The Big Eight can make a good argument that it plays the best college football in the country. Four teams were in bowl games last season—national champion Oklahoma, Nebraska, Kansas and Colorado—and the fact that three of them lost only led Big Eight fans to say they had other teams at home that might have won. For instance, Missouri, which lost five games, four to other Big Eight schools, was the only team to beat Alabama, the Sugar Bowl victor. Kansas lost in the Sun Bowl but was the only team to beat Oklahoma, which beat Michigan in the Orange Bowl—and Kansas was beaten by Oklahoma State, another nonbowl Big Eight team. Oklahoma State beat Arkansas, the Southwest Conference co-champion and Cotton Bowl winner, but lost, on something of a fluke, to Nebraska and—to get back to the beginning—was soundly trounced by Missouri.
This madly competitive round robin (six Big Eight teams had winning records in 1975) got so intense last season that rookie Head Coach Bud Moore of Kansas tried bribing his players—with food. The good guys could eat steak and lobster in a private room. The less productive players had to push trays in the cafeteria. After the Jayhawks beat Oklahoma 23-3—the Sooners' first loss in 38 games and the first time in 103 games that they failed to score a touchdown—Moore was named Big Eight Coach of the Year.
Iowa State and Kansas State each lost one game outside the Big Eight, six and seven within it. Because of the ferocious company they keep, Iowa State and Kansas State are not considered to be among the nation's elite. Neither, for that matter, are Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma State. But consider the performance of Kansas' Nolan Cromwell. Cromwell, who holds the Texas Relays 400-meter hurdles record, was shifted from defensive back to wishbone quarterback. In the first game he started at quarterback, he ran for 294 yards to break the Kansas single-game record set by Gale Sayers. He went on to lead the Big Eight in rushing with 1,124 yards and was offensive Player of the Year in a conference saturated with All-Americas.
Yet the best teams in the Big Eight are, as usual, Oklahoma and Nebraska, which tied for the league championship last year. Colorado, which missed joining them only because it lost to Oklahoma 21-20, is close behind. There is a feeling around the conference that Nebraska's veterans will take it all this year, but heavily senior teams like Nebraska's sometimes go into curious declines. Oklahoma is, after all, defending national champion, and Colorado has its best squad in years. Round robin again. The only thing for certain is that three Big Eight teams are valid contenders for the Top Ten—and maybe more than that for the Top 20.
Alabama visits South Bend and Athens this fall, yet when Bear Bryant assesses the Tide schedule he hems and haws less about Notre Dame or Georgia than about Mississippi. Mississippi? The Rebels rose quietly from a 3-8 record in 1974 and 1-4 early last year to sweep five straight from SEC foes. The defense had Mississippi looking like the Rebels of old, a bowl team from 1957 through 1971. Nine starting defenders return, as do Quarterback Tim Ellis and Running Backs Mike Sweet and James Storey, who together gained more than half of Mississippi's yardage. "They were the toughest team down here in November," Bryant says.
The Bear's comments have whetted the appetites of Georgia's Junkyard Dogs, the veteran defensive unit that feels it can wrest the SEC title from the Crimson Tide when Alabama makes a rare visit to Athens on Oct. 2. Seven defensive starters return plus Linebacker Sylvester Boler, a 6'3" 235-pounder who was MVP in the 1973 Peach Bowl but ineligible last year. An offensive line that averages 243 pounds should keep Georgia's veer offense in good running order. Quarterback Ray Goff (474 yards) and Running Back Kevin McLee (806 yards, 10 TDs) are back, as is Flanker Gene Washington.
Mississippi State comes off its first back-to-back winning seasons since 1954 and 1955. Fourth-year Coach Bob Tyler is sitting pretty because 15 regulars return, among them Heisman candidate Walter Packer, already the school's leading ground-gainer (2,187 yards), and Clarence Harmon. Back, too, are Guard Harvey Hull and Ends Will Coltharp and Wally Cox.
With all its problems, Kentucky sank to the SEC cellar last year despite its strong defense. Now the problems seem to be solved and almost everybody that counts on defense is back. With Offensive Tackle Warren Bryant opening doorways to downfield, primarily for Fullback Rod Stewart, the Wildcats might climb high.