There is a ghoulish quality to the Southwest Conference. Southern Methodist University will be fielding a football team for the first time since it was given the NCAA's so-called death penalty, and no one knows what to expect of the Mustangs after their two-year interment. So many things have gone bump in the SWC's long night of scandal and probation that the whole conference seems to be made up of teams with scaly skin and blood-sucking tendencies. Preseason favorite Arkansas makes a good Godzilla, and the other Top 20 contender—Houston—with its flit-about, run-and-shoot offense, is perfectly cast as the Fly.
Then you have Texas A & M, the conference's King Kong—big, powerful and not so securely confined, for two years, in the NCAA's stockade for violations committed under departed coach Jackie Sherrill. New Aggie coach R.C. Slocum has a potential Heisman winner in junior running back Darren Lewis. Baylor, with its penchant for 6-5 seasons, resembles a moderately successful monster—Frankenstein's, say. The Bears break a lot of furniture and scare the peasants, but they don't do much damage in the end. Outside linebacker James Francis (page 56) may be the top player in the country at his position. Skulking along after Baylor is the Invisible Man, Texas, which disappeared from the final Top 20 six years ago and has looked like an empty suit ever since. Texas does, however, have a 6'9", 300-pound monster in defensive end Ken Hackemack. TCU's last two seasons started out with promise, then turned nightmarish. Coach Jim Wacker has shelved the veer for a run-and-shoot system called the triple shoot, which incorporates some options and more passing.
Much of Texas Tech's protoplasm will be tied up in John (Dumptruck) Runnels, a 6'2" guard who tips the scales at around 305. Quarterback Billy Joe Tolliver will be sorely missed. Rice, of course, is the Mummy of the SWC. The Owls haven't seen the light of a winning season since 1963, but new coach Fred Goldsmith has hopes for a new one-back, pass-oriented attack. SMU's zombies will probably occupy the conference cellar. With only 41 scholarship players, all but 17 of them freshmen, and only two pre-probation players, the Mustangs are practically a club team.
The Big Eight may replace the Southwest Conference as college football's Cheshire cat—nothing visible but the smile. Oklahoma cannot appear on TV this year or in a bowl this season or next. Oklahoma State's sentence is two years off the tube and three years of no bowls. At the other end of the league there are Kansas State and Kansas, which attract fewer viewers than a test pattern. That leaves Top 20 teams Nebraska and Colorado to redeem the league's reputation, with Iowa State and Missouri lending moral support.
Kansas State's never-ending woes are covered elsewhere in this issue (page 82), but let's make it official: There will be another last-place finish for the Wildcats. Last year at Kansas, 21 players quit the team, which went 1-10 in Glen Mason's first season as coach. Kansas has stopped leaking players, but the reservoir is still well below the high-water mark. Iowa State coach Jim Walden's stated goal is to win six games behind senior quarterback Bret Oberg and running back Blaise Bryant, who led the nation's junior colleges in rushing last year at Golden West College. At Missouri, new coach Bob Stull junked the Tigers' wishbone for a multiple-set passing offense. Oklahoma State, having lost Heisman Trophy winner Barry Sanders, receiver Hart Lee Dykes and the entire offensive line, could be forgiven for falling back into the pack. But the Cowboys, led by unsung Mike Gundy, may spring a surprise.
In five of the last eight years, ACC has stood for Another Clemson Championship. This season the Atlantic Coast Conference could be different; North Carolina State, which has beaten Clemson in their last three meetings, joins the Tigers in the Top 20 and appears ready to take the conference title. Virginia will get a lot of attention, if only because the Cavaliers signed the nation's most heralded schoolboy running back, Terry Kirby, from Tabb (Va.) High. Duke had the most productive offense in the conference last season, but quarterback Anthony Dilweg, the 1988 ACC Player of the Year, is gone, leaving to an Alabama transfer, Billy Ray, the task of finding wide receiver Clarkston Hines downfield.
Maryland quarterback Neil O'Donnell, who has the most accurate arm in Terrapin history (61.1% completion rate), will have to be as precise this season, because the Terps face three Top 20 opponents in their first four games. Wake Forest's problem is finding a replacement for alltime school passing leader Mike Elkins. Bobby Ross, who once guided Maryland to 18 straight ACC victories, has yet to win a single league game in two seasons at Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets have Jerry Mays at tailback but a tougher schedule than last year, when they finished 3-8. North Carolina finished 1-10 in '88, its worst record ever, and if that wasn't enough. Kennard Martin, the ACC's leading rusher last season, was declared academically ineligible for '89.
