The smaller fry of college football may not get the headlines, but with postseason playoffs in the NCAA's divisions I-AA, II and III, at least there's never an argument over who's No. 1.
Division I-AA, now in its second year as a sort of limbo for teams that are neither "major" nor "minor," has four playoff spots for its 38 member schools. Florida A&M won the I-AA title in 1978, beating Massachusetts 35-28 in the Pioneer Bowl in Wichita Falls, Texas. Coach Rudy Hubbard is in his sixth season at A&M, where he has achieved a 44-11-2 record, including victories in 24 of the Rattlers' last 25 games. He will be hard pressed to keep up that pace in 1979. A&M has lost 12 starters, including Quarterback Albert Chester and Tailback Ike Williams, and must take on a schedule that includes Rhode Island and Division I-A Miami.
Massachusetts, which is missing 15 starters from '78, will also fall off the 8-3, 9-4 pace it has set in the past two seasons. Still, Quarterback Mike McEvilly, a lefty who is also an All-New England outfielder, is back and could keep the Minutemen in contention for the Yankee Conference championship.
While both of the 1978 Division I-AA finalists are having off years, Nevada-Reno, which lost to Massachusetts in the semifinal round, should go all the way, bringing the I-AA title to the Big Sky in its first season as a member of that conference. Coach of the Year Chris Ault has nine holdover starters on offense, including All-America Fullback Frank Hawkins, who led the I-AA in rushing (1,445 yards), scoring (102 points) and all-purpose running (1,656 yards); Quarterback Larry Worman, who completed 122 of 213 passes for 1,702 yards; and All-America Receiver Jeff Wright. The Wolf Pack offense will also get a kick out of the return of Fernando Serrano, who booted 13 field goals to lead the division. However, Nevada-Reno will have to regroup on defense, where it lost seven starters, and come up with a punter to replace Nick Pavich, who led all I-AA teams last season with a 41.3-yard average. Pavich left school to go into real estate.
Coming off probation after a 9-1-1 year, Grambling will also be a playoff contender. Linebackers Aldrich Allen and Guy Prather anchor a defense that gave up an average of only 10.9 points in 1978. The mainstay of the offense, which scored 22.4 points a game, is junior Running Back Robert Parham.
Fourteen starters are on hand at South Carolina State to welcome new Coach Bill Davis. Last year the Bulldogs were 8-2-1 and won the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference for the fifth straight year. State's offense is keyed to senior Quarterback Nate Rivers, who ran and passed for a total of 1,084 yards and scored 14 touchdowns.
Western Kentucky, the reigning Ohio Valley Conference champ, is another strong playoff contender. The Hilltoppers are coming off an 8-2 season in fine shape; eight defensive starters, including Cornerback Carl Brazley, have returned, as well as nine offensive stalwarts, among them Quarterback John Hall and Split End Eddie Preston.
Having lost Tackle Robert Hardy and Running Back Jeffrey Moore to the Seattle Seahawks, Jackson State will be down. But not out—at least as long as hometown lad Perry Harrington stays fit. A running back, Harrington scored 10 of his 14 touchdowns last year from outside the 20-yard line. Pro scouts have clocked Harrington in 4.4 for the 40-yard dash.
For offensive fireworks, look to Portland State, whose quarterback, Neil Lomax, squeezes the trigger in a "Run and Shoot" offense that averaged 477.4 yards. While the Vikings were winning only five of 11 games in '78, Lomax set NCAA records in passing (241 completions in 436 attempts for 3,506 yards) and total offense (3,524 yards). Just to make things clear, those are single-season marks; Lomax' career total is 5,176 yards gained. He is only a junior, but at the rate he's going Lomax could break the career record of 8,521 yards held by Jim Lindsey of Abilene Christian. Just how wild is this offense? Well, Joe Sigel is the Vikings'—and Division I-AA's—top returning receiver, and he is Portland State's fullback.
Eight teams qualify for the Division II playoffs, with each of the four NCAA regions having at least one representative. Two years ago Eastern Illinois was 1-10. Last season, Coach Darrell Mudra's first, the Panthers went 9-2 in the regular season and beat UC-Davis, Youngstown State and Delaware in the playoffs to win the division title. With all but four starters back, Eastern Illinois is a heavy favorite to repeat. Among the returnees is Steve Turk, who led the division in passing by completing 160 of 294 for 2,423 yards; Chris (Poke) Cobb, who is the division's fourth-ranked returning rusher with 1,330 yards; and James Warring, who is the second-ranked holdover receiver. He had 59 catches for 980 yards and 14 TDs.
