To earn its third straight playoff berth, Youngstown will have to hold off those cats from Eastern Illinois and Northern Michigan. Eastern's Panthers (7-4) will be playing without Chris (Poke) Cobb, who set the small-college career rushing record of 5,042 yards after averaging 146.3 yards a game last year. However, Northern Michigan's Wildcats (4-6) are counting on Quarterback Phil Kessel and receivers Scott Sible and Mark Marana. Kessel was the Division II leader in total offense (2,164 yards) last season.
Morgan State (9-2) made the playoffs in Coach Clarence Thomas' second season, and should do it again. Sophomore Quarterback Darrell Coulter will again be at the helm along with the mainstays of the "Quiet Storm" defense, safeties Vaughn Dennis and Mark Young.
Virginia Union (10-2) and Mississippi College (10-3) both suffered playoff losses to Delaware—58-28 and 60-10 respectively. The Panthers, who led Division II in defense (allowing 138.3 yards and 6.1 points per game), are rebuilding, but Mississippi should make the championship finals, with Quarterback Wade Pharis returning to lead the Choc-taws offense and all but two first stringers back on defense.
At St. Joseph's College (8-2) 18 starters return, and the Mike Houston-to-Gus Pasquini/John Geske pass-catch team is intact. Between them, the two receivers had 80 catches in 79. Coach Al Jacks of Clarion (Pa.) State (9-1) faces his biggest rebuilding task in 18 years as coach.
Springfield College (8-2) and Towson State (9-1) will be strong in the East, while UC-Davis, after a 6-3-1 showing, also has some rebuilding to do to keep up with Santa Clara in the West. The Broncos (6-3) have the division's top-rated passer, Dave Alfaro, who completed 110 of 168 passes for 1,721 yards, and he has 18 of his teammates back.
Two years ago Ithaca (N.Y.) College lost its Division III semifinal playoff game to Wittenberg ( Ohio) 6-3. Last December the Bombers (11-2) retaliated in the championship game, defeating Wittenberg 14-10, and this season Ithaca should hold the spotlight on the strength of its defense, headed by All-East tackles Jimmy Hoffman and Carl Guidotti. The Tigers (11-1), having lost all 11 starters from the I-formation offense, won't be quite as lucky.
A better bet for the finals is Ohio Conference rival Denison (7-2). The Big Red boasts Division III's leader in both rushing and total offense. He is single-wing Tailback Clay Sampson, now a senior, who amassed 2,255 yards—1,517 rushing and 738 passing. And hot behind Denison comes Baldwin-Wallace (8-2) which expects 33 lettermen to return to the playoffs.
In the Middle-Atlantic Conference, Widener (10-1), loser to Wittenberg in a semifinal playoff, could be topped by either Franklin & Marshall (7-2), which features seventh-ranked Quarterback Rob Shepardson, or Lycoming (Pa.) College (8-1-1), whose Rick Burd ranked eleventh among quarterbacks and was the conference MVP in '79.
While Carnegie-Mellon (10-1) faces a down year, the University of Dubuque (9-1), which had won nine straight before losing to Ithaca in the playoffs, should be improved. The Spartans' defense features All-America Tackle Gene Rowell.
The strength of the NAIA Division I is in the Lone Star Conference, the home of the national champ for 10 of the last 11 years. In 1979, Texas A&I had resigned itself to regrouping under a new coach, Ron Harms. Instead, the Javelinas (12-1) won the NAIA title, defeating Central ( Okla.) State 20-14 in the Palm Bowl in McAllen, Tex. It was A&I's seventh national championship, and with a defense, featuring Cornerback Emmanuel Thompson, it is strong enough to make a bid for another. But the Javelinas will have to fend off improved conference rivals Angelo ( Tex.) State (9-3) and Stephen F. Austin (8-3).