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This is the NCAA's version of the Not-Ready-for-Prime-Time Players. There are now 46 teams in Division I-AA, up from 39 last year, and enthusiasm is growing right along with the numbers. "It's been an outstanding opportunity for us in particular," says Donald Combs, athletic director of champion Eastern Kentucky University. After an 11-2 season, the Colonels won the I-AA title with a 30-7 defeat of Lehigh last December and, says Combs, "our exposure has gone up dramatically."
With good reason. Eastern Kentucky won an uphill battle to gain the top spot. The Colonels' two regular-season losses had put them behind Murray (Ky.) State in the Ohio Valley Conference standings, but when Grambling State (8-3) was upset by Southern 14-7 in the final week of the season, Eastern Kentucky was selected for the four-team playoffs. Then in the semifinal game, EKU and Nevada-Reno were tied before a field goal won it for the Colonels, 33-30 in double overtime.
This year, 33 lettermen are back to defend the crown, including Fullback Dale Patton and Tailback Alvin Miller, who combined for 1,506 yards and 18 touchdowns. But only four starters return to the defense, and if that isn't enough to worry Coach Roy Kidd, he must also break in a new quarterback.
Murray State (9-2-1), which lost to Lehigh 28-9 in the other semifinal, is a good bet to race back to the playoffs. The Thoroughbreds have 20 returning starters, the best of whom may be All-America Safety Terry Love. This could be bad news for other Ohio Valley contenders, Austin Peay ( Tenn.) State (7-4 in '79) and Western Kentucky (5-5). Lehigh (10-3), the Division I-AA runner-up, should have another winner for Coach-of-the-Year John Whitehead. Returning to the defense are seven starters who allowed an average of just 7.2 points per game, most notably secondary mainstays Lou D'Annibal, Charley Marck and Keith Conley.
Last year's Division II champion, Delaware (13-1), moves up to I-AA this fall, and should be an immediate contender. In their three playoff games, the Blue Hens scored 156 points while giving up 59. Quarterback Scott Brunner was drafted by the New York Giants, but the Hens, with junior Rick Scully taking the snaps, have plenty left. Boston University (8-1-1) will once again be top dog in the Yankee Conference (11th-ranked passer Jim Jensen calls signals for the Terriers) especially since rival Massachusetts (6-4) will be without Quarterback Mike McEvilly.
After two straight years in the playoffs, Nevada-Reno (8-4) comes back as strong as ever. Fullback Frank Hawkins, who led the division with 1,683 yards rushing, is back, as are 10 starters on defense. All this plus a new mascot, an Arctic wolf named Sazar.
Boise State (10-1) is off its one-year probation and on a 10-game winning streak. The Broncos have all but two starters back to help All-Conference Defensive End Ralph Esposito, and eight Broncos return to the second-ranked offense, led by Joe Aliotti, the division's most efficient passer (65.75% for 1,870 yards). Tailback Cedric Minter ran for 1,012 yards in '79.
Impressive enough, but the Broncos' independent neighbor, Portland State (6-5), is due for a change of luck. Of 377 points scored by the Vikings and 271 by their opponents, a total of only 12 points separated Portland from a perfect season. If senior Quarterback Neil Lomax can't make up for an over-generous defense, nobody can. He has thrown 1,133 passes and connected on 642 (56.7%) for 9,188 yards, and his receivers are outstanding: Stuart Gaussoin (90 catches), Clint Didier (51) and Fullback Joel Siegel (47), also the I-AA scoring leader with 16 touchdowns.
Alcorn (Miss.) State (8-2) of the Southwestern Conference was tops in defense, giving up only 166.4 yards per game. The Braves' offense, however, ranked 38th out of the 39. In 1980, it promises to be just as rank. However, Alcorn's so-called "Tunnel Defense," which allegedly allows no daylight, has 10 members back, including Safety Leslie Frazier, whose 10 interceptions led the division.
With Delaware now in Division I-AA, crowing rights in Division II should belong to Youngstown ( Ohio) State, which was 11-1 before losing to Delaware 38-21 in the championship game in Albuquerque. The Penguins have a tough schedule and have lost 13 first-stringers, but Tailback Robby Robson, who gained 1,489 yards and led the division with 20 touchdowns, is returning, and 110 hopefuls showed up at spring practice to keep him company.