Changes in the pecking order within the major conferences once tended to be glacial. Which means that millions grew up believing that, in an uncertain world, Michigan and Ohio State could be counted on to rule the Big Ten, Alabama would reign supreme over the Southeastern Conference, Texas would dominate the Southwest Conference, and BYU would win in the Western Athletic Conference.
Alas, these verities have fallen by the wayside. Many of the old powers are having trouble trying to stay even, much less dominate. Alabama, for example, hasn't won the SEC title since 1981, when it tied with Georgia, and in the last four years, four different schools—Auburn, LSU, Tennessee and Florida—have held it. In the Big Ten, five different schools have won or shared the championship over the last five years—Michigan State, Michigan, Ohio State, Iowa and Illinois. Yes, Illinois. Texas, which took six SWC titles outright and had a piece of two others from 1968 to '77, has won the conference but once over the last decade. Usurpers have included Texas A & M, Houston, Arkansas, SMU and Baylor. Yes, Baylor. And last year, Wyoming was the WAC champ, not BYU.
The best bet among the nine I-A conferences is that Texas A & M will repeat in the rough-and-tumble SOUTHWEST CONFERENCE—although a rejuvenated Texas could spoil the Cotton Bowl party in College Station (see The Top 20, page 84). And Arkansas may have some of the best individual talent in the SWC. In the last two NFL pro drafts, just two Razorbacks were selected; this year eight should be chosen. "When I came here," says coach Ken Hatfield, who arrived in Fayetteville in December 1983, "I wanted to be able to look Texas A & M and Texas squarely in the eye. I think we are there." Tailback James Rouse and fullback Barry Foster are particular Razorback stars, and they both like the new, leaner cut of offensive lineman Freddie Childress. The Big Chill peaked at 358 pounds last season, but this year's version weighs a tidy 320.
Every other school in the SWC is out in the cold. Houston, typically very good or very bad, could surprise and finish fourth, thanks primarily to the return of almost its entire offense, including three quarterbacks who each passed for more than 350 yards in at least one game last year. TCU returns free safety Falanda Newton, who will anchor the Horned Frogs' best defense in two decades, but the offense has so many backfield holes to fill that Scott Ankrom, who started at quarterback during parts of the last three seasons, will have to do time at tailback and wide receiver as well. Texas Tech may have the deepest backfield in the league, but the Red Raiders will again be inconsistent—they beat the Aggies last year 27-21 and lost to Arkansas 31-0 a week later. Except at safety, where Robert Blackmon and Mike Welch are potential All-Americans Baylor lacks top talent. Rice will celebrate moral victories, and SMU won't be eligible for work release for another year.
Perhaps the most fun of all will be had in the BIG TEN, where Iowa, Michigan State and Michigan are all Top 20 picks. A tick behind is Indiana, where Bill Mallory has done a masterly job. Four years ago the Hoosiers were 0-11; last year they beat Michigan and Ohio State in the same season for the first time ever and played Michigan State for the conference title, losing 27-3 in an 8-4 year. Indiana should be just as good again, if not better; quarterback Dave Schnell returns with six of his friends on the offensive line, including guards Tim Radtke and Don Shrader, who will be occupying their posts for the fourth consecutive season. Also returning is junior tailback Anthony Thompson, who gained 1,256 all-purpose yards last season.
Nobody else in the Big Ten has a chance to challenge for the top this year—though others will soon cash in on the Age of Parity. Ohio State's new coach, John Cooper, who was unimpressed with the team's physical strength when he arrived in Columbus last winter, will have a rough time in the early going; the Buckeyes could be 0-3 after games with Syracuse, Pitt and LSU. Gone are quarterback-punter Tom Tupa and savage linebacker Chris Spielman, but the entire offensive line, including mammoth tackles Joe Staysniak and Tim Moxley, returns intact. Under the new man they'll have to learn to do more than just block straight ahead. Give Cooper a year. On the other hand there is Purdue, where offensive linemen are becoming an endangered species. But coach Fred Akers recruited well this winter, so look for the Boilermakers to blossom in the next two years.
Minnesota seems unable to get beyond 6-5 (its record the last three years) and in spite of the presence of Darrell Thompson, the best running back in the conference, won't this time, either. Coach Don Morton hopes more drop-back passing will perk up punchless Wisconsin, but he does have most of his defense back. Jeff George will finally be playing quarterback at Illinois after transferring out of Purdue and making noises about going to Miami, but new coach John Mackovic faces a huge task in rebuilding the Illini. Northwestern has now beaten Illinois, its downstate rival, two years in a row, which says a lot more about the Illini than it does about the Wildcats. But be fair. The Cats won the league in 1936.
Out in the
, UCLA and USC are the big names, but many otherwise keen observers don't seem to realize how often Washington has lurked in the shadows. In fact, the Huskies have won the title three times since 1977 and have finished second six times. When Washington scores its third victory this fall, Don James will become the winningest coach in Pac-10 history, with 71 triumphs, surpassing the record of USC's John McKay from 1960 to '75. The Huskies are the sole team in the conference without a returning starting quarterback, and James's wide receivers are mostly unproven. But junior Cary Conklin, a classic pro-style passer like Chris Chandler, his predecessor, is highly regarded.
Arizona could make a run for the Rose Bowl, as well, thanks to the schedule-makers: Six of the Wildcats' conference games, including the one with Arizona State, are at home. Last fall coach Dick Tomey taught the Wildcats his "wish and shoot" offense, a wishbone-run-and-shoot hybrid, and though Arizona went 4-4-3, the team was just eight points from 9-2. Only five significant offensive contributors are gone, and returning quarterback Ron Veal will trigger the Veal-bone with meaty help from running back Art Greathouse and flanker Derek Hill. Even Oregon, which for a couple of giddy weeks last season cracked the Top 20, will be a presence in the Pac-10 and, no joke, could easily go bowling for the first time in 25 years. Quarterback Bill Musgrave and running backs Derek Loville and Latin Berry fall into the players-you-may-not-know-but-should category.
Cal will see some light because of quarterback Troy Taylor, noseguard Majett Whiteside and linebacker David Ortega, a second-team all- Pac-10 last season as a sophomore. Elsewhere, there is darkness: Arizona State lost six first-team all-conference players, and returning quarterback Daniel Ford threw more interceptions than touchdown passes last season; Stanford is dabbling with the run-and-shoot—a clear message that the offensive line is in woeful shape; Washington State has some fine offensive talent in quarterback Timm Rosenbach, running back Steve Broussard and tackle Mike Utley but expects defensive difficulties; and Oregon State, well, it's still in the league.