Runner-up Delaware—the winningest Division II team over the last 10 years—has lost 13 starters, most notably All-America Quarterback Jeff Komlo and Receiver Pete Ravettine. However, Running Back Lou Mariani is back, and he has All-America Tackle Herb Beck to clear the way for him. The Blue Hens led Division II in only one statistical category, but it is enough to ensure the continued health of the program: Delaware was tops in average home attendance, with 19,009 fans a game.
Winston-Salem, which lost to Delaware 41-0 in the semifinals, will rely again on Running Back Timmy New-some. A straight-up rusher with long, fluid strides, Newsome gained 1,377 yards on 183 carries and scored 14 TDs in 1978. Youngstown State still has a potent combination from its semifinalist team in Quarterback Keith Snoddy and All-America Receiver Jim Ferranti.
UC-Davis has won eight straight Far Western Conference titles and has not lost a league game in 28 outings. The Cal Aggies will have to make up for the loss of Quarterback Mike Moroski and Defensive End Casey Merrill to the pros, but they are expected to win another playoff berth. So is Cal Poly at San Luis Obispo, which has Louis Jackson, the division's third-best returning rusher, with 1,131 yards in '78.
East Stroudsburg State, usually a small-college power, faces a rebuilding year, though Barry Kennedy returns to the Warrior backfield. Kennedy passed for four touchdowns in Stroudsburg's 49-4 win over Clarion State in the Pennsylvania Conference championship game. Clarion has the division's longest streak of winning seasons, 15, all of them coming under Coach Al Jacks. The Golden Eagles again will be strong contenders for the playoffs, along with Bethune-Cookman and Jacksonville (Ala.) State. Nebraska-Omaha, which is coming off an 8-3 season that earned the Mavericks their first postseason berth, is likely to win the North Central Conference and another playoff spot.
In his 22nd season as head coach at Baldwin-Wallace, Lee Tressel faces a manpower shortage. Last season his Yellow Jackets beat Ohio Athletic Conference rival Wittenberg 24-10 in the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl to win the Division HI championship, but 10 all-conference players, including All-America Tackle Paul Petrella, have departed. Wittenberg has 34 lettermen back but will feel the loss of All-America Tailback Dave Merritt and Fullback Steve Fuller.
Ithaca (N.Y.) College, which lost a semifinal Division III game to Wittenberg, 6-3, has the championship in its sights this season. With 17 of last year's starters still around, the Bombers also will be taking dead aim on an unprecedented third Lambert Bowl in six years. Ithaca should get a good idea of whether it will achieve either of these lofty goals on Sept. 15 when it plays St. Lawrence, a team that was in the playoffs last season.
The 100th birthday of Widener College football should be a happy one, with a third straight Southern Division championship in the Middle Atlantic Conference providing the icing on the cake. Franklin and Marshall—7-2 in '78—should also continue its winning ways, while Carnegie-Mellon is likely to repeat as the Presidents' Conference champion.
In 1978, for the ninth time in 10 years, the champion of the Lone Star Conference went on to win the NAIA Division I championship. This time it was Angelo (Texas) State that turned the trick, beating Elon (N.C.) College 34-14 in the Palm Bowl. Because many of the starters that helped Angelo win a collegiate-record 14 games in one season are gone, this season's Lone Star co-favorites are Texas A&I and Abilene Christian. After slumping to 6-5 a year ago, A&I is solid once more, especially at running back, where Rocky Smith and Robert Poole star. Abilene Christian's strength is John Mayes, the NAIA's top passer in 1978, who completed 164 of 317 for 2,535 yards and 14 TDs.
Elon's entire starting backfield—including NAIA All-America Tailback Bobby Hedrick—is back, as is the defensive secondary, led by Free Safety Bryan Burney, who had—and this ain't no typo, folks—12 interceptions a year ago. The Fighting Christians figure to repeat as South Atlantic Conference champs and return to the Palm Bowl on Dec. 15 in McAllen, Texas.
Colorado's Western State, which lost to Angelo State in the semifinals, is gunning for its seventh straight Rocky Mountain Conference title. Quarterback Charlie Thompson is such a talented scrambler that he could get Western back into the playoffs as well.
Grand Valley State of Michigan lost to Elon, 13-7, in a muddy semifinal game, but the Lakers should get another crack at the Fighting Christians this year—perhaps in the finals. Grand Valley has 16 starters and 41 lettermen back from its 9-3 team, including standout offensive Tackle Ron Essink and defensive tackles Hubert Massey and Mark Szczytko.
Oklahoma's Central State is a dark horse that could gallop into the Palm Bowl thanks to Steve Tate and Clifford Chatman, a pair of outstanding backs.
Scouting reports on the Top 20 teams were written by Mike DelNagro, the roundups of the conferences were all done by Kathy Blumenstock, and Brooks Clark wrote the reports on the independents and small colleges.