In '78 New Mexico State had its first winning season in 11 years and, with a 5-1 conference record, earned its first championship. No wonder rookie Coach Gil Krueger was named Missouri Valley coach of the year. To get those honors again, the Aggies will rely heavily on the running of Fullback Ray Locklin, who gained 863 yards on 179 carries, and the throwing of transfer Butch Kelly, who passed for 2,100 yards and 22 TDs at Garden City ( Kans.) Community College last season. If this duo falters, the Aggies will be in big trouble, because the defense yielded an average of 26 points a game. Tulsa has taken a "leave of absence" from the Valley and has no conference games on its schedule. In addition to being temporarily out of the MVC, the Hurricanes seem to be out of their heads, having lined up games against the likes of Arkansas and Oklahoma. Southern Illinois has conference rushing leader Burnell Quinn (939 yards), who should soon break the Salukis' career rushing record this season. The mainstay of Drake's offense is Running Back Dwaine Ball, the team leader in rushing and receiving, but the lack of similarly talented performers on defense should make it impossible for the Bulldogs to improve on their .500 conference record of '78. Things just kept getting worse for West Texas State, which went 3-8 last season and then had its athletic budget reduced and the number of its scholarships cut in half. Indiana State finished last in the Valley, but at least its wealth of frosh starters survived the experience and now look ready to exact a small measure of revenge. At Wichita State rookie Coach Jeff Jeffries inherits a program that has produced only one winning season in 14 and a schedule that includes outside games with Alabama and Southern Methodist.
Making a debut in a league can be rough, as San Diego State, a perennial winner in seasons past, found out while going 4-7 as a new member of the WAC last year. The Aztecs should be more successful the second time around, with such holdovers as Quarterback Mark Halda, the nation's third-leading passer, and All-America Guard Pete Inge on hand. Steve Stapler, who had 35 receptions, is also back and is joined by outstanding junior-college transfer Bobby Taylor, who led the nation's JCs in receiving yardage. Brigham Young has the pair of quarterbacks who took the Cougars to the 1978 conference title as well as eighth place on the national passing-offense list. Marc Wilson was 121 for 233 for 1,499 yards and threw for eight TDs while Jim McMahon hit on 87 of 176 for 1,307 yards and six TDs. But the Cougars have only four returning starters on defense, and that could keep them from winning another championship. Utah led the WAC in total defense, thanks in large part to Cornerback Jeff Griffin, who returned three interceptions for TDs, tying an NCAA record. He's back, but many of his teammates aren't. New Mexico's offense features 9.4 sprinter Mike Carter at tailback and Quarterback Brad Wright, whose 1,925 yards passing and 478 rushing made him fifth in the country in total offense. The Lobos don't have much of an offensive line, however. Colorado State has depth at quarterback with Keith Lee and Steve Fairchild—together they accounted for 13 TDs and 1,608 yards—and the Rams will need both of them and more because of a brutal schedule that opens with Arizona and then pits State against Arkansas. At Texas-El Paso, Coach Bill Michael is succinct: "We need a quarterback, an offensive line and some defensive ends." The stats prove he's right—UTEP, 1-11 a year ago, gave up 424 points and scored only 151. Wyoming, which finished second in '78, may be merely second-rate in '79, because it must replace its entire offensive back-field. Conference newcomer Nevada-Las Vegas, which will play a full league schedule but is ineligible for the title until next season, welcomes back a whopping 46 lettermen and a wave of transfers. Another new entry, Hawaii, will stretch the WAC's previously wide-ranging territory even farther. The Rainbow Warriors will travel 3,000 miles for their road game at UTEP, but they won't go far in the conference standings.
Having won two of the last three MAC titles, Ball State will again be in the thick of the battle. And again the toughest challenger figures to be Miami. Last year the Cardinals-Redskins game decided the conference winner, with Ball State rolling to a 38-14 victory. Cardinal Quarterback Dave Wilson, who has passed for 27 TDs and 2,667 yards in his three seasons, is back, but gone is most of a defensive unit that gave up only 7.5 points a game and led Ball State to an 8-0 league record. In trying to fill the quarterback void left by Larry Fortner's departure, Miami got a bad break when leading candidate Chuck Hauck fractured his thumb in spring practice. That slowed Hauck's progress, but he's in top shape now. So is Halfback Mark Hunter, who rushed for 1,046 yards last season. Two-time runner-up Central Michigan could go all the way this season. Last year, Coach Herb Deromedi's Chippewas were 9-2-0 and allowed only 139.4 yards rushing and 101 passing per game. All-Conference Safety Robert Jackson is back, as is Tackle Bill White. But Central's schedule starts with nine straight conference games, and that might prove to be too many too soon. Western Michigan lost Tailback Jerome Persell—4,190 yards rushing in three seasons—but eight starters from a defense that ranked 14th in the nation are on hand. So is Quarterback Albert Little, who passed for 828 yards and rushed for 358. At Bowling Green the situation is status quo: Quarterback Mike Wright will again lead an offense that last year topped the MAC in yards gained (394.8), but the defense will still be something less than stalwart. Tailback Allen Ross is shooting for his third straight 1,000-yard year at Northern Illinois. At Ohio the Bobcats are rebuilding around Fullback Kevin Babcock, who rushed for 861 yards a year ago. Kent State is also embarking on a reconstruction program; Quarterback Jeff Morrow and Split End Bob Whitt, two junior-college transfers, should provide a good foundation. Toledo and Eastern Michigan meet on Sept. 29 to decide which will end up in the MAC cellar.