The Big Eight can make a good argument that it plays the best college football in the country. Four teams were in bowl games last season—national champion Oklahoma, Nebraska, Kansas and Colorado—and the fact that three of them lost only led Big Eight fans to say they had other teams at home that might have won. For instance, Missouri, which lost five games, four to other Big Eight schools, was the only team to beat Alabama, the Sugar Bowl victor. Kansas lost in the Sun Bowl but was the only team to beat Oklahoma, which beat Michigan in the Orange Bowl—and Kansas was beaten by Oklahoma State, another nonbowl Big Eight team. Oklahoma State beat Arkansas, the Southwest Conference co-champion and Cotton Bowl winner, but lost, on something of a fluke, to Nebraska and—to get back to the beginning—was soundly trounced by Missouri.
This madly competitive round robin (six Big Eight teams had winning records in 1975) got so intense last season that rookie Head Coach Bud Moore of Kansas tried bribing his players—with food. The good guys could eat steak and lobster in a private room. The less productive players had to push trays in the cafeteria. After the Jayhawks beat Oklahoma 23-3—the Sooners' first loss in 38 games and the first time in 103 games that they failed to score a touchdown—Moore was named Big Eight Coach of the Year.
Iowa State and Kansas State each lost one game outside the Big Eight, six and seven within it. Because of the ferocious company they keep, Iowa State and Kansas State are not considered to be among the nation's elite. Neither, for that matter, are Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma State. But consider the performance of Kansas' Nolan Cromwell. Cromwell, who holds the Texas Relays 400-meter hurdles record, was shifted from defensive back to wishbone quarterback. In the first game he started at quarterback, he ran for 294 yards to break the Kansas single-game record set by Gale Sayers. He went on to lead the Big Eight in rushing with 1,124 yards and was offensive Player of the Year in a conference saturated with All-Americas.
September 5, 1976
Yet the best teams in the Big Eight are, as usual, Oklahoma and Nebraska, which tied for the league championship last year. Colorado, which missed joining them only because it lost to Oklahoma 21-20, is close behind. There is a feeling around the conference that Nebraska's veterans will take it all this year, but heavily senior teams like Nebraska's sometimes go into curious declines. Oklahoma is, after all, defending national champion, and Colorado has its best squad in years. Round robin again. The only thing for certain is that three Big Eight teams are valid contenders for the Top Ten—and maybe more than that for the Top 20.
Alabama visits South Bend and Athens this fall, yet when Bear Bryant assesses the Tide schedule he hems and haws less about Notre Dame or Georgia than about Mississippi. Mississippi? The Rebels rose quietly from a 3-8 record in 1974 and 1-4 early last year to sweep five straight from SEC foes. The defense had Mississippi looking like the Rebels of old, a bowl team from 1957 through 1971. Nine starting defenders return, as do Quarterback Tim Ellis and Running Backs Mike Sweet and James Storey, who together gained more than half of Mississippi's yardage. "They were the toughest team down here in November," Bryant says.
The Bear's comments have whetted the appetites of Georgia's Junkyard Dogs, the veteran defensive unit that feels it can wrest the SEC title from the Crimson Tide when Alabama makes a rare visit to Athens on Oct. 2. Seven defensive starters return plus Linebacker Sylvester Boler, a 6'3" 235-pounder who was MVP in the 1973 Peach Bowl but ineligible last year. An offensive line that averages 243 pounds should keep Georgia's veer offense in good running order. Quarterback Ray Goff (474 yards) and Running Back Kevin McLee (806 yards, 10 TDs) are back, as is Flanker Gene Washington.
Mississippi State comes off its first back-to-back winning seasons since 1954 and 1955. Fourth-year Coach Bob Tyler is sitting pretty because 15 regulars return, among them Heisman candidate Walter Packer, already the school's leading ground-gainer (2,187 yards), and Clarence Harmon. Back, too, are Guard Harvey Hull and Ends Will Coltharp and Wally Cox.
