While pro scouts may be fretting about the dearth of high-caliber arms among Division I-A quarterbacks, the forward pass is what the just-a-notch-below division is all about. Leading the air show is, appropriately, the Big Sky Conference, which last year averaged 253.5 aerial yards per team per game and placed seven quarterbacks among the top 13 Division I-AA throwers; five of them return. Idaho's John (Deep) Friesz and Greg Wyatt of Northern Arizona will keep their respective teams at the head of this pack.
The Yankee Conference features its own gunslingers. Maine's Mike Buck and Matt DeGennaro of Connecticut threw for a combined total of 40 touchdowns last season, and with the addition of Villanova and its quarterback, Kirk Schulz, to conference play this season, the Yankee ranks will welcome another 2,000-yard thrower. After tying for the conference title with Richmond, Maine received its first-ever playoff bid, losing 31-28 to Georgia Southern in overtime in the opening round. But the Black Bears will have a tough time repeating. The title could wind up in the clutches of the newcomer, Villanova.
Even though the Colonial League does not permit its members to play postseason games, the pollsters acclaimed Holy Cross as Division I-AA's best team last season. The Shorty-to-Gordie combination and the best scoring defense in I-AA (10 points per game) produced an undefeated season for the Crusaders. Halfback Gordie Lockbaum is gone, but Shorty—5'10" Jeff Wiley, who was the division's highest-rated passer—is back, though he'll be throwing to untested targets. The Crusaders will not be challenged by anyone in the Colonial; seven starters, including linebacker Rob McGovern, return from that awesome defense.
In the Ivy League, Princeton lost one J. Garrett brother (receiver John) to graduation, but the other two are back—Jason at quarterback and Judd at halfback. With the Garretts and an experienced defense, the Tigers should take their first Ivy title in 19 years. Their biggest challenge will come from defending champ Harvard, which welcomes back three first-team all-Ivy players, running back Tony Hinz, tackle Maurice Frilot and defensive end Don Peterson.
After Ohio State fired Earle Bruce, Northern Iowa, which was surprised in the spring by coach Darrell Mudra's retirement, rolled out the red carpet for the Buckeye reject. The Panthers return 32 of 51 lettermen. The other Gateway Conference contender is Western Illinois, led by quarterback Paul Singer, who may have to do some dancing behind an inexperienced offensive line.
Marshall was the runner-up to Appalachian State in the tough Southern Conference last season and was also the national runner-up, losing the championship game to Northeast Louisiana 43-42. The two schools should battle for the league title again, though Marshall will have the edge if it can find someone to get the ball to tight end Sean Doctor and wideout Mike Barber.
National champ Northeast Louisiana won its final three games in the playoffs by a total of five points, one of the victories coming in overtime. Coach Pat Collins has lost a lot of his offense, but the defense, which surrendered an average of 31 points in the playoffs, will be more experienced and should avert the need for last-second offensive heroics. Graduate student Cyril Crutchfield returns to stick opponents at free safety.
If he stays healthy, running back Lewis Tillman of Jackson State is on track to break Walter Payton's career rushing record at the school; he needs 1,011 yards. Tillman gained 1,357 yards for the Tigers in '87, which makes him the leading returning rusher in I-AA.
As for the independents, Arkansas State is the only team in the nation that has qualified for the playoffs in each of the last four years; the Indians have done it with a potent wishbone offense. Quarterback Dwane Brown is gone, but seven other offensive starters return from the second-best rushing attack in I-AA. Erk Russell's Georgia Southern team runs the flexbone to perfection, and the two-time national champions made the playoff quarterfinals again last year. Both schools, however, suffered heavy defensive losses.