallow forces at bottom-riding Illinois, there isn't a weak team in the conference.
This week Michigan and Ohio State stand at the top: the Wolverines because of their depth, speed and the incomparable Ron Kramer; the Buckeyes because of a solid first group headed by Halfbacks Howard Cassady and Jerry Harkrader. But lest either team be led into false notions of glory, they will do well to remember the fate of Illinois and Michigan State last year. Many experts had them riding one-two at the starting gate and by the end of the year you needed a divining rod to find them.
Obviously the same thing can happen again, but right now six contenders seem to stand out over the rest: Ohio and Michigan, and then Iowa, Minnesota, Purdue and Wisconsin, though not necessarily in that order. About the only sure thing in the conference is that Ohio State, because of an agreement prohibiting two Rose Bowl appearances in a row, will not be the Western Conference representative on the Coast come New Year's Day. Michigan should be.
It will surprise no one that Notre Dame, despite serious losses of key players, will be formidable as always. Other strong Midwestern independents will be Marquette, Cincinnati and Xavier. Little heard from before this but coming fast is Hugh Devore's Dayton team. Miami University, victor over Indiana, Marquette and Cincinnati last year, should again lead the Mid-American Conference while Heidelberg, with Little All-America Halfback Walt Livingston returning, is the favorite to repeat in the 14-team Ohio Conference.
Michigan. Grade-one tackles are just about the only cogs missing from the Michigan team revving up for the Missouri opener Saturday. The league-opener is with upcountry Michigan State on October 1, and the week after that comes Army. The Wolverines have never beaten the Cadets and last year they suffered a humiliating defeat. If all the pretty things that have been said about Michigan are true, Ann Arbor may be snake dancing into a top national rating late on the afternoon of October 8.
The depth and experience are there. Twenty-four lettermen are back and with them Ron Kramer, the junior end who punts and, to hear the Michigan staff tell it, does about everything a mortal can do. On the other end is Tom Maentz, a genuinely capable operator himself. The backfield has speed. If his knees cooperate, Tony Branoff will have few superiors at right half; and at left Terry Barr, Tom Hendricks and sophomore Jim Pace, the fastest of the lot, are counted on to give the Michigan offense the trickiness and speed that will make it go.
Ohio State. Repeating champions in the Big Ten are somewhat of a rarity, but the Buckeyes are a good bet to do just that. Gone are many of the stars from the undefeated Rose Bowl team of last season, but outside of inexperience at quarterback, Ohio State's first team will be as good as almost any in the country. Opportunist Cassady, a real All-America, is paired at halfback with Harkrader. No other team in the nation can offer a better combination of speed to the outside and power to the inside. Ken Vargo at center and Jim Parker at guard are standouts in a redoubtable line that includes four tackles who won letters last year.
Iowa. The Hawkeyes' record at season's end may not be too impressive, but the fault will lie with the schedule, not the team, which is one of the country's best. In its last five games, Iowa runs into four of my Eleven Elevens: UCLA, Michigan, Ohio State and Notre Dame. Seven starters from last year's squad and a 217-pound line from end to end have been the cause of joyous singing in Iowa City for everybody but Coach Forest Evashevski who thinks his team lacks speed. Earl Smith and Eddie Vincent, the big groundgainers and scorers of last season, are the exceptions. The line is led by All-America Captain Calvin Jones.
Purdue. Coach Stu Holcomb's Boilermakers could be the conference sleeper. If Quarterback Len Dawson, who as a sophomore last year was the third best passer in the country, has another good season, look out Pasadena. Lamar Lundy, 6 and a half feet of arms and fingers, leads a swarm of veteran ends. So maybe Purdue is in for an old-fashioned say hey!
Wisconsin. In the last six years, the Badgers under Ivy Williamson have had the best record in the conference: 26-9-4. This year only 12 letter-winners are back, and among the missing is the great Alan Ameche. But uncommonly fine material from the 1954 freshman squad will help fill the gap. Wisconsin's worst trouble will be its schedule, which is all tough in the first half of the season when the sophomores will be finding themselves. Senior Quarterbacks Jim Miller and Jim Haluska give depth in that spot. Paul Shwaiko and John Dittrich are the best in the usually strong Wisconsin line.
Minnesota. Missing from the Gophers of 1954 are 20 varsitymen and Bob McNamara, whose type comes along to a school about once in a dozen years. Don't shed too many tears, though. The sophomores are reported to be better even than Wisconsin's. Minnesota should cause several gloomy weekends before the fall is out.
Indiana. With only seven varsity players absent from last year's squad, optimism is rampant in the Hoosier camp. Coach Bernie Crimmins told me that this was the best-balanced team he had had in his four years at Indiana. Milt Campbell is the big man in the backfield.
Michigan State. The Spartans fell far and hard in '54. Recovery will not be complete this year as 19 lettermen were lost, but there is a glint in the eye of Coach Hugh Daugherty when he tells you: "We haven't had a squad this green in years. No wonder writers are playing us down this fall. It figures."
Illinois. The Illini, too, have fallen on evil days, and their miseries were doubly compounded with the news that Captain-elect J. C. Caroline, the All-America halfback, was out for the year because of academic deficiency. Despite this, the halfback position is still the strongest on the squad. Three seasoned performers are on hand: Harry Jefferson at left half; Abe Woodson and Mickey Bates at right. The Illini are improved. But so are the rest.
Northwestern. The Wildcats are the biggest question mark in the conference. There is a new coaching staff headed by Lou Saban and 20 returning lettermen from a team that won only a single conference game. Sometimes a new staff has a winning effect on a losing squad and this could happen at Northwestern this year.
Notre Dame. Much has been said about the coming collapse of Notre Dame football. Perhaps my five years at Army have warped my judgment but I just can't picture the Irish having a really bad year. If Notre Dame gets by the strong SMU team this weekend, put it in your little book that the boys from South Bend will have another "representative season." Six of the seven starters are departed from the line, but this was expected four years ago and I'm sure that Coach Terry Brennan's staff has not been caught completely asleep. No backfield can suffer the loss of a Guglielmi without being hurt but Brennan has an excellent quartet in Paul Hornung, Don Schaefer, Jim Morse and Paul Reynolds. Let's postpone the last rites until they play a couple of games.