With all its problems, Kentucky sank to the SEC cellar last year despite its strong defense. Now the problems seem to be solved and almost everybody that counts on defense is back. With Offensive Tackle Warren Bryant opening doorways to downfield, primarily for Fullback Rod Stewart, the Wildcats might climb high.
Perennial powers LSU and Auburn had losing seasons last year, but you can bet that won't happen again—at least not to both of them. Doug Barfield (page 72), replacing Shug Jordan at Auburn, inherited only one defensive lineman and a 4-4 defense that he has changed to a 5-2. LSU has the better chance of a winning season now that Texas A&M and Tennessee have been supplanted on the schedule by Utah and Oregon State. A. J. Duhe, the colorful Cajun, is one of the best tackles Baton Rouge has ever seen. Coach Fred Pan-coast rebuilt Vanderbilt (7-4) well in his first year, but now he has to do it all over again. Sixteen starters are gone.
Commissioner Wayne Duke fumes at gibes that his conference, which last year led the country in attendance with a 59,658-per-game average, is really the Big Two—Ohio State and Michigan. "The millennium would be a 10-way tie for first," says Duke, "but that's not the way life is. You've got the haves and the have-nots."
With that, he submits a piece of paper that shows other conferences are more Big Two than his Big Two. Sure enough, in the Big Eight, Oklahoma and Nebraska have won 14 titles since 1960, while Ohio State and Michigan have won only 10; USC and UCLA have won 12 Pac-8 titles, as have Texas and Arkansas in the Southwest.
Nonetheless, one of the Big Two will win the Big Ten again this year, because nobody else can challenge. Best of the rest could be Minnesota, led by its splendid quarterback, Tony Dungy, who topped the league in total offense and in passing last year. The defense is anchored in this Bicentennial year by George Washington, who last year led the Big Ten in tackles with 126. The offensive line needs help.
Illinois should finish fourth, but the team has a rep for letting folks down when hopes are high. A bad season could spell the end for Coach Bob Blackman, who in five years has won far fewer than half his games. One mainstay is Defensive Tackle John DeFeliciantonio, who leads the league in longest name. Michigan State is on probation for recruiting violations, so TV viewers will not have an opportunity to see new Coach Darryl Rogers' passing game.
Heading the second division will be Purdue, which will have difficulty improving on last year's 4-7. The alums are anxious, if not yet mutinous, at Indiana, where Coach Lee Corso is 5-27-1 over three years. Northwestern won't ruin many Saturdays for its opponents and Iowa Coach Bob Commings is blowing smoke when he says seven or eight wins are possible. Wisconsin, which loses a lot and yet was fourth in the nation in home attendance last year, will lose and draw but not win much.
UCLA's Terry Donahue, 32, one of four new coaches in the league, has a dangerous running back in Wendell Tyler and sweet memories of the Rose Bowl win over Ohio State (he was an assistant then), but it isn't likely that the Bruins will go to Pasadena again next Jan. 1. For one thing, four All-Pac-8 players are gone, including Quarterback John Sciarra. Also, the team across town, USC, is loaded. And two of the first four teams on UCLA's schedule are Arizona State at Tempe and Ohio State at Columbus. Donahue will keep Dick Vermeil's veer T, which will be operated by either of two quarterbacks: Jeff Dankworth, a fine runner, or Steve Bukich, sharp-passing son of ex-pro Rudy. Other likely stars besides Tyler are Receiver Wally Henry and the announcer's delight, Defensive Tackle Manu Tuiasosopo.
Stanford has a favorite son, too, in Defensive End Duncan McColl, whose father Bill was a star for Stanford and the Chicago Bears. McColl has good people on the line with him, but the linebacker corps was hit hard by graduation. The Cardinals' two fine quarterbacks, Guy Benjamin and Mike Cordova, have Flanker Tony Hill as a target in addition to James Lofton. "Offensively, this could be the best team we've had in some time," says Coach Jack Christiansen, now in his fifth year.
