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It came as something of a shock last season when Notre Dame lost four of its 11 games and finished out of the Top 20 for the first time in 16 years. Well, here comes more shocking news: next week Coach Dan Devine will start his sixth and last season with yet another team that won't wake up the echoes of Rockne and Leahy. The Irish face Purdue and Michigan for openers and then Alabama and USC at season's end. No wonder the top bracket again looks so distant, even if the Irish do, indeed, emerge as best of all the rest. The challenge is similar to that of last season, which the Irish began with a 12-10 upset of Michigan. That they went on to carve seven victories out of the fourth-toughest schedule in the country was no small feat.
This year the defense will once again rely on Line-backer Bob Crable, who led the team in tackles with 187. The offense, without Halfback Vagas Ferguson and Quarterback Rusty Lisch, will depend on the arm of whoever wins the job—there are five candidates—and the speed of Split End Tony Hunter (Crable, Hunter and senior Tim Koegel were all teammates at Cincinnati's Moeller High). Still, any return to glory for Notre Dame will depend on this year's freshmen, a crop rated as the fifth-best group in the nation.
On Sept. 20 Syracuse (7-5) will host Miami of Ohio (6-5) in the inaugural game in its $26.85 million, air-supported 50,000-seat Carrier Dome. The Orangemen have 13 starters back from the Independence Bowl-winning squad of 1979, but they don't include Quarterback Bill Hurley or Receiver Art Monk. The hopes for the offense rest with 5'7", 180-pound sophomore Running Back Joe Morris, who has picked up 2,373 yards in only two seasons. Kicker Gary Anderson may learn to love the compressed air inside the dome, but then he may not need the extra carry it is said to provide: last season he booted 28 of 28 extra points and 15 of 21 field goals.
Before its 31-7 loss to Syracuse in the Independence Bowl, McNeese State had been undefeated. However, only eight starters are returning to Coach Ernie Duplechin's Cowboy team at this small (5,500 students) school on the shores of Louisiana's Lake Charles. Kicker-punter Don Stump, who won six games with his field goals, is back, but sophomore Stephan Starring will be calling signals in place of Chad Millet, and junior Tailback Theron McClendon will take over for Artie Shankle. Within the Southland Conference, Texas-Arlington (9-2), which is in a rebuilding year, and Lamar (6-3-2) represent the Cowboys' major challengers.
Tulane (9-3) lost both Coach Larry Smith (to Arizona) and Quarterback Roch Hontas (via graduation). Coach Vince Gibson, who comes in from Louisville, and Quarterback Nickie Hall are the new men on the spot. Don't expect more upsets on the order of the Waves' 1979 victories over Stanford (33-10) and LSU (24-13), but do expect Linebacker Marty Wetzel and Middle Guard Wilfred Simon to turn up smack in the middle of all the action.
In the Southern Conference, Tennessee at Chattanooga (9-2) is the team to beat. Bill Oliver, former defensive secondary coach at Alabama, takes over a prospering program from Joe Morrison (44-29-4), who has gone to New Mexico. The Moccasins have two-thirds of their lineup back, including Steve Woods (1,203 yards and 10 touchdowns passing) and his running backs, Mike Smith and Gwain Durden. "Everybody we play will be up for us, because UTC is a marked team," says Oliver with coachly caution.
Since his arrival at Tennessee 3½ years ago, Johnny Majors' teams have gone 4-7, 5-5-1 and 7-5. The '79 Vols played in the Bluebonnet Bowl but lost to Purdue 22-27. Although each year has been better than the previous one, the Vols could flatten out in '80. Majors must replace Jimmy Streater at quarterback and keep the Vols from brooding over the imposing schedule. "It's so tough," says Tackle Tim Irwin, "that we play Southern Cal for a breather." Still, Majors says, "I'm cautiously optimistic." Seven home games don't hurt. Kicker Alan Duncan, who's from Kenya, doesn't either.
Louisiana State (7-5) has said goodby to Coach Charlie McClendon after 17 years, 137 wins, 59 losses and seven ties, and hello to Jerry Stovall, the 39-year-old hometown hero who inherits 40 Tiger lettermen, including 12 starters. Stovall was an All-America halfback for the Tigers in the early 1960s.
Behind North Carolina in the Atlantic Coast Conference, the race is wide open. Maryland (7-4) has regained three stars it lost to injuries early last year—Tight End Eric Sievers, Defensive Back Lloyd Burruss and Middle Guard Marlin Van Horn—and with 29 players who have started at least one game, the Terps could have a strong season. Running Back Charlie Wysocki (1,140 yards in nine games), Safety Ralph Lary (seven interceptions) and Dale Castro (16 straight field goals last season) are quality performers.
After three fine years and three straight bowl trips, Clemson (8-4) is rebuilding. The Tigers lost half their starters, including Quarterback Billy Lott. North Carolina State (8-4) was similarly depleted. Wake Forest went from 1-10 in 1978 to 8-4 and the Tangerine Bowl, the Deacons' first bowl since 1949. The offense will miss running backs Albert Kirby and James McDougald, but Quarterback Jay Venuto and his top receivers are back, along with the formidable kicking game and eight defenders.