Utah State, the only non-California school in the conference, will be playing its first PCAA season. The Aggies' chief attraction is Jimmy Bryant, third-best punt returner in the nation with a 12.6 average in '77. Coach Bruce Snyder has depth at the skill positions, but not a lot of strength in the trenches. The University of the Pacific, on the other hand, has an impressive crop of linemen. The Tigers were 2-9 two years ago, then 6-5 last year, but it might not be easy for Coach Chester Caddas to continue the positive trend now that league-leading rusher Bruce Gibson is gone.
In a conference dominated by youth, no team has more underclass talent than defending champion Chattanooga. Last season Tony Ball, then a freshman walk-on, became the nation's No. 1 kickoff returner by averaging 36.4 yards a whack. When he stopped running, Mike Smith and Gwain Durden took over and each carried for more than 1,000 yards. Now they are sophomores, too. There also is depth in the defensive front line, and four starters return in the secondary.
That may be enough to uproot co-title holder VMI as the conference's defensive leader. In 1977 the Keydets allowed opponents only 2.7 yards a carry but much of that defense is gone as is three-quarters of the offensive backfield. The quarter that remains is Quarterback Robby Clark, who completed 54 of 105 pass attempts for 867 yards in '77.
Western Carolina (2-2-1 in the conference in 1977) should improve this season despite the absence of Darrell Lipford and Wayne Tolleson, who were among the nation's best in rushing and receiving, respectively. Quarterback Mike Pusey returns, as do 10 of 11 starters on a defense that helped the Catamounts win the final five games in 1977. Appalachian won only one conference game last season after being picked as the preseason favorite to win the title. This year the Mountaineers have an easier schedule, but Tackle Gil Beck, who was named the best blocker for the last two years, has graduated.
Since last season Coach Art Baker has moved from Furman to The Citadel, taking over a team that was last in rushing and scoring in 1977. Meanwhile at Furman his former assistant, Dick Sheridan, inherits an experienced squad, including a quarterback, David Henderson, who completed 56.3% of his passes last year.
All was glum at Marshall last year (0-5-0), but its offense is back intact and the Thundering Herd should corral a victory this season.