Oregon State hopes new Coach Craig Fertig (page 72) can pull off some small miracles in Corvallis, but it won't be easy. The offensive line must be rebuilt and Quarterback Kyle Grossart missed spring practice with a broken foot. Fertig calls Defensive End Dennis Boyd "one of the great all-around football players ever to play in the Pac-8." Oregon isn't deep, but Coach Don Read claims the Ducks are "explosive," especially when Jack Henderson is throwing to Split End Greg Bauer. Washington is rebuilding around tanklike Fullback Robin Earl. Washington State is praying around new Coach Jackie Sherrill.
Baylor and Texas Tech are the best after conference favorites Arkansas, Texas and Texas A&M. With eight starters back on offense and seven on defense, the Bears have experience and high hopes. Tailback Cleveland Franklin gained 1,112 yards, and Tight End Ronnie Lee was the best freshman in the league. The defense sparkles with Rover Ron Burns and Linebacker Tim Black. Baylor will surely improve its 3-6-2 record.
Tech has loads of offense but holes on defense. Alternating Quarterbacks Tommy Duniven and Rodney Allison complement each other with their passing and running. The veteran line, led by Guard Mike Sears, gives Tailback Larry Isaac and Fullback Jimmy Williams lots of running room.
The rest of the league seems destined for the second division, but at least there is plenty of enthusiasm down there, generated by new coaches at SMU (Ron Meyer, page 72) and Rice (Homer Rice), the debut of conference newcomer Houston and the absence of a losing streak at TCU.
Meyer has problems galore at SMU, among them only nine returning starters, but the worst defense in the conference can only get better, while the offense gets a face-lift, Meyer replacing the I with the wishbone. Rice's Rice hopes a positive thinking program can end the school's 12-season losing streak. He has not coached in seven years, since leaving Cincinnati to be athletic director at North Carolina, but his offensive flair helped make Cincinnati's Greg Cook the nation's leading passer. At Rice he has another fine quarterback prospect in Tommy Kramer.
Houston has loads of experience but not much talent. Tackles Val Belcher on offense and Wilson Whitley on defense are standouts, but a quarterback is needed desperately. TCU ended its season and its 20-game losing streak by beating Rice, and now the Horned Frogs, with Jimmy Elzner throwing to Mike Renfro, are thinking .500.
Despite recent rumors to the contrary, ACC football is still out in the cold. After Maryland, the other six teams will spend the season falling all over each other to separate the 3-2s from the 2-3s in their five-game conference schedule. Thank Virginia, those fine gentlemen, for eliminating some of the confusion by promising another likely 0-5.
Duke could have shared the conference title with Maryland in 1975 if its games with North Carolina and N.C. State hadn't ended in ties. With Art Gore (674 yards in 1974) back from an injury, and option Quarterback Mike Dunn, the Blue Devils are a good bet to have a winning season.
Clemson's veer offense showed improvement late in the season, and Coach Red Parker has rebuilt his offensive line to help Running Backs Harold Goggins and Warren Ratchford. The little Baptist school, Wake Forest, has its own Polish army—John Zeglinski. Ziggy was the only man in the country to have 100-yard games in rushing, pass receiving, punt returns and kickoff returns.
Lou Holtz is gone to the Jets and 31-year-old Bo Rein has taken over at N.C. State. The Wolfpack had a winning record, but what else did Holtz leave Rein with? Ted Brown, who gained 913 yards as a freshman, and that's about it. North Carolina's Mike Voight rushed for 1,250 yards and was ACC Player of the Year. Coach Bill Dooley will be calling on Voight often, in hopes that Chapel Hill wolves will stop calling on Dooley. Their call goes: "Goodbye, Dooley, we hate to see you go."
Brigham Young has the best chance to upset Arizona State or Arizona and win the WAC title. The reason is lanky Quarterback Gifford Nielsen, who took over midway through the 1975 season and completed 61.1% of his passes, a league record. Nielsen has good receivers, notably Jay Miller, the nation's best in 1973 but sidelined two seasons because of knee surgery. Coach LaVell Edwards, anxious to end BYU's string of slow starts, has a lot of work to do with his defensive back-field, although All-WAC Safety Dana Wilgar returns. The Cougars have a fine runner in senior Jeff Blanc, who already has more than 2,000 career yards.
