From the thud of the opening kick-off at "foreign" Fayetteville, where Texas Christian meets Arkansas on Saturday, until the last whistle blows at Houston and Fort Worth on November 26, nothing matters in the chauvinistic Southwest except the conference race. The teams are grouped closer than ever this year, with little chance of even the champion coming through unbeaten in conference play.
If there has to be a choice, Rice and Southern Methodist get the call: Rice with its exceptional quarterbacks and an excellent first line; SMU with its pro-sized line and backfield. Texas Christian is a solid dark horse and its 32-0 victory Saturday over Texas Tech should dispel any tendency to complacency among the favorites. Baylor's explosive offense will be backed by a stable defense. But this is all a kind of whistling in the dark. It seems only fair to remind the gullible of what happened to Arkansas last season. If ever a team was picked to roll over and die, the Razorbacks were. They declined the invitation and wound up in the Cotton Bowl. So shake up the hat and roll out the finish.
The Big Seven is faced with its usual perplexing problem: who will finish second? It has been eight years and 47 games since the University of Oklahoma last lost a conference game and this season's edition is up to snuff. The race for runner-up should teeter-totter between Colorado and Missouri.
Elsewhere in the wide Southwest the teams to watch are Houston in the ubiquitous Missouri Valley Conference and Texas Tech from the Border Conference. The latter, with one of the strongest first teams, could be among the region's top elevens.
Rice. Coach Jess Neely's 25th season as a head coach at a major college could well be a happy one. The line, led by Tackle Eddie Rayburn, is brick-solid. All-America Dick Moegle is certain to be missed among the backs but Sophomore Virgil Mutschink is said to be a reasonable facsimile. The real news is at quarter where Sophomore King Hill scored two touchdowns and kicked two extra points as the Owls downed Alabama 20-0.
Southern Methodist. I was much impressed with the size and speed of the Mustangs at a practice session several weeks ago in Dallas. There is supposed to be a weakness at ends and quarterback. Maybe there is, but Tackle Forrest Gregg leads a gargantuan line. The backfield is impressive. The Mustangs lost to Notre Dame 17-0, but that is no disgrace. Georgia Tech comes Saturday, then Missouri, but THE schedule opens with Rice on the 15th.
Texas Christian. Perhaps I rate TCU too high but they looked like the real thing against Texas Tech. Only five lettermen are missing from a so-so 1954 team. Hugh Pitts is one of the outstanding centers in a year of great centers. Jimmy Swink is an all-the-way runner at halfback and Charles Curtis, with a year's experience, will be a much improved quarterback.
Baylor. George Sauer's offensive hopes were dimmed considerably when his ill-fated but brilliant quarterback, Doyle Traylor, fractured an ankle. However, the great Delbert Shofner is still at one halfback position and dangerous Weldon Holley is at the other. End Henry Gremminger, an all-SWC last season, heads a competent line.
Texas. The Longhorns are spoiling to make up for last year's bad season but the road is long and hard. A disappointing 20-14 loss to Texas Tech in the opener won't be assuaged by the 35-21 win over weak Tulane Saturday. Texas does have two fine backs. Sophomore Quarterback Walter Fondren has been likened to Doak Walker, which is saying a mouthful; and Delano Womack was one of the league's best ball carriers for two years.
Arkansas. All is new at Fayetteville except for 23 returning letter winners from last season's surprise championship squad. Coach Bowden Wyatt, now back at Tennessee, is replaced by Jackie Mitchell, no moss gatherer himself (five jobs in seven years) and winner of the Missouri Valley championship at Wichita last year. Basic material is here but the big problem is conversion from single wing to Mitchell's "pigeon-toed" split-T in which the halfbacks face each other instead of straight ahead. The idea is to give them faster speed running to the opposite flank. The Razorbacks beat Tulsa 21-6 and Saturday took Oklahoma A&M 21-0.
Texas A&M. The Aggies are predominantly sophomores and Coach Bear Bryant will have his bumps before his young squad fires up for the conference games. But, says Bryant: "Our varsity staff last year worked with the freshmen 75% of the time and the sophomores should be more experienced than most first-year men." John Crow, a 200-pound fledgling half, is stamped for greatness. Two other fine prospects are Ed Dudley and Kenneth Hall. The Aggies, losers to UCLA in the opener, bounced back with a vengeance against Louisiana State 28-0. They look good.
THE BIG SEVEN
Oklahoma. The Sooners lost two All-Americas from last season's squad but that has become a calculated loss each year. More are coming on. This year's crop: Bo Bolinger, guard; Jerry Tubbs, center; Jimmy Harris, quarterback; and Halfback Bob Burris. Champions again and New Year's will find them by the orange-blue waters of Biscayne Bay, Miami.
Colorado. Gone from Boulder are two first-rate halfbacks, Carroll Hardy and Frank Bernardi. If Tailback Homer Jenkins' knee stands up after an operation he should do a splendid job in Dallas Ward's single-wing offense. The Golden Buffaloes are good.
Missouri. Don Faurot's young team pressed Maryland to the limit two Saturdays ago. Unfortunately, taking on Michigan last week proved too much of a dose. The 42-7 loss, however, could be misleading. "We can be quite a bit tougher," Faurot allows, and the patron saint of the split-T, who always does a workmanlike job, might be right.
Kansas State. Although upset by Wyoming in the opener and beaten soundly by Iowa 28-7, State is still a good team in lower-powered competition, if it is shy on backfield speed.
Nebraska. Runner-up last year, Nebraska opened this glorious season with an astonishing 6-0 loss to Hawaii and a totally unexpected show of strength against Ohio State before going down 28-20. The conference race begins with Kansas State Saturday, which should decide fourth place.
Iowa State. Coach Di Francesca has a young team but much improved by greater depth, more size and speed.
Kansas. The situation at "bleeding" Kansas looked desperate before the season started but the leaky defense of last year (allowing 377 points and 4,005 yards total offense) seems less porous now after the 13-0 win over Washington State.
MISSOURI VALLEY CONFERENCE
Houston should supplant Wichita as the champions of this far-flung league. Oilman Hugh Roy Cullen's Cougars are a coming ball team even on the national scene. Oklahoma A&M, under new coach Cliff Speegle, should furnish Houston its stiffest opposition with Aggie Earl Lunsford, fullback and top rusher and leading scorer in the conference last year, leading the way. Defending champion Wichita has a crew of 21 tested and true sons back, including a passel of fine backs, but three all-conference linemen have graduated and that will be the difference. A majority at the University of Detroit are sophomores and at least a year or two away. Rumor has it that a fine group of freshmen has been gathered into the fold at Tulsa but the recruits can't help Coach Bobby Dobbs this year.
There is a strong suspicion that domination of the Border Conference by Texas Tech is becoming a permanent state of affairs. Tech has won the conference title six out of the last eight years and this season was after bigger game following its Texas victory before overreaching itself against TCU. I have watched Jerry Walker since his freshman year and there is no better tackle extant. Almost as good is Quarterback Jack Kirkpatrick.
Closest conference competition should come from Texas Western and Arizona where national rushing leader and scoring champion Art Luppino returns at tailback. Arizona State is a question mark but Fullback Bobby Sedlar and Tackle John Jankans are fine indeed. Hardin-Simmons, with the great Sammy Baugh serving his first year as head coach, understandably enough has an outstanding passing quarterback, Kenneth Ford. West Texas State presents a good passing trio in Quarterback Bubba Hillman and Ends Bobby Covington and Dub Cleveland. New Mexico A&M is still rebuilding.