A recent SPORTS ILLUSTRATED questionnaire sent to small-college athletic departments asked for a definition of the difference between major-college football and small. Predictably enough, answers referred to the schedules, the number of scholarships, stadium sizes and variations in travel and housing. But Arnie Sgalio, Sports Information Director of Montana State University, perhaps expressed the essence. "You'd better hope that you don't have a home game the same day as hunting season opens," he said, "because even if you are undefeated and have an All-America at quarterback, you will come in second." In other words, in the land of the little college, football is just part of life in the fall.
But now the NCAA seems determined to blur the delineation between big time and small time in college football by creating yet another division. This new group, titled Division I-AA, has been slipped in between the old superpower elite level of Division I (now I-A) and the relatively low-key schools in Divisions II and III. Whether you call the new category semi-big or quasi-small, it has attracted an oddly interesting group of in-between teams.
Seven of them—Idaho and Northwestern (La.) State and five of the seven teams in the Southwestern Athletic Conference (Alcorn State, Grambling, Jackson [Miss.] State, Southern and Texas Southern)—are' moving down from the big time, while 30 more are moving up from Division II. Among the latter are such entire conferences as the Yankee, Mid-Eastern, Ohio Valley and Big Sky, plus independents Bucknell, Davidson, Lafayette, Northeastern and Portland State. Also moving up is Lehigh, which won last year's Division II championship with a punishing 33-0 win over Jacksonville (Ala.) State in the Pioneer Bowl. Division I-AA will have its own championship playoffs at the season's end, and—in a bonanza for smaller colleges—three games will be included in ABC's early-season television schedule.
The cream of this new Big Little League may well lie in the tough Southwestern conference, where Jackson State is favored for the title. But that is only because Grambling has been slapped on NCAA probation. Were that not the case, it would be a two-team race, with Grambling's power lying in its defense, led by a pair of devastating senior tackles—Bruce Radford, a 6'4", 263 pounder, and Charles Thompson, a behemoth at 6'10", 290 pounds. Jackson State's long suit is the flashy passing of senior Quarterback Tony Harris. Prairie View A&M, an SAC Division II team, will field one of the nation's meanest and quickest defensive tackles, Richard Bennett, 6'4", 258 pounds, who sprints 40 yards in 4.7 seconds, blazing time for a big man, and has been singled out by pro scouts as one of the top prospects in the country.
In the Big Sky Conference, Division I-AA's other major minor league, defending champion Boise State is considered a thin favorite to repeat. Junior Quarterback Hoskin Hogan, who threw 13 touchdown passes in last year's 9-2 season, will be back. Regarded as a possibility to soar to the top in the Big Sky is Montana State, winner of the 1976 Division II national championship. A standout for the Bobcats is Jon Borchardt, a 6'4", 255-pound tackle who is rated the league's No. 1 offensive lineman, and also has a superstar grade average of 3.38 with a major in microbiology. Northern Arizona University, with a 9-3 record last year (during which it outscored opponents 324-169), will also rank high again. Lumberjack Fullback Carl Golden was the Big Sky's leading rusher last year with 704 yards, an 81.2-yard average per game. Weber State may or may not be better than its 4-6 of 1977, but it will again feature the passing of Quarterback Morris Bledsoe, who led the league with 138 completions in 262 attempts.
Lehigh wound up with a 12-2 record in charging to the 1977 Division II title. The school may be slightly out of its league in the company of Jackson State and the best of the Big Sky crowd, but Coach John Whitehead has 28 lettermen back from his title winner, including the All-America split end, Steve Kreider. Kreider caught 72 passes for 1,567 yards and 19 touchdowns last year. The No. 1 problem for the Engineers will be replacing graduated Quarterback Mike Rieker, who connected for an impressive 31 touchdown passes.
Another powerful independent in I-AA will be Portland State, located in bustling downtown Portland, Ore. The team had a so-so 7-4 record last year but was coming on strong at season's end on the throwing arm of freshman Quarterback Neil Lomax. Lomax stands 6'3", weighs 208 pounds and may well be the best sophomore passer in the nation this year. He certainly will get plenty of opportunity to show his stuff thanks to Portland's run-and-shoot offense. In a near-miraculous performance against Montana State, Lomax completed 41 of 59 passes for six TDs and a school-record 469 yards.
South Carolina State, champion of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference in '77, is ready to find out what the top competition in Division I-AA is like by scheduling non-conference games with Alcorn State and Grambling. The Bulldogs have 13 starters returning from a squad that ran up a 9-1-1 record last year, including a 10-7 Gold Bowl win over unbeaten Winston-Salem State. South Carolina State is led by Nate Rivers, a non-passing quarterback who scored 13 touchdowns and had an impressive per-rush average of 8.5 yards.
