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The smaller fry of college football may not get the headlines, but with postseason playoffs in the NCAA's divisions I-AA, II and III, at least there's never an argument over who's No. 1.
Division I-AA, now in its second year as a sort of limbo for teams that are neither "major" nor "minor," has four playoff spots for its 38 member schools. Florida A&M won the I-AA title in 1978, beating Massachusetts 35-28 in the Pioneer Bowl in Wichita Falls, Texas. Coach Rudy Hubbard is in his sixth season at A&M, where he has achieved a 44-11-2 record, including victories in 24 of the Rattlers' last 25 games. He will be hard pressed to keep up that pace in 1979. A&M has lost 12 starters, including Quarterback Albert Chester and Tailback Ike Williams, and must take on a schedule that includes Rhode Island and Division I-A Miami.
Massachusetts, which is missing 15 starters from '78, will also fall off the 8-3, 9-4 pace it has set in the past two seasons. Still, Quarterback Mike McEvilly, a lefty who is also an All- New England outfielder, is back and could keep the Minutemen in contention for the Yankee Conference championship.
While both of the 1978 Division I-AA finalists are having off years, Nevada-Reno, which lost to Massachusetts in the semifinal round, should go all the way, bringing the I-AA title to the Big Sky in its first season as a member of that conference. Coach of the Year Chris Ault has nine holdover starters on offense, including All-America Fullback Frank Hawkins, who led the I-AA in rushing (1,445 yards), scoring (102 points) and all-purpose running (1,656 yards); Quarterback Larry Worman, who completed 122 of 213 passes for 1,702 yards; and All-America Receiver Jeff Wright. The Wolf Pack offense will also get a kick out of the return of Fernando Serrano, who booted 13 field goals to lead the division. However, Nevada-Reno will have to regroup on defense, where it lost seven starters, and come up with a punter to replace Nick Pavich, who led all I-AA teams last season with a 41.3-yard average. Pavich left school to go into real estate.
Coming off probation after a 9-1-1 year, Grambling will also be a playoff contender. Linebackers Aldrich Allen and Guy Prather anchor a defense that gave up an average of only 10.9 points in 1978. The mainstay of the offense, which scored 22.4 points a game, is junior Running Back Robert Parham.
Fourteen starters are on hand at South Carolina State to welcome new Coach Bill Davis. Last year the Bulldogs were 8-2-1 and won the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference for the fifth straight year. State's offense is keyed to senior Quarterback Nate Rivers, who ran and passed for a total of 1,084 yards and scored 14 touchdowns.
Western Kentucky, the reigning Ohio Valley Conference champ, is another strong playoff contender. The Hilltoppers are coming off an 8-2 season in fine shape; eight defensive starters, including Cornerback Carl Brazley, have returned, as well as nine offensive stalwarts, among them Quarterback John Hall and Split End Eddie Preston.
Having lost Tackle Robert Hardy and Running Back Jeffrey Moore to the Seattle Seahawks, Jackson State will be down. But not out—at least as long as hometown lad Perry Harrington stays fit. A running back, Harrington scored 10 of his 14 touchdowns last year from outside the 20-yard line. Pro scouts have clocked Harrington in 4.4 for the 40-yard dash.
For offensive fireworks, look to Portland State, whose quarterback, Neil Lomax, squeezes the trigger in a "Run and Shoot" offense that averaged 477.4 yards. While the Vikings were winning only five of 11 games in '78, Lomax set NCAA records in passing (241 completions in 436 attempts for 3,506 yards) and total offense (3,524 yards). Just to make things clear, those are single-season marks; Lomax' career total is 5,176 yards gained. He is only a junior, but at the rate he's going Lomax could break the career record of 8,521 yards held by Jim Lindsey of Abilene Christian. Just how wild is this offense? Well, Joe Sigel is the Vikings'—and Division I-AA's—top returning receiver, and he is Portland State's fullback.
Eight teams qualify for the Division II playoffs, with each of the four NCAA regions having at least one representative. Two years ago Eastern Illinois was 1-10. Last season, Coach Darrell Mudra's first, the Panthers went 9-2 in the regular season and beat UC-Davis, Youngstown State and Delaware in the playoffs to win the division title. With all but four starters back, Eastern Illinois is a heavy favorite to repeat. Among the returnees is Steve Turk, who led the division in passing by completing 160 of 294 for 2,423 yards; Chris (Poke) Cobb, who is the division's fourth-ranked returning rusher with 1,330 yards; and James Warring, who is the second-ranked holdover receiver. He had 59 catches for 980 yards and 14 TDs.