The stimulating thing about the Big Ten is that it can have three teams ranked among the nation's best—Michigan State, Purdue and Ohio State—and still present two or three that would be no great surprise as conference champions by the time the annual bloodletting is over. This year's duo that will not leave the opposition laughing is Minnesota and Illinois, in that order. Minnesota has the traditional Gopher defense, including a line that averages a bulging 236 pounds per man, but there now may be an offense to go with it. Two quarterbacks, Ray Stephens and Phil Hagen, will handle the attack. A 285-pound tackle, John Williams, and Tight End Charlie Sanders have moved over from the defense to strengthen the offensive blocking. Illinois, its image badly bruised by the slush-fund scandal that cost Pete Elliott his job, has presented new Coach Jim Valek with the kind of talent that hard recruiting often turns up. The defensive line is strong. Quarterback Bob Naponic returns, and he still has Split End John Wright to throw to. "The potential is here to beat any club in the Big Ten," says Valek.
It has been 22 years since Indiana has won a conference title and the Hoosiers won't this year, but for a change they may have a lot to say about who does. "I'm a positive thinker," says Coach John Pont, and he has a team of confident sophomores and solid defensemen, such as Tackle Doug Crusan, that will make a positive impact. He will start 10 rookies, including Quarterback Harry Gonso, who is a good passer, and Ed Harrison, an aggressive defensive tackle who weighs in at 258. Michigan has been hurt by backfield losses—only Quarterback Dick Vidmer returns—but the Wolverines will be sharp by midseason. Iowa, Wisconsin and Northwestern must wait for better years.
There was a time this spring when joy was returning to the collective heart of Norman, Okla. after an absence much too long. Jim Mackenzie had the Sooners coming back, and the enthusiasms that waxed hot in Bud Wilkinson's all-conquering days were rising once again. Then, in the middle of spring practice, Mackenzie died of a heart attack. The team remains the same promising one, and new Coach Chuck Fairbanks is promising, too, but the setback was just enough to leave the Big Eight in the hands of Colorado and Nebraska. Fairbanks' main concern is the Oklahoma defense, which in 1966 set a 32-year mark for poor achievement by allowing opponents to outgain the Sooners in six of 10 games. But the pass defense was as good as the rushing defense was bad, permitting only one touchdown. The Sooners still have a distance to come, but not a long one.
At Missouri, Coach Dan Devine has a trying year ahead, primarily because all of his halfbacks are gone. But the offensive line, with Russ Washington at tackle, is experienced and two quarterbacks return, Danny Sharp and Gary Kombrink. Oklahoma State managed to score more than two touchdowns only once last season but still finished well, and Coach Phil Cutchin has 23 lettermen back. "I hope there isn't a favorite in the conference," he says, "but if there is, I hope it's us." It isn't, for State must play Colorado, Missouri and Nebraska in a row.
There is also new spirit at Kansas State, the league doormat for years, where Vince Gibson has installed a pro-type offense. Former Iowa State Athletic Director Slim Chalmers said last December that the Cyclones will never win the Big Eight title because they do not have enough money to compete with the big boys. Who could argue? Kansas seems to be in the same poorhouse.
Last season the SWC was a "young" conference. Juniors and sophomores abounded, as did the mistakes and exciting finishes that could be expected from them. But now everybody is a year wiser and stability is returning, at least at the top, where Texas, Arkansas and Texas A&M look reasonably secure. Closest to these three is Texas Tech. The Red Raiders registered the upset of 1966 when they knocked Arkansas out of a first-place tie, 21-16, in the final game. Only one offensive starter, a guard, has graduated from the best line Coach J. T. King has fielded in six years, and six of his top seven backs have returned. The defense, though, is thin, needing more experience and less beef from a line that averages 224. At TCU, Fred Taylor took over from Abe Martin and introduced the kind of training program that teams with 2-8 records sometimes need. A lot of players left. One noteworthy survivor is Quarterback P. D. Shabay, the butt of much criticism last season. "If I ever have a kid," he said then, "I would sure discourage him from playing quarterback." Now Taylor has installed a new I formation for Shabay's benefit, and a much happier Shabay might well advise a son differently.
Baylor is changing, too, shifting from its constant passing to a ground-oriented game. Quarterback Kenny Stockdale had the team moving on the ground this spring and there is hope that Halfback John Westbrook will recover sufficiently from a knee operation to be a breakaway threat. New Coach Bo Hagan at Rice inherits little, but he docs have Quarterback Robby Shelton, who was suicidal enough to call his own number 32 times against Texas. And in this topsy-turvy conference, enchanted SMU, last year's winner, appears headed back toward normality just like everybody else.