No Irish schedule has started out as menacingly as, well, last year's. And Notre Dame fans won't soon forget what happened then. The Irish, the defending national champions, lost both their opener and Game 2, to Missouri and Michigan, for the first time in 82 years. And if that wasn't bad enough, both defeats came in South Bend. As a consequence, Devine appeared to be headed for the same fate as the Studebaker. The irony is that before he got the job, Notre Dame had tough schedules about as often as it recruited 175-pound linemen. For instance, in 1973 and '74, the last two seasons under Devine's predecessor, Ara Parseghian, Notre Dame played Army, Navy, Air Force, Northwestern and Rice—and outscored them 385-37. In contrast, this year's schedule includes six teams invited to 1978 bowls, plus Michigan State, which is the defending Big Ten co-champion and was uninvited only because it was on NCAA probation.
Gone is the Comeback Kid, Quarterback Joe Montana. In his place is Rusty Lisch, an architecture major who was red-shirted last season. Devine had Lisch penciled in as his starting quarterback in 1977. That didn't last very long as Montana made a specialty of coming to the rescue after the Lischled Irish had fallen behind. This season, however, Lisch must work without a net.
But he may not have to worry, because he has strong runners who should keep the Irish in every game. The best of them is Vagas Ferguson, who holds the Notre Dame rushing records for a single game (255 yards vs. Georgia Tech) and a season (1,192), and is just 648 yards shy of passing George Gipp and Jerome Heavens and becoming the leading Irish career ground-gainer. And Vagas doesn't just pile it up against the likes of Georgia Tech: he blasted for 100 yards and the MVP award when Notre Dame beat Texas in the 1978 Cotton Bowl with the national title at stake. Also lining up behind Lisch will be Jim Stone, who is a step faster and a bit more slippery than the usual Irish bulldozer-type halfback, and sophomore Fullback Pete Buchanan, a terror on third-and-short last fall when he bucked in for scores against such superb rushing defenses as Houston's, Tennessee's and Southern California's.
On defense, the Irish are concerned about replacing two linebackers and Tackle Jeff Weston, who was their top tackier (75) in 1978. John Hankerd, a converted linebacker, replaced an injured Scott Zettek at defensive end last season. Zettek hasn't fully recovered, so Hankerd will remain at end. Sophomore Joe Gramke saw considerable playing time as a freshman at end; he is also remembered for tackling Houston Quarterback Danny Davis on fourth and one with two minutes left in the Cotton Bowl game. The Irish won the game on the next possession.
After that 0-2 start last fall, Notre Dame won nine of 10 and jelled into one of the nation's top five or six teams, although the polls didn't place the Irish higher than 10th until they knocked off Southwest Conference champion Houston 35-34 in the Cotton Bowl.
"We'll have a good first unit on defense, a good first team on offense," Devine says. "But we'll need help from freshmen and players coming off injuries." If Lisch and the younger Irish aren't overwhelmed in the early going, Notre Dame could win nine again. And a new contract for Devine.
9. Texas A&M
After five games last season, the Aggies were unbeaten and ranked No. 5, but then underdog Houston poleaxed them 33-0 and the next week Baylor, of all teams, upset them in College Station. A&M fans were not happy. And three days later Coach Emory Bellard resigned. His offensive coordinator, Tom Wilson, was handed a whistle and told to do what he could. On the first play under Wilson, the Aggies, strictly a run-run-run wishbone team during Bellard's regime, threw a 53-yard touchdown pass. "Know how long I've wanted to send in that play?" asked Wilson afterward. Right then he installed a flashy I formation, which the Aggie players needed time to master. And the new attack fizzled against Arkansas and Texas, producing just one touchdown in each game, both losses. "Ha!" said the wishbone diehards. "Ha!" said Wilson after his players, having grasped the intricacies of the I, finished the regular season 7-4 and whipsawed Iowa State in the Hall of Fame Bowl. Wilson admits that changing offenses in midseason hurt A&M, but he's sure it was the right move. "It helped recruiting," he says. "And in spring practice, our youngsters knew what we wanted. So playing the I last season smoothed the transition for this year."
During their hybrid season the Aggies scored 263 points and finished No. 2 among Southwest Conference teams in offense (390.5 yards a game) and No. 3 in rushing (272.5 yards). Because Wilson plans to run "the complete I with various motions," the passing attack should improve. "We have to exploit Curtis Dickey and Mike Mosley," he says.
Tailback Dickey, the conference's 100-meter champ (10.2), slashed for 1,146 yards despite injuries that limited him to 205 carries. Wilson wants him to carry the ball 30 to 35 times a game, which means that, should Dickey maintain his 5.6-yards-per-carry average, he will surpass Earl Campbell's alltime SWC single-season record of 1,744 yards. Aggie devotees caught a glimpse of a healthy Dickey running out of the I in the Hall of Fame Bowl, where he exploded for a record 276 yards on 34 carries.