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.
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.