Colorado State hopes it can gain in the standings the way Offensive Tackle Steve Cyphers gained weight. The team's most effective blocker has bulked up from 218 pounds to 251. Ron Harris led the team in rushing with 836 yards, but Coach Sark Arslanian misses lost Quarterback Mark Driscoll and Linebacker Kevin McLain.
New Mexico has lots of worries beyond having to play the two Arizonas, Texas Tech and San Diego State. The Lobos must replace Quarterback Steve Myer and All-America Placekicker Bob Berg. All-WAC Defensive End Robin Cole leads a pretty good defensive line. UTEP, 1-10 because of injuries and inexperience, figures to be improved, but 17 starters back from a last-place team doesn't mean much. Its stars should be Running Back Robert Elliott, an El Paso product, and Linebacker Hal Barnett, a future architect who led the team on defense as a soph. Utah can argue it has the WAC's top quarterback (despite BYU's Nielsen) in Pat Degnan, a transfer from Air Force, who was seventh in the nation as a sophomore.
PACIFIC COAST A. A.
With San Diego State gone independent, the PCAA shapes up as a battle between Cal State Long Beach and San Jose State. When Coach Wayne Howard moved from UC Riverside to Long Beach in 1974, he took along a fine nose guard. Kise Fiatoa, who will join Linebacker Sam Tagaloa in a defensive wall seemingly made out of volcanic rock. There's a talented Polynesian on offense, too. Quarterback Joe Paopao (pronounced pow-pow) led the 49ers to a 9-2 record and passed for 1,652 yards. Fullback Mark Bailey was mostly a blocker last year, but Coach Howard promises Bailey is going to carry the ball more.
Long Beach meets San Jose on Oct. 16, and it should be quite a game. The Spartans' new coach, Lynn Stiles, likes what he has seen so far, especially two-time All-PCAA Defensive Tackle Wilson Faumuina. "He's a legitimate All-America from the word go," says Stiles. He also praises Running Back Rick Kane, who gained 1,174 yards and scored seven touchdowns, and Defensive Back Gerald Small, who had seven interceptions last year. Steve DeBerg is the likely quarterback, closely pressed by freshman Ed Luther.
Cal State Fullerton is an unknown quantity, 2-9 last year and stocked almost completely with newcomers. Fresno State has a new coach, Jim Sweeney. Pacific has practically all-new offensive and defensive lines and not much hope of upsetting the top two. It says it will throw more this season but has not settled on a quarterback.
Under a revamped schedule every Ivy team will begin the season with a league game. Yale opens on the road for the first time this century in a televised contest against Brown that could have significant bearing on the Ivy race. Coach Carmen Cozza's Elis have an outstanding quarterback in Stone Phillips, a solid group of runners headed by John Pagliaro and an offensive line with experience at every position. The Yale defense, however, is relying on reinforcements from the 1975 freshman team.
Brown graduated 13 starters, but Coach John Anderson contends that he has no serious weaknesses. The Bruins' multiple offense has some breakaway threats and an outstanding pass catcher in Bob Farnham, but Anderson has to find a replacement for graduated Quarterback Bob Bateman.
Waiting for the winner of the Yale-Brown opener will be Harvard, favored to take its third straight Ivy title. Rollout Quarterback Jim Kubacki could be the nation's all-around yardage leader if he can get blocking from an offensive line decimated by graduation. With adequate blocking, Tommy Winn could join Harvard's alltime rushing leaders.
Dartmouth has been out of first place for two years now, and Coach Jake Crouthamel is feeling pressure from the alumni. As an assistant, Crouthamel put together championship defenses. He needs one now.
Pennsylvania will go to the air. Quarterback Bob Graustein completed 107 of 183 passes last year and twice had 22 completions in a game. Princeton has four quarterback candidates, but none has played a minute of varsity ball. Columbia won only two Ivy games but may improve. Cornell, 0-7 in league competition, won't.