While the Traditional Two. Michigan and Ohio State, resume their sovereignty over the Big Ten, another tradition is building at Indiana—winning. The Hoosiers' string of three consecutive nonlosing seasons is their longest since 1947, and there could be an even more amazing reason to cheer in Bloomington: a Heisman Trophy. Tailback Anthony Thompson, third nationally in rushing last season with 1,686 yards, is a leading candidate. The best player in the conference might be Michigan State linebacker Percy Snow, the leader of a defense that allowed only 112.8 yards rushing per game. After a disappointing 6-4-3 record in '88, Iowa tore out the artificial turf at Nile Kinnick Stadium to make way for real grass. The greening of the Hawkeyes will continue with new starting quarterback Tom Poholsky. Illinois could be even better than last year's 6-5-1 All American Bowl squad; the Illini play all their toughest conference games-Michigan, Ohio State and Indiana—at home.
Being known as the other Thompson is the plight of Minnesota tailback Darrell. Slowed by injuries that prevented him from keeping pace with Indiana's Anthony, Darrell nevertheless rushed for 910 yards to run his three-year total to 3,379, a Gopher record. If he is in top form, Minnesota could surprise. And speaking of surprises: Northwestern has not finished in the basement in six of the last seven seasons. The Wildcats have talented receivers, but they need a quarterback. After plummeting to a 1-10 record, Wisconsin hopes to revive an offense that scored only 11 touchdowns, the fewest in Division I-A. Purdue will not be able to avoid its fifth straight losing season; the worst offense in the league (243.5 yards per game) won't be much better this season.
There are three Southeastern Conference teams in the Top 20, and if Kentucky takes advantage of its gentle schedule, there could be a fourth. Most of the talent is back this season, including huge (6'7", 305 pounds) offensive tackle Mike Pfeifer and linebacker Randy Holleran. The biggest change at Georgia is on the sideline, where the Bulldogs have a new coach for the first time in a quarter century; Vince Dooley has retired. Under new coach Ray Goff. Georgia will be passing more often. With Dooley's retirement, Tennessee's Johnny Majors, after 12 years in Knoxville, becomes the dean of SEC football coaches. Last fall the Vols started out 0-6, then won their last five games. Running back Reggie Cobb, who was injured much of last year, is at full strength and. presumably, chastened after a five-month suspension for disciplinary reasons.
Florida's season was a reverse image of Tennessee's. After filling up on cream puffs for a 5-0 record, Florida floundered in the second half to finish 7-5. Injuries took a toll: Tailback Emmitt Smith missed two games but still rushed for 988 yards, and wideout Stacey Simmons suffered a season-ending knee injury in the fifth game. Simmons is still questionable, and seven defensive starters will have to be replaced. Mississippi saved its season with a 22-12 win over Alabama in Bryant-Denny Stadium, the Rebels' first victory there. This fall the defense, led by free safety Todd Sandroni (seven interceptions), will keep most games close. Mississippi State was 1-10, and, with 19 starters back, Rockey Felker will try again with virtually the same team. At Vanderbilt, Watson Brown decided to shore up the defense by moving two offensive starters, fullback Andy McCarroll and tailback Brad Gaines, to linebacker and free safety, respectively.
With USC and UCLA sitting high in the Top 20, the rest of the Pac-10 shapes up as a six-pack plus two empties. Washington will use a one-back, quick passing attack, and if the offense clicks and the defensive line improves against the run. Washington could challenge the L.A. Two. Arizona suffered a setback when inside linebacker Kevin Singleton was diagnosed as having leukemia. Last year Singleton shared the team lead in tackles with his identical twin, Chris, an all—Pac-10 outside linebacker. Oregon quarterback Bill Musgrave nudged the Ducks into brief Top 20 appearances the last two seasons, only to be injured and have to watch as the team stumbled. Musgrave is indispensable, as is tailback Derek Loville (1,202 yards and 13 touchdowns in 1988).
New Stanford coach Dennis Green has 5'7" fullback Jon Volpe (1,027 yards in 1988), an experienced receiving corps and a redshirt freshman quarterback, Steve Smith, to run his pro-set offense. Washington State has some of the top talent in the league but also leads the conference in troublemakers. Tailback Steve Broussard was convicted of fourth-degree assault; his backup. Rich Swinton, was charged with third-degree rape and convicted of "improperly touching a woman"; and receiver Tim Stallworth served a six-month jail term for a second offense of driving with a suspended license. All has been forgiven: The three stars will be in uniform for the Cougars. Quarterback Brad Gossen's only crime is that he is not Timm Rosenbach, who left for the NFL.
Arizona State has linebacker Mark Tingstad, the leading tackier (172) in the Pac-10 last year, and California's Troy Taylor may well be the best quarterback in the league. Oregon State will play eight games on the road, sparing Beaver backers from having to witness most of what promises to be another long season.
