Once the least distinguished of the nation's major football conferences, the ACC now commands attention, four of its teams having gone to bowl games last season. The conference also is home to some of the country's best running backs. Moreover, there should be a season-long dogfight for the conference title.
The leading contenders are Clemson and North Carolina, but North Carolina State will be in the thick of things. The Wolfpack attack features Ted Brown, the NCAA's current career rushing and scoring leader. A 5'10", 188-pound senior with a slashing running style, Brown has had 3,252 yards, 246 points and 18 100-yard games. His running partner is Fullback Billy Ray Vickers, who gained 726 yards last season. The line is big and experienced. Coach Bo Rein would be more optimistic if Quarterback Scott Smith were equally experienced; Smith has played less than one quarter.
Maryland, another team with a quarterback gap, suffered an unexpected misfortune in August when George Scott, the Terps' leading ground-gainer, was lost for the season because of leg surgery. Still, Steve Atkins and Preacher Maddox are capable running backs. At quarterback, Coach Jerry Claiborne must decide between Tim O'Hare, a fifth-year non-letterman, and 6'7" sophomore Mike Tice, who once told a
reporter, "When I say my prayers before I go to bed at night, I say, 'God, please let me start for Maryland in 1978, 1979 and 1980.' I mention the years so I won't have to redshirt."
Thin defenses will prevent Duke and Wake Forest from being contenders. The absence of an offense will do in Virginia, a team that scored only six touchdowns last season.
Arkansas, Texas and Texas A&M are such heavy favorites it hardly seems worth mentioning that there are six other schools in the race. But there are and one only has to look back 12 months to when Texas was written off as an also-ran to see the danger of predicting anything in this conference.
Baylor had a disappointing 5-6 season largely because of injuries that forced Coach Grant Teaff to start three different quarterbacks. Whoever the quarterback is this season, he'll have a strong offensive line to work behind and All-America candidate Ron Lee at tight end to throw to. In all, nine starters return from the offense, and seven more—including linebackers Jerry Harrison and Mike Singletary and 6'4" Nose Guard Gary Don Johnson—are back from the defense. The Bears look like a 7-4 team.
Houston tied for the conference championship in its first SWC season in 1976. But last year was a 6-5 bummer. Now the Cougars may be ready to pounce again. Linebacker David Hodge, who dropped out of school last season, is back and healthy, as is Quarterback Danny Davis. Davis is a dazzling ball-handler, and it would be nice if he had someone to hand off to. The rest of the Cougars' starting backfield has graduated.
Quarterback Randy Hertel is among 17 returning starters at Rice. He won the conference passing championship with 14.2 completions per game as a freshman in 1977, and with excellent wide receivers such as Doug Cunningham and David Houser, he should do it again. The Owls are likely to give new Head Coach Ray Alborn a more pleasant baptism than the 1-10 sendoff Homer Rice got before leaving for an assistant's job with the Cincinnati Bengals.