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Arkansas revived from its 5-5-1 record a year ago to gain the No. 6 ranking, thanks largely to renewed enthusiasm stirred up by new Coach Lou Holtz. Spearheaded by Larry Jackson, Jimmy Walker and Howard Sampson, Arkansas' defense was tops in the SWC against the pass and was third in the nation against scoring.
Guard Leotis Harris is All-America, Ben Cowins rushed for 100 yards or more in six games and Ron Calcagni is a 53.3% passer, albeit an infrequent one. Steve Little booted 19 field goals to lead the nation. The Razor-backs ran roughshod over eight opponents, but lost to Texas and struggled to beat their other bowl-bound opponents, Texas Tech and Texas A&M. Against A&M, the only wishbone team Arkansas faced, two Aggie backs gained more than 100 yards.
It seems impossible for Michigan to lose the Rose Bowl to Washington. The Wolverines scored 30.3 points a game and rank fourth nationally in allowing the fewest points per game (8.8). The strong backfield consists of veterans Rick Leach, Harlan Huckleby and Russell Davis and an explosive sophomore, Roosevelt Smith. The defense is hard-nosed, and the line blocking, featuring top pro prospects Walt Downing and Mark Donahue, is the best in years. For its part, Washington had four losses, including one to UCLA, and clinched its Pac-8 title only when USC whipped the Bruins.
Sure, something could go wrong. Michigan occasionally goes to pieces, as it did in October when it lost to Minnesota. In its slow start (1-3), Washington lost to the Gophers, too, but with Warren Moon throwing to Spider Gaines the Huskies developed into the type of team that can score quickly. Washington also has sophomore Joe Steele, who took the halfback job away from Ron Rowland, the Huskies' first 1,000-yard rusher since Hugh McElhenny. The best hope for the Pac-8 champion is to force Michigan into trying to play catch-up, which it did so ineffectually against USC in the Rose Bowl last year. If that happens, expect Linebacker Michael Jackson to play a key role in keeping the Wolverines locked up.
Big Ten teams have lost eight of the past 10 Rose Bowls. Last year Michigan turned belly up after arriving in Pasadena with a 10-1 record, ranked No. 2 and in contention for the national championship. West Coast wags made jokes about the Wolverines and their reluctance to pass. One wrote, "They seemed to like the ground so much they'll probably take a bus back to Ann Arbor." So Michigan may have been stung into developing a more diversified attack: Leach threw for 1,109 yards this season compared to 897 last year. The Wolverines should be flying high on their way back to Ann Arbor after the 1978 Rose Bowl.
The Bluebonnet Bowl is not where USC and Texas A&M were supposed to wind up. The preseason pollsters figured that USC would win its 23rd Pac-8 championship and Texas A&M its 13th Southwest Conference title. But the Trojans' conference losses to California and Washington and the Aggies' inability to handle Arkansas or Texas precluded trips to Pasadena and Dallas and diverted both teams to Houston. Much the same thing happened in 1975, when the Aggies and the Trojans got the late-season lazies and ended up playing each other in the Liberty Bowl. USC won that one, 20-0.
Both teams have offenses that are brilliant on occasion, but USC is better defensively and has a definite edge in passing. Rob Hertel's 15 touchdown throws and 1,897 yards broke Trojan records, and Randy Simmrin tied Lynn Swan's single-season reception mark of 95. Tailback Charles White is a 1,291-yard back, giving the Trojans balance. The defense, featuring Clay Matthews and Dennis Thurman, was the stingiest in the Pac-8 against the run. USC's losses, especially at California and Washington, were a result of offensive lapses.