Changes in the pecking order within the major conferences once tended to be glacial. Which means that millions grew up believing that, in an uncertain world, Michigan and Ohio State could be counted on to rule the Big Ten, Alabama would reign supreme over the Southeastern Conference, Texas would dominate the Southwest Conference, and BYU would win in the Western Athletic Conference.
Alas, these verities have fallen by the wayside. Many of the old powers are having trouble trying to stay even, much less dominate. Alabama, for example, hasn't won the SEC title since 1981, when it tied with Georgia, and in the last four years, four different schools—Auburn, LSU, Tennessee and Florida—have held it. In the Big Ten, five different schools have won or shared the championship over the last five years—Michigan State, Michigan, Ohio State, Iowa and Illinois. Yes, Illinois. Texas, which took six SWC titles outright and had a piece of two others from 1968 to '77, has won the conference but once over the last decade. Usurpers have included Texas A & M, Houston, Arkansas, SMU and Baylor. Yes, Baylor. And last year, Wyoming was the WAC champ, not BYU.
The best bet among the nine I-A conferences is that Texas A & M will repeat in the rough-and-tumble SOUTHWEST CONFERENCE—although a rejuvenated Texas could spoil the Cotton Bowl party in College Station (see The Top 20, page 84). And Arkansas may have some of the best individual talent in the SWC. In the last two NFL pro drafts, just two Razorbacks were selected; this year eight should be chosen. "When I came here," says coach Ken Hatfield, who arrived in Fayetteville in December 1983, "I wanted to be able to look Texas A & M and Texas squarely in the eye. I think we are there." Tailback James Rouse and fullback Barry Foster are particular Razorback stars, and they both like the new, leaner cut of offensive lineman Freddie Childress. The Big Chill peaked at 358 pounds last season, but this year's version weighs a tidy 320.
Every other school in the SWC is out in the cold. Houston, typically very good or very bad, could surprise and finish fourth, thanks primarily to the return of almost its entire offense, including three quarterbacks who each passed for more than 350 yards in at least one game last year. TCU returns free safety Falanda Newton, who will anchor the Horned Frogs' best defense in two decades, but the offense has so many backfield holes to fill that Scott Ankrom, who started at quarterback during parts of the last three seasons, will have to do time at tailback and wide receiver as well. Texas Tech may have the deepest backfield in the league, but the Red Raiders will again be inconsistent—they beat the Aggies last year 27-21 and lost to Arkansas 31-0 a week later. Except at safety, where Robert Blackmon and Mike Welch are potential All-Americans Baylor lacks top talent. Rice will celebrate moral victories, and SMU won't be eligible for work release for another year.
Perhaps the most fun of all will be had in the BIG TEN, where Iowa, Michigan State and Michigan are all Top 20 picks. A tick behind is Indiana, where Bill Mallory has done a masterly job. Four years ago the Hoosiers were 0-11; last year they beat Michigan and Ohio State in the same season for the first time ever and played Michigan State for the conference title, losing 27-3 in an 8-4 year. Indiana should be just as good again, if not better; quarterback Dave Schnell returns with six of his friends on the offensive line, including guards Tim Radtke and Don Shrader, who will be occupying their posts for the fourth consecutive season. Also returning is junior tailback Anthony Thompson, who gained 1,256 all-purpose yards last season.
Nobody else in the Big Ten has a chance to challenge for the top this year—though others will soon cash in on the Age of Parity. Ohio State's new coach, John Cooper, who was unimpressed with the team's physical strength when he arrived in Columbus last winter, will have a rough time in the early going; the Buckeyes could be 0-3 after games with Syracuse, Pitt and LSU. Gone are quarterback-punter Tom Tupa and savage linebacker Chris Spielman, but the entire offensive line, including mammoth tackles Joe Staysniak and Tim Moxley, returns intact. Under the new man they'll have to learn to do more than just block straight ahead. Give Cooper a year. On the other hand there is Purdue, where offensive linemen are becoming an endangered species. But coach Fred Akers recruited well this winter, so look for the Boilermakers to blossom in the next two years.
