The smiling face on the left belongs to none other than Red Grange, a man whose name has been in apposition to autumn and football ever since that day in October 1924 when Red, an unknown sophomore halfback for Illinois, scored four breathtaking touchdown runs in the first 12 minutes against Michigan. This year SPORTS ILLUSTRATED is particularly honored to have Red Grange join its football staff and, as one of his first contributions, help select the magazine's Eleven Best Elevens for the coming season.
In the map above you will see the banners of these Eleven Best planted in rough proximity to their campuses. One glance should impress you with the fact that they are heavily concentrated in just two sections of the country—the Midwest and the South—and not by accident, or predilection on the part of the prognosticators. It is no longer a matter for dispute that the finest collegiate football is played in these two areas. In selecting the best of the nation's teams, the choice lies almost entirely among representatives of those areas, with an occasional candidate—like Oregon State this year—from East or West.
There are few who would challenge the credentials of six of the teams on this list. Auburn, Oklahoma, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Michigan State and TCU would have to be, and are, the choice of anyone who set out to peer into the 1958 season without benefit of ouija board or tea leaves. So let us examine these teams first to see what causes this unaccustomed unanimity among football observers.
Auburn has lost practically none of the momentum that carried it to the top of the Associated Press ratings by the end of 1957. The line, which is almost hefty enough for the pros, will be as impenetrable as last year, when it gave up fewer yards and fewer points than any in the country. Coach Shug Jordan's team is now so rich in replacements that a graduation here and there is just a momentary problem. The only worry that this coach could possibly have is that his players might grow complacent at the same time that one of his strong Southeastern Conference opponents became inspired by the thought of knocking Auburn off its pedestal.
Oklahoma has now reached that condition of football eminence where its victories come as a matter of course. Coach Bud Wilkinson is not only a superb organizer, recruiter and teacher, but he sees to it that his team's difficult games are widely enough separated to give him plenty of time for preparation. Last year's upset loss to Notre Dame was only a slight hesitation in a football success story that should go on and on and on.
Notre Dame is now well past the difficult stage it went through when youthful Coach Terry Brennan took over from Frank Leahy and found that some of the supply lines of football talent had been allowed to atrophy. That logistical problem has now been remedied, and Notre Dame is ready to resume its customary position among the royalty of college football. Its narrow victory over Oklahoma last year was a significant warning of things to come now that Brennan and Notre Dame are functioning smoothly, and no one should listen seriously to this fine coach's protestations of trouble ahead. Even one of the most difficult schedules in the game will look relatively easy after this team is through with it.
Ohio State has developed the happy habit of winning the Big Ten championship, and without Michigan State as an opponent there is no reason to think that Coach Woody Hayes's players will fail to continue on their winning way. This team is so sound at all positions that spectacular achievements by individuals will not be obvious. That is the way of a Hayes team; it wins—as it did against Oregon in the Rose Bowl last New Year's Day—so ploddingly and methodically that one tends to overlook how really good it is.
Michigan State is the most threatening obstacle to Ohio State's Big Ten crown. However, this team always tends to reflect something of Coach Duffy Daugherty's mercurial temperament. The Spartans can be very exciting and wonderful, but they can also fall into the dumps. It is those dumps, coming on the wrong Saturday, that cause them the occasional grief they suffer each season.
TCU always produces the kind of volatile teams that characterize Southwestern football. You never know what will happen next, and wise men in Texas realize the fallibility of picking a winner in their unpredictable football climate. Nonetheless, the fine running backfield, the excellent team balance at all positions and the intelligent coaching of Abe Martin are three good reasons why TCU may upset the experts and turn out to be a preseason southwestern favorite that actually won.
All of the remaining five positions on the Eleven Best are open to debate, and plenty of it took place before Red Grange and the rest of the football staff made their choices. Here is the reasoning that guided them: