In its wisdom, the NCAA has scheduled this season's Division I-AA championship game in Statesboro, Ga., home of Georgia Southern. The Eagles have played in the final game three of the last four years, so the NCAA probably figured it was saving them travel expenses. Last year, Georgia Southern and Furman, two schools 180 miles apart, traveled to Pocatello, Idaho, to decide the championship, which was won by Furman 17-12.
During the off-season, Eagle coach Erk Russell turned down the head job at Georgia to remain in Statesboro. Russell has also decided to stay with the option offense, which makes good sense because junior quarterback Raymond Gross runs it efficiently. In 15 games last year, Gross rushed for 1,213 yards and passed for 1,203. Defensive end Giff Smith, who had 11 sacks, including five in one game, stands out on a deep defense.
Eastern Kentucky is another playoff perennial, but coach Roy Kidd will be without running back Elroy Harris, the division's leading rusher and scorer last season. Though he had a year of eligibility left, Harris decided to enter the NFL draft, and he was taken in the third round by Seattle. Kidd may fill the hole by having fullback Tim Lester take two steps back to the tailback spot.
For two other playoff contenders, a good offense begins with a good D, as in quarterbacks Matt DeGennaro of Connecticut and Frankie DeBusk of Furman. DeGennaro was the Yankee Conference Offensive Player of the Year, but his job will be tougher in '89, because the Huskies lost the division's leading receiver, Glenn Antrum. DeBusk took over as the Paladins' starting quarterback in the fourth game of the season and two weeks later threw four interceptions in a loss to Marshall. It was the Paladins' second and last defeat as they proceeded to win nine straight on their way to the title. DeBusk wound up passing for 1,562 yards. Tailback Dwight Sterling led the team in rushing and also led the offensive back-field in tackles (four) and sacks (one); he spells Furman defensive linemen as a pass rusher. Six starters are back from I-AA's stingiest scoring defense (9.7 points per game).
While the I-A ranks are thin at quarterback this season, I-AA is fairly bursting with strong arms. Besides watching Lafayette's Frank Baur (page 106), NFL scouts will be keeping a close eye on Idaho senior John (Deep) Friesz, who doesn't much care who he throws to; last year seven Vandal receivers had 18 or more catches. At Northwestern State (La.) coach Sam Goodwin will continue to run an option offense but says of his quarterback. Scott Stoker. "He thinks he's a drop-back passer." Maybe that's because the 5'7" and 157-pound Stoker is pocket-sized. Last season, Stoker broke the Demons' single-season record for passing yardage held by Bobby Hebert, who is now with the New Orleans Saints, as Northwestern State made its first I-AA playoff appearance.
Lafayette may have Baur, but Holy Cross will again rule the Colonial Conference. The Crusaders will be less Wiley (quarterback Jeff, who has graduated) but not less skillful; all other starting backs and receivers return. On the defensive side, cornerback Dave Murphy needs only two interceptions to break the I-AA career record of 24.
One doesn't usually look to the staid old Ivies for titillation and scandal, but during the off-season articles about the Ancient Eight read like Butterfield 8. Columbia coach Larry McElreavy quit after he was accused by an assistant coach of drinking heavily and having an extramarital affair, and Maxie Baughan of Cornell, which tied for the Ivy title, resigned after it was reported that he was having an affair with the wife of an assistant coach. Ed Zubrow of Penn, which shared the title with Cornell, redeemed the conference's sullied reputation by resigning in order to take a job with the Philadelphia school system to help in its fight against drugs and dropouts. Gary Steele, the Quakers' defensive coordinator last year, takes over for Zubrow, but the change won't prevent Penn from winning yet another Ivy crown.
Once upon a time, before the railroads, over 50 million bison thundered over the northern plains, trampling everything in their path. The Bison of North Dakota State have done much the same to Division II in recent years, having gone undefeated in 1988 en route to their seventh title game in the last eight seasons and their fourth national championship of the '80s. And, for '89, there is no Winchester-toting Buffalo hunter in sight to head off the herd.