Last season's most disorganized team was Auburn, which is happy just to be getting back to the business of playing football. Last fall former defensive back Eric Ramsey produced audiotapes of a number of coaches, including head coach Pat Dye, apparently discussing payments to Ramsey, which would have violated NCAA rules. One assistant said that Tiger coaches spent more time in staff meetings last season trying to recall conversations with Ramsey than they did planning for upcoming opponents. Proof of that lay in Auburn's 5-6 record, its first losing mark in 10 years. This year has not started off well for the Tigers cither; Dye landed Steve Davis, regarded as the top prep running back in the country, but he turned out to be a Prop 48 and won't be able to help them for a year.
LSU coach Curley Mailman is shaking things up a bit by switching the team's second-leading rusher, Vincent Fuller, to safety, while at Vanderbilt coach Gerry DiNardo gets the wipe-the-slate-clean award for introducing four players to new positions. One fellow who isn't likely to change his roster spot is quarterback Marcus Wilson, who scored 11 rushing touchdowns last year. At Kentucky, coach Bill Curry has installed a new, triple-option offense, but he has been looking for someone to direct it since quarterback prospect Antonio O'Ferral blew out his knee in a pickup basketball game in January. Depth is the biggest concern at Ole Miss, where after a 5-6 season coach Billy Brewer fired his offensive and defensive coordinators. "We lost our direction somewhere," says Brewer. "I thought it was time for drastic measures." Also likely to be lost in its first year of play in the SEC is South Carolina, which by November will be thinking of its former independent status as the good old days.
Texas A&M ran away with the Southwest Conference title last season and should prevail again. Baylor, in the last of 21 years under coach Grant Teaff—he will become athletic director in June—will put the most heat on the Aggies, though Teaff is guilty of the league's most overblown hype; his inexperienced defensive line, says Teaff, will be "a machine gun, and we'll cut down people by living to the ball." Texas Tech welcomes back Tracy Saul, the best player ever to come out of Idalou, Texas, and the top interceptor in Red Raider history. TCU is the first school in the league to switch from artificial turf back to real grass, a decision hailed by new coach Pat Sullivan. A former Heisman Trophy winner from Auburn, Sullivan had been an assistant at his alma mater in the SEC, in which two schools have already made the switch.
The respected John Mackovic moves from Illinois to Texas, where he inherits the most puzzling team in the conference. If defense wins games, how come the Longhorns—ranked third in the nation defensively—had a losing record (5-6) in '91? Mackovic has two Walkers at running back, Rodrick and Adrian, who will give the attack a boost. Houston, of course, still subscribes to the notion that it's O.K. for your opponent to score a lot of points as long as you score more. Last season the Cougar run-and-shoot offense self-destructed, producing a preposterous 42 turnovers. Although the conference's alltime leading passer, David Klingler, has departed for the NFL, Cougar coach John Jenkins will keep running and shooting with Donald Douglas. The best player in Houston is not a Cougar but an Owl. Rice tailback Trevor Cobb, who rushed for 1,692 yards in '91, could be the only player in the conference to get Heisman votes. SMU has lost 24 straight conference games since resuming football after a two-year hiatus following the imposition of the NCAA death penalty. "There is a place for us," insists Mustang athletic director Forrest Gregg. The question: Where? The school will decide by the end of December whether to move to Division III or drop sports altogether in the wake of relentless futility and a $4.9 million operating deficit.
Over the past 10 years the Western Athletic Conference has produced a national champion, a Heisman Trophy winner and three Outland Trophy winners. But what the WAC lacks is balance. BYU accounted for all but one of those honors (Air Force tackle Chad Hennings's Outland in 1987) while bullying its way to 13 of the last 15 league crowns. But there is a change in the wind. San Diego State, with splendid sophomore Marshall Faulk, is poised to topple the Cougars.
BYU does have one of the league's best-named players, though, in running back Thorpe Beigel, who was named after Jim Thorpe. (Beigel's brother, former Cougar linebacker Rockne, was named after....) Utah counters with defensive tackle Houdini Nua. Legend has it that Nua's father was watching a television show about the famous magician in the hospital waiting room during his son's birth. Air Force should win its fourth straight Commander-in-Chiefs trophy in the round-robin play with Army and Navy (last season the Falcons outscored the Cadets and the Middies by a total of 65 points). The most potent offense in the conference belongs to new member Fresno State, which led the nation in both scoring (44.2 points per game) and total offense (541.9 yards) in '91, its final season in the Big West.
"Defense is about collisions and recklessness," says UTEP coach David Lee. "And we'll continue to play it that way." No reason to mess with success: In '91 the Miners forced 27 turnovers. Hoping to steer itself back to the ranks of the bowl bound, Wyoming may call upon the league's most-seasoned guide, offensive tackle Cody Kelly, for direction. Kelly spent two summers running raft trips down the Snake River.
New Mexico is a long way from being a conference power, but the Lobos could soon have the most powerful players. First-year coach Dennis Franchione is having a $3 million weight room built inside University Stadium. Hawaii is looking for a few strong men to resurrect a defense that surrendered 351 points last season. After Colorado State watched its turnover ratio plummet from a +16 to a worst-in-the-nation-23 in one season, Ram coach Earle Bruce inaugurated the league's best new tradition: He designated a distant light fixture as the Ram Pole and made players committing turnovers in scrimmages run the one-mile trip to it and back.
The dwindling ranks of the Independents can still point proudly to Notre Dame, Penn State (for one more season) and East Carolina, where coach Bill Lewis rode the Pirate ship straight out of Greenville after a 10-1 season. A fine backfield should put East Carolina into its second straight bowl. Dave Rader is sticking around at Tulsa, which sneaked up on everyone last season—especially Texas A&M, a 35-34 loser—by winning nine games and the Freedom Bowl. This fall Miami is gone from the schedule, and the season ends with a day at the beach, in Hawaii.
After Southern Mississippi was out-scored 108-51 in its final four games last season, coach Jeff Bower smuggled in some help from across the border, hiring Louisiana Tech defensive assistants John Thompson and Joe Robinson. The crew will have its work cut out, because the schedule is a killer: During one 13-day stretch the Eagles play three games.