Winston-Salem of the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association, remains in Division II but the Rams will be missing 10 starters from the team that earned second-year Coach Bill Hayes the National Black College Coach of the Year award. The most critical losses were in the offensive line, but Quarterback Kermit Blount, who led the league in total offense with 1,363 yards, returns, as does Timmy Newsome, who rushed for 908 yards and 14 touchdowns.
Along with Winston-Salem, the cream of Division II could well be the University of California at Davis. The Cal Aggies were nipped 39-30 by Lehigh in last year's semifinal championship game, but 35 of 64 lettermen are returning as the school goes for its eighth straight Far Western Conference title. The offense is led by Quarterback Mike Moroski, 6'3", 200 pounds, who completed 175 passes for 2.215 yards last year. The Aggies' defensive leader is End Casey Merrill, 6'4", 245 pounds, a top pro prospect. Coach Jim Sochor has a 63-17-2 record over eight years, for a .780 percentage, which leads all active Division II coaches. Also in the running as a Division II winner is Clarion State of the Pennsylvania Conference Western Division. After a 9-0-1 season in 1977, Coach Al Jacks has 30 lettermen back and should be strong. So should 9-2-1 North Dakota State with 27 lettermen back, including Receiver-Kicker Mike McTague, Division II's leading scorer with 97 points. Jacksonville State, which has 18 veterans, including passer Bobby Ray Green with a nifty 57.9% completion percentage, could be another contender.
In the doughty and idealistic environment of Division III, where scholarships are awarded only for need, travel to games is done mostly by bus and 190-pound tackles are still in vogue, champion Widener College of Chester, Pa. is a long way from repeating last year's performance. It has lost Fullback Chip Zawoiski. Division III's leading scorer and the ECAC's Player of the Year. Returnees include Quarterback Mark Walter and All-Conference Linebacker Wayne Pierce. The national runner-up, 11-2 Wabash College (850 students), has nine defensive and eight offensive starters returning, but it has lost little All-America Quarterback Dave Harvey. A consistent small-college winner, Wittenberg, of Springfield, Ohio, should be a minipowerhouse again. The school has had 23 consecutive winning seasons, with a cumulative record of 175-33-6. Last year's 9-1 team starred Wittenberg's alltime rushing record holder, 5'10", 170-pound Dave Merritt; he averaged 6.1 yards for 222 carries in 1977, and he is back. St. John's University in Minnesota led Division III in offense last year with a 421-yard-per-game production; graduation made some holes in that attack, but the defense led by 6'4", 220-pound Middle Guard Ernie England is one of the best in Division III football. Central College of Pella, Iowa had a 9-0 record in 1977 and welcomes back 35 lettermen. Much of the power lies in the defense, of which Junior End Earl Hammond, 6'4", 220 pounds, is the swift and slashing leader. Some of the other Division III colleges with potential for walking tall among the smallest are Hampden-Sydney College (Va.), Middlebury College (Vt.), Lawrence University (Wis.) and Carnegie-Mellon University (Pa.).
Some 130 small colleges are dual members of the NCAA and the NAIA and each must declare its postseason playoff preference by Oct. 2. In any event, the top NAIA team is odds-on to emerge from the Lone Star Conference; it has, at least, in eight of the past nine years. Defending NAIA Division I champ Abilene Christian is once again led by Quarterback John Mayes, who completed 114 passes for 2,201 yards and 15 touchdowns. Angelo State (8-2) beat Abilene early last year, before losing games to Texas A&I (the six-time national champ) and Southwest Texas State, and now, with 21 starters back, the Rams seem likely to end up in the NAIA's Champion Bowl on Dec. 16.
In NAIA Division II, two-time defending champion Westminster (Pa.) expects to extend its 20-game win streak, the longest in college football. The defense, which allowed just 138 yards a game last year, still has All-America Tackle Mark Claire. Perennial powers Cal Lutheran and tiny Linfield (Ore.), 8-1 in 1977, might be the spoilers.
Of course, if a team is going to do anything that truly gets attention, it must save it for a Saturday when the hunting season doesn't intrude: first things come first in small-college football.
Scouting reports on the Top 20 teams, the conferences, the independents and the small colleges were written by Brooks Clark, Mike DelNagro, Kent Hannon, William Oscar Johnson, Melissa Ludtke Lincoln, Bruce Newman and Ron Reid.