Minnesota seems unable to get beyond 6-5 (its record the last three years) and in spite of the presence of Darrell Thompson, the best running back in the conference, won't this time, either. Coach Don Morton hopes more drop-back passing will perk up punchless Wisconsin, but he does have most of his defense back. Jeff George will finally be playing quarterback at Illinois after transferring out of Purdue and making noises about going to Miami, but new coach John Mackovic faces a huge task in rebuilding the Illini. Northwestern has now beaten Illinois, its downstate rival, two years in a row, which says a lot more about the Illini than it does about the Wildcats. But be fair. The Cats won the league in 1936.
Out in the PAC-10, UCLA and USC are the big names, but many otherwise keen observers don't seem to realize how often Washington has lurked in the shadows. In fact, the Huskies have won the title three times since 1977 and have finished second six times. When Washington scores its third victory this fall, Don James will become the winningest coach in Pac-10 history, with 71 triumphs, surpassing the record of USC's John McKay from 1960 to '75. The Huskies are the sole team in the conference without a returning starting quarterback, and James's wide receivers are mostly unproven. But junior Cary Conklin, a classic pro-style passer like Chris Chandler, his predecessor, is highly regarded.
Arizona could make a run for the Rose Bowl, as well, thanks to the schedule-makers: Six of the Wildcats' conference games, including the one with Arizona State, are at home. Last fall coach Dick Tomey taught the Wildcats his "wish and shoot" offense, a wishbone-run-and-shoot hybrid, and though Arizona went 4-4-3, the team was just eight points from 9-2. Only five significant offensive contributors are gone, and returning quarterback Ron Veal will trigger the Veal-bone with meaty help from running back Art Greathouse and flanker Derek Hill. Even Oregon, which for a couple of giddy weeks last season cracked the Top 20, will be a presence in the Pac-10 and, no joke, could easily go bowling for the first time in 25 years. Quarterback Bill Musgrave and running backs Derek Loville and Latin Berry fall into the players-you-may-not-know-but-should category.
Cal will see some light because of quarterback Troy Taylor, noseguard Majett Whiteside and linebacker David Ortega, a second-team all-Pac-10 last season as a sophomore. Elsewhere, there is darkness: Arizona State lost six first-team all-conference players, and returning quarterback Daniel Ford threw more interceptions than touchdown passes last season; Stanford is dabbling with the run-and-shoot—a clear message that the offensive line is in woeful shape; Washington State has some fine offensive talent in quarterback Timm Rosenbach, running back Steve Broussard and tackle Mike Utley but expects defensive difficulties; and Oregon State, well, it's still in the league.
The SOUTHEASTERN CONFERENCE has LSU, Georgia, Auburn and Tennessee in the Top 20, and two more teams—Florida and Alabama—could end up there. Overall, the SEC looks like king of the hill this season. Florida, which for the last five years has played one of the five toughest schedules in the land, faces a mere four Top 20 teams this fall—the Gators played seven last season—and two of the tough games are on the road, compared with six in '87. Coach Galen Hall, miffed at last year's 6-6, replaced five of his assistants, presumably because he chose not to replace himself. With a less experienced offensive line, tailback Emmitt Smith may find it hard to improve upon his golden freshman season, but the biggest problem in Gainesville is finding a quarterback to replace Kerwin Bell. In Tuscaloosa, David Smith has won the quarterback battle against two seasoned contenders, but Alabama coach Bill Curry has other holes to fill. Still, counting out the tradition-rich and invariably talent-laden Tide is nonsense. Senior tailback Bobby Humphrey, who leads the nation in career rushing among active players (3,228 yards), is back, but he is recovering from a broken jaw and a broken foot. Also returning is All-America linebacker Derrick Thomas, who had 18 sacks for 142 yards in losses last season.
With Mark Higgs gone, Kentucky is worried about its weak ground game and lack of experience on offensive line, and so it is experimenting with four-wideout sets. Tight end Charlie Darrington is one of the best in the conference. Quarterback Eric Jones, a magician at running the option, returns for Vanderbilt, but he lacks buddies. Mississippi State tailback David Fair, who was leading the conference in rushing last year with 8.4 yards per carry when he injured his left knee, is back and healthy, though he, too, lacks a supporting cast, Ole Miss hopes seven returning defensive starters can keep scores respectable, which is not to be confused with winning a lot of games.
