Up in the rainy, title-starved Northwest, two perennial league also-rans probably will also run again, but at least they'll give their fans some excitement. Washington State Quarterback Jack Thompson threw 20 touchdown passes last season. His favorite targets, Mike Levenseller (67 receptions) and Dan Doornink, also return. There are 10 starters back on defense, and Coach Warren Powers doesn't plan to let them give up an average of 30 points a game again. At Oregon, new Coach Rich Brooks can call on Quarterback Jack Henderson, who had 157 completions in 298 attempts for 1,582 yards last season. Washington Quarterback Warren Moon is not considered to be in Thompson's or Henderson's class as a passer, but the Huskies should be the top team north of California. Their big gun is Tailback Ron Rowland, who last year gained 1,000 yards, and they have another good runner in soph Joe Steele, who averaged 5.5 yards a carry as a freshman. Second-year Coach Craig Fertig had a good recruiting year at Oregon State, but coming off a 2-10 season and facing a tougher schedule, the Beavers can count this as a rebuilding year.
In the Bay Area, California is expected to get a lot of scoring from Placekicker Jim (Into The) Breech, who has water-boy dimensions (5'7", 165 pounds) but goes into the season only 10 field goals shy of the conference record of 44. The Bears also have one of the better defenses in the West, led by 6'5", 245-pound End Ralph DeLoach and Backs Ken McAllister and Anthony Green. The Golden Bear offense will feature a pair of sophs, Quarterback Eric Anderson and 6'2", 225-pound Fullback Paul Jones. "We won't rely so heavily on one star to carry us as in the past years," says Coach Mike White, "but rather we will have the strength in all areas."
In a league loaded with fine passers, Stanford's Guy Benjamin could turn out to be the best. A 6'4" senior, Benjamin was third in the nation in passing last year and fifth in total offense. New Coach Bill Walsh is blessed at other positions, too—Offensive Tackle Gordon King and Linebacker Gordy Ceresino are both potential All-Americas. Except for a lack of depth, Stanford would be contending for the league title, and Walsh has been working on that. He brought in 34 recruits. There were 14 the year before.
A 46-yard field goal by freshman Steve Cox with five seconds remaining in the 1976 season allowed Tulsa (7-4-1) to gain a share of the conference title it had won or shared the previous three years. But although Cox will be around three more seasons, the Golden Hurricanes' championship streak is in jeopardy. For the second year in a row Tulsa must replace a top-flight quarterback. Last season it was Jeb Blount; this time it is Ron Hickerson, who passed for 1,554 yards, 12th best in the nation. Junior Quarterback Dave Rader is the probable choice, and with Wide Receiver Cornell Webster (32 receptions last year) unexpectedly signing with the Seattle Seahawks, Tight End Marcus Hatley will be a marked man. New Mexico State was co-champ with Tulsa despite an overall 4-6-1 record. One of five Valley schools that did not draw 50,000 fans for the entire season, the Aggies are building a $4 million stadium. Coach Jim Bradley has promised local partisans lots of passing, so Split End Stanley Sam (31 catches for 392 yards) will be busy.
It is ironic that West Texas State (4-5-2) will challenge New Mexico State for the championship—the Buffalo athletic department and regents have been seriously considering giving up football. Opponents are crossing their fingers because new Coach Bill Yung has 10 offensive starters on hand, including the Valley's No. 1, 3 and 4 rushers—Robert Mayberry (843 yards), Bo Robinson (725) and Anthony Dogan (596). West Texas is going to need all that offense, because last year the defense surrendered 41 points in a victory over N.E. Louisiana, 50 in a loss to Houston and 34 more on an embarrassing Saturday in Des Moines when Drake (1-10) got its only win. Drake was mighty generous itself, allowing an average 38.5 points per game. Quarterback Dan Dodd (6'6", 235 pounds) has a tall assignment.
Southern Illinois (7-4)—along with Indiana State a newcomer to the Valley—would have lent badly needed prestige to the conference if Running Back Andre Herrera (1,588 yards) were around for a fifth season. But the Salukis believe senior Gary Linton is capable of similar effort. Indiana State (3-7) is not coming on as fast in football as it is in basketball, but the Sycamores should continue to improve.
Wichita State (4-7) offered a 50� rebate to season-ticket holders whenever the Shockers lost a home game last year. The Total Confidence Plan, as it was called, was deemed a huge success when State paid off on only two of five. The Shockers, who play the toughest schedule in the Valley, are powered by Fullback Jeff Haney, who had 221 yards rushing against Tulsa.
Arizona has a new coach, Tony Mason, who is noted for teaching good defense. He will have excellent material to work with, notably Tackles Jon Abbott and John Sanguinetti among his eight returning starters. On offense the Wildcats have two starters back at quarterback, senior Marc Lunsford, who was injured much of last year, and sophomore Jim Krohn. Lunsford will probably get his job back. Mason can also call on Placekicker Lee Pistor, who has set four Arizona kicking records. The Wildcats, who move to the Pac-8 next year, would love to leave the WAC champions, but so would Arizona State. The meeting on Nov. 26 should decide the title. Wyoming, the 1976 champion, also has a new coach—Bill Lewis, formerly an Arkansas assistant. He has All-Leaguers Walter Howard at tight end and Dennis Baker at offensive tackle, but little chance to make the Fiesta Bowl again. Utah has a new coach, too—Wayne Howard, from Cal State Long Beach. Howard brought a truckload of California JC transfers with him and inherited Wide Receiver Jack Steptoe, who had 38 catches for 752 yards and nine TDs last season. Junior-college transfer Randy Gomez will replace Quarterback Pat Degnan, who quit.