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When Bo Schembechler was still in the hospital several months ago recovering from the coronary bypass operation that he had undergone, the Michigan football coach received a get-well card from Purdue Coach Alex Agase. Agase, in what he said was an effort to determine "what a big shot you are," addressed the envelope by pasting a picture of Bo on it, adding only Ann Arbor, Mich. 48104. The letter was delivered to Schembechler in two days.
Such service from an organization not known for its dispatch or ingenuity is remarkable. And eminently fitting for the man who coaches the best college team in the nation. This year's glittering squad should end seven years of frustration for Schembechler who, despite a 66-9-3 record since coming to Ann Arbor in 1969, has seen each bright season marred at the end.
Twice in Bo's reign, Michigan has made it to the Rose Bowl but lost; in the past four years the Wolverines have been defeated by Ohio State three times and tied once. Last season was further besmirched when Michigan was stung by Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl. Now, although it is on a two-game losing streak, is directed by a sophomore quarterback and is coached by a man who missed most of spring practice because of ill health, Michigan seems perfectly positioned to win the national championship. The Wolverines are overloaded.
Defensive Coordinator Gary Moeller tries to worry about the defensive line, which has lost four of five starters, including the gifted Tim Davis at middle guard. But Moeller has a superb new line anchored by Tackle Greg Morton, generally considered one of college football's best. The rest of the defense is also outstanding, most notably at linebacker, where Calvin O'Neal is back on the job. Last season he set a Michigan record with 151 tackles.
Rob Lytle, who gained 1,040 yards at fullback in 1975, will replace Gordon Bell at tailback. "If anybody beats us," says Lytle, "well, everyone will know they lucked out." And now that Fullback Russell Davis is relishing blocking, Lytle should be scooting for another 1,000 or so. The wingback is Jim Smith, who in two seasons averaged better than 14 yards each time he handled the ball. Back, too, is Bob Wood, whose 11 field goals last season set a Wolverine record.
All this plus a solid offensive line should make 1976 a memorable year for sophomore Quarterback Rick Leach, who played nearly full time as a freshman. After the losses to Ohio State and Oklahoma, Schembechler expressed disenchantment with Leach's passing. However, Rick, not the mopey type, says, "I've always had respect for my ability." But he adds that what he hopes to do this year is really establish Michigan's running game. Then what? "Then we'll really run." All the way to No. 1.
With 14 starters from last year's team gone, one would think the Crimson Tide would be hard pressed to win its sixth consecutive SEC title. The defense lost all its backs, linebackers and ends, including All-America Leroy Cook. The offense lost Quarterback Richard Todd, No. 1 draft pick of the New York Jets, both halfbacks, three linemen and backups at quarterback and tight end. These players accounted for 217 of the Tide's 361 points, nearly half of its rushing yardage and 61 of its 69 pass completions. With them, Alabama won 10 of 11 games and whipped Penn State in the Sugar Bowl. Without them the Tide could do even better.
For one thing, Alabama is always well-stocked with football players, and Bear Bryant substituted generously in 1975, anticipating his losses. As a result, he has 33 veterans on hand, among them Backs Andy Gothard, Mike Kramer and Mike Tucker, each of whom saw a lot of action on last year's defense, which limited foes to six points a game, fewest in the nation. Linebacker Dewey Mitchell will play alongside his roommate, 220-pound Rich Wingo, who was red-shirted a year ago because he was more interested in cracking heads than playing the position astutely. "He kills his own body," says Tackle Bob Baumhower. "Imagine how he feels about yours." Baumhower pumps iron or runs daily in an attempt to improve on his 11 sacks and team-leading 85 tackles. With Cook gone, 6'6" Tackle Charles Hannah and Middle Guard Gus White expect to better the 100 tackles they combined for last year.