In 1983 Montana State finished 1-10 with an offense that scored nine touchdowns. In 1984 the Bobcats ducked into a phone booth and emerged to win the Division I-AA championship with a 12-2 record. The principal difference was quarterback Kelly Bradley, an unheralded sophomore who threw for 4,477 yards and 38 touchdowns, including 334 yards and two TDs in the title game against Louisiana Tech, which happened to have the No. 1-ranked pass defense in the division.
During the regular season Tech had allowed a division-low 3.2 yards per play. The Bulldogs will bank on seven returning defenders, especially strongside linebacker Doug (Tank) Landry. He has such a nose for the ball that his coaches let him line up just about wherever he thinks it's going. Over two seasons Landry has caused eight fumbles, intercepted five passes and nailed ballcarriers behind the line 24 times. "We'd audible the plays, we'd change the snap counts," says Montana State's Bradley. "Even if someone got a piece of him it didn't matter."
Arkansas State's only I-AA losses in '84 were to Louisiana Tech and Montana State. The Indians welcome back the skilled players responsible for 86% of their '84 yardage and the top eight tacklers from a team that held seven of 11 regular-season opponents to fewer than 100 yards on the ground. The best of those defenders is noseguard Carter Ray Crawford, who led State in tackles (89), fumble recoveries (six) and every other defensive category except interceptions.
Rhode Island is loaded for bear with the arm of Tom Ehrhardt. Last season he had three consecutive 400-yard games and led the Rams to the I-AA semifinals. He completed 308 of 536 passes (57%) for 3,870 yards and 36 TDs, breaking various Rhode Island season and career passing records set 14 years earlier by his brother, Bob. All four receivers return to the Rams' one-back offense. Dameon Reilly had 58 catches for 902 yards and 14 TDs in '84. All-America Brian Forster set I-AA tight-end records with 100 grabs for 1,357 yards and 12 TDs. Bob Donfield and Tony DiMaggio had 92 catches and 1,114 yards between them.
Rhode Island's toughest competition in the Yankee Conference will be New Hampshire, which features tailback Andre Garron, the son of former Boston Patriot Larry Garron. Last season Garron picked up 1,004 yards in 6� games before going down with a strained knee. On defense the Wildcats have cornerback Tim Teevens, who last year made five interceptions and 68 tackles and was named the conference's Defensive Player of the Year.
Delaware won its last six games in '84 behind a sophomore Kiddie Corps that included three members of the offensive backfield and the leading tackler, middle linebacker Darrell Booker. The quarterback is Rich Gannon, whose 529 rushing yards were the most by a quarterback in the illustrious history of the Delaware wing T. His best day passing—22 of 32 attempts for 232 yards—came in a 34-19 upset of Temple. "I don't know how he could have played any better," says Owl coach Bruce Arians. "He was in the same category as Doug Flutie on the day we played Boston College."
Eastern Kentucky has been to the playoffs six straight times and should make it seven in a row this year. The offense has 10 '84 starters back and adds two key transfers—tailback James Crawford from Georgia and quarterback Mike Whitaker from Kentucky. The defense is led by linebacker Fred Harvey, the Ohio Valley's '84 defensive MVP, with 147 tackles.
Mississippi Valley State's defense allowed 374.7 yards a game in '84, but who noticed? The offense was busy rolling up 640.1 per. Willie Totten wound up throwing for 4,557 yards and 56 touchdowns. His 163.6 efficiency rating was not only the best in the division but also 10 points better than anyone in I-A. The defense—young and injury-riddled last season—will be much stronger. The only significant loss on offense is wide receiver Jerry Rice, who was the 49ers' No. 1 draft pick. Joe Thomas, with 86 receptions last year, is the top returning receiver. Also, coach Archie (Gunslinger) Cooley says he wants to run the ball more often this fall. That's good news for Carl Byrnum, who might surpass his 1,127-yard performance of '84.
The No. 2-ranked passer in I-AA last fall was Tennessee State's Gilbert Renfroe, who threw for 1,458 yards and 17 touchdowns as a backup to Kenneth Biggies. He passed for 2,242 yards and 24 TDs. The Tigers' passing game has always been outstanding, but in his first season succeeding the late Big John Merritt, coach Bill Thomas concentrated on defense and got results. In one game, a 24-15 upset of Louisville, the Tigers forced five fumbles and intercepted seven passes. For the year they allowed a division-low 187 yards per game.
The Southern Conference will be a dogfight between Tennessee- Chattanooga and Furman. Chattanooga has virtually its entire squad back and adds two transfer tailbacks—Alan Evans, who backed up Bo Jackson at Auburn two years ago, and Keith Montgomery, who was Georgia's leading rusher (519 yards) in '83. But the Moccasins open with Vanderbilt and Georgia Tech and then play the conference biggies—Western Carolina, Furman and newcomer East Tennessee State—on the road. Furman also has nearly everyone back, including running back Robbie Gardner, who averaged a I-AA record 7.3 yards a carry while gaining 1,232 yards last year; Bobby Lamb, the No. 3 passer in the division with 1,781 yards and 19 TDs; and wide receiver Chas Fox, the sixth-round pick of the New Jersey Generals, who elected to stay for his optional year of eligibility.