As usual, nearly everyone has a shot at the title in the Mid-America Conference. Since 1978, eight different schools have won the title. Central Michigan is the favorite this time around. The entire Chippewa backfield returns, including tailback Donnie Riley, who streaked for 1,238 yards in 1988. If the Chips are down, look for Ball State to reach the top. Coach Paul Schudel preaches defense, and his favorite weapon is linebacker Greg Garnica. The main reason Western Michigan won't win the title this year, of course, is that it won last year. The other reason is that quarterback Tony Kimbrough, the league's Most Valuable Player in '88, has departed.
Eastern Michigan lost all its receivers, but its defense, with eight starters back, will keep the Hurons in the hunt. Ohio would appear to be due: It hasn't won the title since 1968, and all 11 defensive starters are back, including the nation's leading returning tackier (with 177), linebacker David Terry. The situation at Bowling Green became rather blue last season when quarterback Rich Dackin missed the last six games with a broken wrist. Dackin is back, along with All-MAC receiver Reggie Thornton. Toledo made a late-season run at the top by winning five of its last six games, but junior quarterback Mark Melfi will have to do better than he did in '88 when he threw more interceptions (seven) than touchdowns (five).
With the graduation of the league's top rusher, Eric Wilkerson, Kent State is considering moving last year's quarterback, Patrick Young, to running back. That would leave a hole at quarterback—and that's only the start of the Golden Flashes' problems. Miami of Ohio suffered through its worst season ever (0-10-1) in '88; the Redskins can only get better.
The Big West should change its name to the Big Easy. Last year only champion Fresno State had a winning record, and the seven other schools lost 28 of 30 nonconference games. This year won't be any different. At Fresno, linebacker Ron Cox and guard Jeff Skidmore are the heavy hitters. San Jose State tailback Johnny Johnson, the first player in NCAA history to rush for 1,200 yards and catch 60 passes (1,219 yards and 61 receptions) in the same season, returns, as do safeties Ryan Rasnick and Hesh Colar. Cal State-Fullerton has talent in quarterback Dan Speltz and receiver Rocky Palamara, and at Long Beach State, Paul Oates, a minor league pitcher, will be throwing to quality wideouts Derek Washington and Kelly Ryan.
UNLV's best player is likely to be punter Tony Rhynes. Pacific alum Walt Harris took over at his alma mater last spring and signed five new quarterbacks to run his pro-set offense. Utah State must replace the aerial act of quarterback Brent Snyder and receiver Kendal Smith, which does not bode well for an offense that was the worst in the country at running the ball (1.9 yards a carry, less than 50 yards a game). Placekicker Dat Ly walked on at New Mexico State and last year kicked a school-record 17 field goals, including 11 straight. This year he'll be looking for more opportunities to kick PATs.
Utah quarterback Scott Mitchell set an NCAA single-game record for passing yardage when he passed for 631 yards against Air Force, but the Utes lost 56-49. So it goes in the wide-open Western Athletic Conference. Brigham Young should win the WAC, with a defense led by linebacker Bob Davis and an attack directed by quarterback Sean Covey—if he can stay healthy. At Hawaii, the Rainbow defense will have to carry the offense early in the year because Hawaii will be testing new starting quarterback Garrett Gabriel and rebuilding its offensive line.
Wyoming has gnatback Dabby Dawson, a 5'9" senior who ran for 1.119 yards and 7.4 yards a carry in 1988. Utah led the nation in offense last year and finished 98th (of 104 teams) in defense. Mitchell, the individual offensive leader with 4,299 yards, will operate behind a veteran line. Air Force will ask quarterback Dee Dowis, who rushed for 2,287 yards the last two seasons, to throw the ball more often.
UTEP, San Diego State and Colorado State all have new coaches. In 1988 the Miners won 10 games for the first time ever, after which coach Bob Stull left for Missouri. His successor, David Lee, will be hard-pressed to duplicate that achievement, as he inherited no offense. San Diego State's Al Luginbill, a defensive specialist, will have a chance to show what he can do with the WAC's best offensive talent, including quarterback Dan McGwire, a transfer from Iowa. Colorado State coach Earle Bruce hardly seems WAC material: His resume from four schools shows more of an emphasis on the run. It also shows that he knows how to win (132-66-1), something the Rams, with two victories in the past two seasons, need to learn. New Mexico has a fine quarterback in Jeremy Leach, who showed—on the rare occasions the Lobo offense was on the field—that he could get the ball to his receivers. Now if only New Mexico's defense can get the ball to Leach.