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Oklahoma just plain came unstuck in 1981. The Sooners led the nation in rushing offense (334.3 yards per game), but they fumbled an astounding 52 times and ended up with their worst record (7-4-1) since 1970. Kelly Phelps will direct the never-a-dull-moment Sooner wishbone. He was injured for the last half of 1981 but completed only 33% of his passes when he was healthy. Stanley Wilson ran for 1,008 yards as a fullback but has asked Coach Barry Switzer to move him to halfback. There's a vacancy there because Buster Rhymes is sitting out the season for taking stereo equipment from a teammate's room. (Cornerback Elbert Watts, who was also involved in that incident, transferred out of school.) Among the other ballcarriers is a Sims (Fred, no kin to Billy), two Ledbetters (Welden and Jerome, no relation to each other) and a Dupree (Marcus, a freshman and a second cousin to Billy Joe). On defense the Sooners were defenseless in '81 but could be tough if Tackle Rick Bryan and Linebacker Jackie Shipp have superseasons.
Oklahoma could make the Top 20 if it wipes the butter off its fingers, but Kansas' fate seems to be out of its hands already. The NCAA spent most of the summer on an inquiry into the Jayhawks' program, including former Offensive Coordinator John Hadl, who reportedly offered two recruits up to $30,000 to become Jayhawks, and Tailback Kerwin Bell, who turned out to have been academically ineligible to play football in his freshman year (1980), when he ran for 1,114 yards. Bell tore the ligaments in his right knee in the third game of 1981, but Quarterback Frank Seurer still led the Jayhawks to an 8-4 season. After hanging fire while the NCAA reviewed his transcripts from high school. Bell is back in good graces—and good form—and ready to play. However, Kansas may yet be put on probation because of the recruiting payoffs. No decision had been made as of this writing.
The Jayhawks' pass defense, ranked No. 4 in the country in '81, features Cornerback Rod Demerrite and Free Safety Roger Foote, but the star of the Jayhawk defensive show is another foot—that of Punter Bucky Scribner. He averaged 43.8 yards on 75 punts last year and placed 20 of them inside the opponent's 20-yard line.
Missouri expected to rebuild in 1981. Instead, the Tigers went 8-4, beating Oklahoma (19-14) for the first time since 1969, upsetting Southern Miss (19-17) in the Tangerine Bowl and ending the season ranked No. 19 in SI's poll. Only six starters are back from a defense that allowed fewer yards per play (3.4) than any team except Texas, but among them are Safety Kevin Potter and Cornerback Demetrious Johnson, the hero of the Oklahoma game with a fumble recovery, an interception and a rundown to save a touchdown.
The Tiger offense has a game-breaker in James Caver, a split end and punt and kickoff returner, who averaged 16.1 yards a catch in '81. Caver played junior high football in Hanau, West Germany before his father. James, an Army first sergeant, was transferred to Waynesville, Mo. James Jr. paid his way to Mizzou for two years but earned a scholarship with a 52-yard pass-run for a TD in the '81 opener against—sorry, Dad—Army.
It's Year Two A.P. (after probation) at Auburn, and the War Eagles look ready to take off. Or perhaps they already have. Space shuttle astronauts Ken Mattingly and Henry Hartsfield, both Auburn grads, carried Tiger jerseys (numbered 58 and 54 for their respective years of graduation) with them in Columbia, and at launch time Mission Control bade them well with the words "Godspeed and War Eagles!" Auburn has eight home games (including the first six in a row), 15 returning starters, a likely All-America (Donnie Humphrey) at defensive tackle—and, best of all, a No. 1 quarterback. After shuffling four quarterbacks throughout his first year as head coach at Auburn, Pat Dye has settled on junior Randy Campbell to run the wishbone.
The real good news is that Auburn won its in-state recruiting battle with the Bear for the first time since 1968, signing the top three running backs in Alabama—Tommy Agee, Alan Evans and Vincent (Bo) Jackson. The latter is a state decathlon champion and baseball star from McCalla. He was picked in the second round of last June's baseball draft and offered $200,000 by the Yankees, but he turned out to be just another Jackson who got away.
Head Coach Mike White has turned Illinois around—from 3-7-1 in 1980 to 7-4 in '81—with a pack of junior-college transfers (18 in '81) and a passing attack developed during White's coaching years at Stanford and Cal and, most recently, as an assistant with Bill Walsh's 49ers. There are 10 new jucos on hand to fortify the Illini offensive line and defense, which, despite the efforts of Defensive Tackle Mark Butkus (Dick's nephew), gave up 70 points to Michigan last year.
But the key to the Illini fortunes is Quarterback Tony Eason, who came from a run-oriented J.C., American River College in Sacramento, in 1980, took a redshirt year behind Dave Wilson and last season was the No. 4 passer in the country. He completed 248 of 406 (61%) for 3,360 yards—tops in Big Ten history (Mark Herrmann of Purdue held the previous single-season mark of 3,212). Eason, who set nine Big Ten and 10 school records, including most touchdowns in a season (20), has even been the subject of a hit song around campus, Champaign Tony. White calls his Illini offense the Flare-Flood, because that's what the receivers do—flare out and flood a zone. And it works. Nine Illini receivers had 15 or more receptions in '81.
The last time Ohio State went into a season unranked was 1979, when a sophomore quarterback named Art Schlichter led the Buckeyes to 11 victories and to within a yard of a national title in the Rose Bowl. Except for the spot left by Schlichter (he's now a Colt), the Buckeye offense is deep and strong, with the likes of Joe Lukens at guard, Tim Spencer (who ran for 1,217 yards and 12 touchdowns in '81) at tailback and Gary Williams (50 catches for 941 yards and six TDs) at split end. Then there's the great unknown. Sophomore Mike Tomczak led a pack of six quarterback aspirants in the spring, but, says Coach Earle Bruce, "The job is wide open."