Give a Top-20 coach half a chance to point out his squad's chief weakness, and he'll gratefully pounce on it. Why? Because by mentioning even the smallest of defects he spotted in his juggernaut during spring practice, he may well save his job come late fall. But ask John Robinson what USC lacks and he's stumped. After hemming and hawing, the best he can come up with is, "Talented players don't always repeat productive seasons."
Preseason pickers like to cover themselves, too. So we'll try to help Robinson out. Uh, well, there are nearly a dozen regulars from last year's UPI national championship team coming off injuries, and, uh, six games are on the road. But in all honesty, all of those players were hale last week, and aside from trips to Notre Dame and Washington, the road schedule isn't threatening. Certainly not nearly as intimidating as the Trojans who will be making those journeys. Among them are 15 returning starters, including lefthanded Paul McDonald, the only proven star at quarterback on the three or four teams that figure to be vying for No. 1. Last year McDonald completed 57% of his passes for 1,690 yards and outfoxed enemy defenders for a Trojan-record 19 touchdowns. Based on the NFL formula for rating quarterbacks (a computation that weighs percentage of completions, touchdowns, interceptions and yards per pass attempt), McDonald had a 101.6 rating—which is higher than that for any of the last 19 Pac 10 (or Pac 8 as it was known until the 1978 season) passing champions.
McDonald will often throw to Kevin (Scoring Bug) Williams, a 5'8", 155-pound former California prep 100-yard sprint champion (9.4), who converted 10 of his 17 receptions into touchdowns last season. Still, the passing game produced only 38% of USC's 4,979 total yards, and because Charles White (page 34) is returning at tailback, it's safe to assume that percentage will not rise. All-America Guard Pat Howell is gone, but otherwise the line is intact and so mammoth that one dog-whipped opponent exclaimed, "When they stand up, they see Denver." Brad Budde, an All-America candidate at guard, is 6'5", 253 pounds, and Tackle Anthony Munoz (who also pitched in relief on the Trojans' No. 1-ranked baseball team in 1978) is 6'7", 280. Line Coach Hudson Houck won't soon forget how Munoz drove a defender from the 15-yard line all the way back into a goalpost last season.
In 1978 USC yielded just 91.3 yards a game rushing, second-lowest in the nation behind Penn State. Linebacker Dennis Johnson, last season's leading tackier, is back, and Ty Sperling is the starter at nose guard—no big fall-off there, considering that against UCLA last year, with a Rose Bowl berth at stake, he sacked the Bruin quarterback for losses of 12, 12 and nine yards.
And here's one more non-excuse for Robinson. Joe Terranova, a market researcher who watches hundreds of high school game films a year and reports on who does best in the scramble for high school prospects, concludes that USC came out on top for the second straight year. If you doubt that opinion, perhaps you'd like to debate it with any of the seven freshmen linemen Robinson landed. They average out to 6'5" and 243 pounds.
"We're faced with the myth that our athletes are invincible," says Robinson, still scratching. "We like it, but it's still a myth." So are national championships, and they are liked, too. Barring an epidemic of swelled heads, USC should win its ninth.
Not long after Alabama's Sugar Bowl upset of top-ranked Penn State in January—which earned the Tide the No. 1 rating in the AP poll, Coach Bear Bryant cracked a few ribs and was taken to the hospital. News reports said that Bryant hurt himself when he fell stepping out of the shower, but the real story, as Alabamans tell it, is that while Bear was out walking his ducks, he was hit by a motorboat. Among card-carrying Crimson Tide rooters such deification is understandable. Though national titles elsewhere are as rare as a 'Bama undergraduate who has never heard of parlay cards, Bryant has won five in 21 seasons at Alabama.
This year, thoughts of anything less than a clean sweep in the regular season and another national title are considered heretical in Tuscaloosa. After all, 'Bama has never lost more than one game in a season following a No. 1 ranking. And the schedule is heaven-sent, with workouts against Georgia Tech, Baylor, Wichita State and Miami replacing tests against the sterner likes of Nebraska, USC, Missouri and Washington. As one student entrepreneur observed, "I guess Bear is mad at the scalpers. We'll have to come up with something to unload our tickets."