The BIG EIGHT is the one conference in which the times are not a-changin'. It's Oklahoma and Nebraska in a zone of their own, Oklahoma State playing respectably and the Five Bumpkins coming along behind. The last time either the Sooners or the Huskers failed to win or share the title with the other was in 1976, when Oklahoma got itself tied by Colorado and Oklahoma State. But both Oklahoma and Nebraska endure certain humiliations—the Sooners can't beat Miami (they're 0-3 since 1985), and the Huskers can't beat the Sooners (they're 4-12 since Tom Osborne became Nebraska coach).
The Big Eight simply isn't what it once was. Last April, for example, more than 32,000 fans packed one side of the University of Kansas's Memorial Stadium to honor the Jayhawks' national championship basketball team. A few weeks later, the spring football game drew 250. At Missouri, home attendance averaged 69,867 in 1979; last year it was 39,524. The one glimmer of hope among the forlorn five is at Colorado, where Bill McCartney has broadened his wishbone offense—born three years ago out of desperation to do something, anything, to win—to include some I formation. But three backs—including quarterback Sal Aunese—have been involved in some kind of off-field trouble since the '87 season ended, and the results have been suspensions and a diversion of attention from football. Missouri looks much better than it did at this time last year, which, given its recent past, is easy to do. Serious expectations are invested in quarterback John Stollenwerck, an SMU transfer who idolizes General George Patton and can recite practically every Patton line from the George C. Scott movie. The Tigers hope that Stollenwerck can also throw spirals in a timely fashion and in appropriate directions.
The rest of the conference has applied for disaster relief. At Iowa State, Jim Walden is brutally honest about his team's chances: "We don't have the strength in numbers and quality to be a team that will win more than three to five games." Last year the Cyclones won three and fans were delirious. Fullback Joe Henderson, the third-leading rusher in the conference, with 1,232 yards, must wonder how he would fare behind, say, Nebraska's front wall. Kansas State is now winless in 16 straight games. Redshirt freshman signal caller Paul Watson, who has a very quick release—essential for a Wildcat quarterback—actually said no thanks to Florida State after the Seminoles recruited him; he had passed for 52 touchdowns in his high school career. At Kansas, which hasn't won a conference game in two years, 66 players showed up for spring practice. So, having nothing else, new coach Glen Mason announced a get-tough policy.
The WESTERN ATHLETIC CONFERENCE has more garden spots than any other—San Diego; Fort Collins, Colo.; Colorado Springs; Honolulu; Albuquerque; and Provo, Utah—but fewer good teams than any other conference. All the clout used to belong to BYU, which won seven straight titles from 1978 to '84. Then, in '85, the Air Force Academy broke the string by sharing the crown with the Cougars. In '86, San Diego State won it outright, and last season Wyoming did. BYU finished second both years. "We are going to be tough this year," says senior BYU cornerback Rodney Rice. "You can tell everybody that." It does look as if the Cougars will be back, with academic all-conference quarterback Sean Covey (217 passes, 132 completions last year) apparently ready to provide the edge the legendary BYU quarterbacks traditionally have. Covey had better be able to keep some long drives going, because the defense has depth problems.
Runner-up this fall could be surprising UTEP, once the punch line to many college football jokes. After 16 seasons of losing, the Miners went 7-4 last fall, and the momentum should continue. In fact, UTEP was beating BYU by 14 points last Nov. 14 and heading for the conference title when quarterback Pat Hegarty's jaw was broken. He's O.K. again, and tailback John Harvey (1,170 yards, an average of five per carry) also returns to provide plenty of offensive spark for the Miners. The Air Force will be fine—even minus Outland Trophy winner Chad Hennings—simply because the Falcons always try harder than anyone else in the conference, albeit with limited physical weapons. Option quarterback Dee Dowis, who gained 1,315 yards rushing and scored 10 touchdowns as a sophomore last year, is the most exciting player in the WAC.