Tulsa, in a class by itself, beat conference opponents last year by an average score of 42-10, the year before by 33-10. But because the 1976 Golden Hurricanes are young and still about a season away, there is a little bit of hope among the downtrodden. Tulsa will be more inclined to run than to throw, partly because graduation claimed the MVC's leading passer, Jeb Blount, and the nation's top TD receiver, Steve Largent, partly because the running backs, including speedster Rickey Watts, are the best at Tulsa since the early '50s.
With 37 lettermen returning, New Mexico State could have its first winning season since 1967. An accurate place-kicker—Skip Vernon missed only one field-goal attempt inside the 35 last year—and veteran blockers headed by two-time All-America Guard Carl Dean are the Aggies' strengths, but they lack an offensive threat.
Wichita State is relying on the strong arm of Sam Adkins, a 6'3", 214-pound senior who was the MVC's No. 2 passer and total-offense performer. West Texas State hopes that its offense, which averaged 317.5 yards a game, will be able to control the ball well enough to allow an inexperienced defense to rest. How well the Buffaloes do depends on the restored right arm of senior Quarterback Tully Blanchard. Five muscles in Blanchard's right side just under his arm were severed in an automobile accident before his sophomore year, but he seemed to be approaching full strength again last year, even though he lacked experienced receivers.
At Drake, Quarterback Jeff Martin has completed 249 passes in three years, the top figure in the country, and this season gets protection from a line that averages 6'4" and 242 pounds. Since the Bulldogs have little else going for them, Coach Jack Wallace is putting all his money on the offense. It won't pay off.
Anyone outside its area who can name all 10 members of the Mid-American Conference is a trivia nut. Even Conference Commissioner Fred Jacoby admits, "Our main problem is identity." That problem is being rectified by Miami of Ohio, a school rich in football heritage that likes to knock off the biggies and expects to win the MAC for a fourth straight time.
But Bowling Green will be in contention, and its game with Miami on Oct. 23 will demonstrate that great football isn't played only in Norman, Columbus and Tuscaloosa. BG Tailback Dave Preston, second in the nation in scoring last year, is back: so is Dan Saleet, a brilliant rusher and pass catcher, and most of a talented offensive line. Only defensive weakness, especially in the secondary, keeps BG behind Miami.
Central Michigan is third best, mostly because of Tailback Walt (Smoke) Hodges. The offensive line is weak and the defense may be, meaning Central has to worry only when it has the ball or the other team does. A plus this year is that the Chippewas don't play Miami—or Ball State, a tough opponent largely because of Art Yaroch, the league's best quarterback.
Ohio University has no proven quarterback to direct an uncertain offense. Northern Illinois has a new coach in Pat Culpepper, who is changing everything but the school colors and his own name. Toledo has lost quarterback Gene Swick, who was a big part of the offense during the last three years. Kent State lost everything except hope. Eastern Michigan's coach quit after spring practice, which isn't a hopeful sign. Western Michigan is too slow.
Secession is changing this once well-populated conference. Defending Champion Richmond has gone independent, and four other teams will withdraw after the 1976 season: William & Mary's natural rivals lie farther north and east; Davidson has been deemphasizing football; VMI does not wish to be the only Virginia school left in the SC; and East Carolina, a good-looking team, wants to follow in Richmond's steps—and go out a champion. ECU was 8-3 last fall, and the best of those Pirates are back, including Halfback Eddie Hicks, who gained 296 yards in only 24 carries, and Free Safety Jim Bolding, who led the nation in interceptions with 10.
Appalachian State, also 8-3, threatens ECU. Halfback Emmitt Hamilton and Quarterback Robby Price will again man the Mountaineers' wishbone. If State puts together a defense, it could have the conference all to itself—perhaps for years to come.
Furman and The Citadel are the other holdover members, but next year three new schools will join up—Marshall, Western Carolina and UT Chattanooga.