As the fourth Minnesota coach in 10 years, Jim Wacker takes on the biggest rebuilding task in the conference. The Gophers finished at or near the bottom of the league in nearly every major statistical category last season. The nation's oldest freshman quarterback has to be Wisconsin's 22-year-old Darrell Bevell, who will need to call on all his years of wisdom to jump-start the weary Badger offense. Bevell is accustomed to challenges: For the past two years he was off on a Mormon mission to exotic...Cleveland. The last time Northwestern had a winning conference record, Watergate was just a building. The Wildcats are hoping that kicker Brian Leahy, the nephew of former New York Jet Pat Leahy, can connect from long range.
As the least of the self-proclaimed big conferences, the misnamed Big West is neither big (since its rechristening in 1988, it has never had a team grace the final AP poll) nor west (starting next season, it will have four schools east of Kansas). Three of the seven Big West programs are welcoming new coaches, and both San Jose State's Ron Turner and Pacific's Chuck Shelton will inherit potent offenses. The Spartans are led by junior quarterback Jeff Garcia, the nation's top returning player in passing efficiency. At Pacific, quarterback Troy Kopp and receiver Aaron Turner are only two touchdown passes away from setting an NCAA career mark for most scores (31) by a tandem.
Fresno State, which won three of the last four Big West titles, has departed for the Western Athletic Conference, and Nevada, which is making the jump from Division I-AA, could be the team to replace the Bulldogs at the top of the standings. The Wolf Pack brings a high-scoring Big Sky-style offense to the Big West and will easily prevail over UNLV, which is young and searching for a quarterback, in college football's newest instate rivalry. Utah State can brag of having the biggest-name offensive coordinator—former Seattle Seahawk Jim Zorn. He will need to draw heavily on his 12 years of pro experience as he tutors five Aggie prospects who have never thrown a pass in major college competition. The league's most-seasoned tight ends belong to Cal State-Fuller-ton, where Robert Bedford, Gerry McDonald and Jeff Williamson are 27, 25 and 25 years old, respectively. New Mexico State possesses the nation's top kickoff-return man in senior Fred Montgomery (29.4 yards per runback), and little else.
For the past 11 years the Big West champion has met the Mid-American Conference victor in the California Raisin Bowl. But this season the two leagues will square off in the first-ever Las Vegas Bowl. The MAC, which hasn't had a repeat champion in nine years, will again be a crapshoot, with every team returning at least 12 starters. Spearheading a Miami of Ohio defense that was ranked fifth in the nation in '91 is the league's best player, linebacker Curt McMillan, who averaged an NCAA-best 18.6 tackles a game. The league's big game will be on Halloween, when the Redskins' defense will try to contain Bowling Green quarterback Erik White, who led the conference in four offensive categories, including touchdown passes (17), last season.
The most woeful midseason skid of '91 took place at Toledo; the Rockets lost four of five games between Oct. 12 and Nov. 9. Little Marcus Goodwin (5'8", 154 pounds) is a solid all-around threat. Of the MAC's three compass-point schools in the Wolverine state, Western Michigan has the best chance at clawing its way to the northernmost reaches of the standings. Despite leading the MAC in passing for three of the last six seasons, the Broncos will now rely on a bevy of big backs (six running backs average 6'1", 208 pounds) to provide offensive punch. Central Michigan is the most mediocre of this trio; it established a dubious record in '91 with four ties. At Eastern Michigan, coach Jim Harkema is soliciting kickers from the Eagle soccer team, and he may have found a keeper in senior Bill Adam.
Rumor has it that Ball State alumnus David Letterman tried to book the Cardinals' inept backfield on the Stupid Human Tricks segment of his show. Last season's Ball State backs could muster barely 90 yards a game. The happiest administrators in the MAC are at Ohio University, which finished fifth overall in the NCAA's graduation sweepstakes. The bad news is that those bright young Bobcats haven't had a winning season since 1982. After first-year Kent State coach Pete Cordelli watched his team lose 10 of 11 games last season, he said rather bluntly, "We need to improve our intensity, technique and fundamentals." He also needed an even worse team to come along to take some of the pressure off his Golden Flashes. Fortunately for Kent State, Akron zips into the MAC this fall after spending four years as an Independent.
Since 1972, 14 Pac-10 championships have been claimed by one or the other of the Los Angeles schools. But with nouvelle-power Washington earning the conference its first share of a national crown since '78, when Southern Cal and Alabama were co-champs, the Huskies may wish to clear out some cabinet space of their own. The Huskies also won the conference title in 1990, and no one looks ready this season to trip up Washington on its way to the hat trick. The shortest-lived celebration in the league will be for Bill Walsh, who returns to Stanford, where he coached in 1977 and '78. In his absence the Cardinal went 62-80-3 and had only three winning seasons. Shortly after he was named to replace Dennis Green, now with the Minnesota Vikings, Walsh announced, "This is my bliss"—but that must have been before he looked at the schedule, which includes away games against Texas A&M, Notre Dame and Washington. Another difficult road game for the Cardinal will be its Oct. 10 visit to UCLA. Although the Bruins must find a replacement for quarterback Tommy Maddox, who bolted Westwood for the Denver Broncos two seasons early, they still have, at least for the moment, second-team All-America receiver Sean LaChapelle—the league's most indecisive player. He was set on turning pro with Maddox but then changed his mind 15 minutes before a scheduled press conference.
Coming off its worst record (3-8) in 35 years, Southern Cal is hoping that winning is like riding a bicycle—something you learn once and never forget. For inspiration, the Trojans ought not to look at their tailback, Estrus Crayton. The former junior college All-America missed last season's trip to Notre Dame when he fell off his bike while returning from a grocery store. But Trojan coaches are less worried about Crayton's injuries (a bruised elbow and minor abrasions) than his penchant for coughing up the football (he fumbled on four of his first six possessions in 1991). Last year's Cinderella team was Cal, for whom Russell White—the league's best back—rushed for 1,177 yards and 14 touchdowns in leading the previously dormant Golden Bears to 10 wins. The architect of this revival, coach Bruce Snyder, has departed for Arizona State, which is why the Sun Devils could be this year's Cinderellas. Receiver Eric Guilford may be just the spark Snyder needs to fill the seats at Sun Devil Stadium again. Most of cross-state rival Arizona's no-shows were its players: One after another, 28 starters went down with injuries.
The good news for Washington State quarterback Drew Bledsoe is that the Cougars' entire offensive line returns. The bad news is that he was sacked 56 times last year. If he can remain upright, Bledsoe could establish himself as the NFL's top quarterback prospect. Compare that with the situation at Oregon, where five different quarterbacks started in five successive weeks last season. Defensively, the Ducks have end Romeo Bandison, a native of Holland, to plug up an otherwise porous middle. Upon arriving at Oregon State two years ago, coach Jerry Pettibone installed an option offense and moved safety Chad Paulson to running back. One out of two ain't bad. Last season Paulson led the Pac-10's worst offense in rushing.
The Southeastern Conference has split itself into Eastern and Western divisions, with the respective winners scheduled to meet on Dec. 5 in Division I-A's first-ever conference title game. At stake is a New Year's Day trip to the Sugar Bowl. Florida is the likely candidate to limp into New Orleans, but Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi State and even new conference member Arkansas, possessor of the league's most intricate playbook, are formidable contenders. Tennessee will not be in the chase this season, despite coming off last year's 9-3. Coach Johnny Majors admits, "I wish we were reloading. But without question, we're rebuilding." The Volunteers lost a total of 18 players in the past two NFL drafts, and the only solid position this fall is tailback, with two sophomores, James Stewart and Aaron Hayden, sharing time.