San Diego State probably has the best overall talent, including Paul Hewitt, a senior running back who was the nation's leading scorer in '87 with 24 touchdowns. The question is whether coach Denny Stolz can keep the Aztecs disciplined and bring out their best. If the season gets off well, they could challenge. Wyoming is heading for a sharp drop-off in the wake of the departure of nearly every offensive player who threw, caught or ran with the ball in last fall's championship drive. Colorado State. 1-11 last year, has to cut down on turnovers (35 in '87) to improve. Hawaii will have a tough time scoring, but its opponents won't. And at New Mexico, after the season ended, it was discovered that Terance Mathis, who caught 73 passes and played in every game, had been academically ineligible. So New Mexico was faced with having to forfeit its entire season. But the Lobos outfoxed the NCAA—they had already lost all 11 games. Mathis has since packed up his GPA for Coffeyville C.C. in Kansas.
There's a lot of shifting of the order in the ATLANTIC COAST CONFERENCE, too. While Clemson will hang on to its Top 20 ticket, there are a flock of surprises. For openers, the likely runner-up is Virginia, which has its best team in three decades. The Cavaliers roster reads like a celebrity register—sons of Bob Griese and Vince Dooley and Jesse Jackson are in Charlottesville. But the biggest football VIP is senior wideout John Ford—no relation to anybody famous—who caught 48 passes last year. He also scored six touchdowns, which averaged a whopping 37.7 yards each.
North Carolina is far more exciting under coach Mack Brown, but with its first four games against South Carolina, Oklahoma, Louisville and Auburn, a good Tar Heel team could easily start 0-4. Twenty-five miles down the road, North Carolina State returns four fine receivers, including senior captain Nasrallah Worthen, who redshirted last season and should score some points. But the defense is weak, even counting linebacker Scott Auer and cornerback Joe Johnson, who started last season as a redshirt freshman. Wake Forest went 7-4, its second-best record in 43 years, and should do well this trip, thanks largely to quarterback Mike Elkins, one of the best in the country. Maryland has a terrible running game (its longest run from scrimmage last year was 18 yards) and an average kicking game. At Georgia Tech, Bobby Ross keeps talking about long-term quality recruits, which means he's preparing fans for another lousy year. Duke continues as everybody's favorite homecoming opponent.
The Pacific Coast Athletic Association has changed its name to the BIG WEST CONFERENCE and is likely to celebrate the new name with a new champ—Utah State, a team that hasn't had a winning season since 1980. But the Aggies won five of their last six games last fall to finish tied for second in the conference, thanks to the Brent Snyder-to-Kendal Smith passing combination; both players return. Conversely, San Jose State, 19-3 over the last two years, is another in the growing list of old powers suddenly facing upstarts. Last year's star quarterback, Mike Perez, was drafted by the New York Giants, but with 33 junior college transfers, the Spartans won't come up empty. In an offense-minded conference, Fresno State has the league's best defense, led by Tracy Rogers, a potential All-America at linebacker. Cal State-Fullerton and Pacific have big offensive woes, while Long Beach State fears for its defense, which gave up an average of 211.5 yards rushing per game. And nobody is smiling much around New Mexico State and UNLV
In the MID-AMERICAN CONFERENCE, all signs point to a title for Kent State under new coach Dick Crum, fired at North Carolina for averaging a measly 7.2 wins per season over 10 years. Should Kent State, behind senior tailback Eric Wilkerson, win, it will be the Golden Flashes' first crown in 16 years. And speaking of old powers on the fritz—Miami of Ohio used to thrash everyone—Kent State would be the eighth school to win the title over the last 11 years.
Eastern Michigan has improved in each of the last five years, up to 9-2, but won't do as well this fall. The defense is experienced, but while last year's starting receivers are back, quarterback Tom Sullivan threw all of four passes. Bowling Green will be plagued by a shortage of defensive linemen, but first-rate coach Moe Ankney should avoid a thoroughly disastrous year. Western Michigan has some grounds for optimism with the return of wide receiver Jamie Hence, who led the MAC in '87 with 50 receptions for 858 yards. Ball State, Toledo and Central Michigan harbor modest hopes while Ohio and—improbably—Miami dream only of avoiding humiliation.