But for the vocal support of once and future alumni and the vested interest of NFL clubs, which glean one-third of their players from its ranks, small-college football performs in obscurity, largely ignored by network television, Vegas odds-makers and bowl games.
The smalls deserve better. Small may mean fewer (scholarships, gate receipts, platoons) without meaning less (enthusiasm, dedication, excitement). And the smalls also have something their more publicized peers would do well to match—a national championship determined through playoffs, not by the vagaries of a wire-service poll.
This season, along with the playoffs that decide who is No. 1 in NCAA Divisions II and III and in the NAIA, small-college football also offers some additional attention-grabbers.
Butler's 6'7", 225-pound Ed Thompson, for instance, is probably the world's tallest quarterback. Charlie Smoke is a pass receiver who should leave scorch marks on defensive backs covering Troy State ( Ala.), a member of the Gulf South Conference, in which Jacksonville State will be represented by an updated version of the Vow Boys. The Gamecocks are dedicating their season to the memory of their late coach, Clarkie Mayfield, a victim of the Southgate (Ky.) supper-club fire last spring.
At Nebraska-Omaha, Danny (Steam Machine) Fulton will improve his Division II pass-reception-yardage record every time he catches the ball. In 1976 Fulton's receiving accounted for 1,581 yards and 16 touchdowns and he hauled in a scoring bomb of at least 40 yards in each of UNO's first eight games. His touchdown total was the highest in all of college football, and Ohio State is not likely to match him when it comes to generating excitement.
As for the best teams, Montana State Coach Sonny Holland says, "We'd like to go on thinking we're No. 1 until someone knocks us off." The Bobcats may hold to that thought all season long. Last year Montana State finished with a 12-1 record, the Big Sky Conference and Division II championships and a 10-game winning streak, each of which contributes to a feeling that the Big Sky crown, if nothing more, will remain in Bozeman.
"I figure if we can make it through in the Big Sky again, we'll be well on our way toward defending our national title," says Holland, "because I think the Big Sky is the toughest Division II league in the country." It also will be the best-roofed once Northern Arizona completes its domed stadium, adding to those already existing at Idaho and Idaho State, thereby affording players fewer occasions to see the thing that gave the conference its name.
Montana State strengths include a solid offensive line built around Tight End Ron McCullough and Guard Lee Washburn, and southpaw Quarterback Paul Dennehy, a junior who personally accounted for 1,373 yards and 21 touchdowns and directed the Bobcats' ball-control offense to an average of 26 points and 287 yards rushing per game. Holland's concerns include defensive depth and the loss of Tailback Tom Kostrba, who left school to play in the Canadian Football League after his sophomore season. Even on top, life in the smalls isn't easy.
Montana State's rivals for national honors include New Hampshire, which the Bobcats edged 17-16 at Bozeman in the first round of the Division II playoffs; North Dakota State, a 10-3 loser to MSU in the semifinals; and the Akron University Zips, who were undone in the title game. Other contenders include Delaware, Northern Michigan and Bethune-Cookman.
New Hampshire has 15 starters back, including Tailback Bill Burnham, who, despite a chronic ankle weakness, has rushed for more than 1,100 yards in each of the last two seasons.