Football's soothsayer, having just finished his annual pilgrimage to the shrines of the sport, here delivers his prognostications on what the 1956 season promises and his scouting reports on the 11 teams most likely to succeed. He follows these with his diagnoses of the 12 major conferences and the principal independents, to which SPORTS ILLUSTRATED appends additional scouting reports assembled by its correspondents across the country on 111 other teams which are most likely to occupy the fans' attention. They are grouped according to their 1955 standings in their 12 separate conferences, with an added section on the 21 independents, listed in alphabetical order.
Since its inception football has been a game of cycles and styles. Football coaches and fair ladies alike are sheep as far as the latest mode chic is concerned. The newest creations from such famous salons as Dior-Wilkinson at Norman, Okla. and Cassini-Munn at East Lansing, Mich.—the latter now under the active direction of an up-and-coming young Irishman named Duffy Daugherty, whose latest creation carried away all the honors at the Rose Bowl Festival at Pasadena—are studied, copied and adopted by coaches throughout the country. In fact, the widespread acceptance of the Norman split-T design clothed football 1955 with a factory-made look that at times bordered on the monotonous.
Having just returned from a tour of the principal style centers, I wish to predict a new trend for the fall of 1956. Nothing radical, mind you, but the wave of conservatism which has engulfed college football, and has even been felt in the professional game these past few seasons, is beginning to end. For instance, from the staid house at Norman come such catch phrases as "unbalanced line added," "a passing spread," "addition of 'belly series,' " etc. The doctrine of control football with mottoes like "a first down in three downs" and "they can't score if they don't have the ball" will be challenged. Last fall's powerful practitioners of this doctrine—Ohio State, Miami, Georgia Tech, Army and others-may be forced by "packed defenses" to go to the air. In fact, its outstanding exponents say that there is nothing so futile as a split-T team, two touchdowns behind, still grinding out first downs as fickle time flies.
Another trend of the times will be the use of the two-team system more than ever before. Most coaches have come to realize that a combination of fresh players participating alternately every seven or eight minutes is much stronger over the 60-minute route than a single unit of the 11 best men going the distance. To my way of thinking this is "two-platoon" football at its best, with every participant playing both offense and defense and not indulging in the spectacle of the specialists of a few years ago.
Football '56 has come a far distance from the days of the early-season breathers. Gone forever—and good riddance, I say—is the practice of scheduling setups in September and on into the second week of October. Many important games are on the books for the weekend of September 22 (not, however, among the Big Ten and Ivy schools, which do not swing into action until the 29th). Here are just a few "mid-November classics" to be played that first weekend: West Virginia-Pittsburgh, Syracuse-Maryland, SMU-Notre Dame, Kentucky-Georgia Tech, California-Baylor, Mississippi State-Florida and Texas-USC.
In selecting my 11 elevens for 1956, I found that the vagaries in Pacific Coast football made any evaluation there impossible. Certainly before the ineligibility penalties were imposed, either USC or UCLA, possibly both, would have been selected. Stanford may deserve this ranking, but, due to the uncertain caliber of Coast football, the Indians were not included. Their national ranking, however, will be established early in games with Michigan State and Ohio State on successive Saturdays. As for the Big Ten, the Fighting Illini, fortified with the fleetest runners extant, may make me wish that I had never heard of Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State before the season is over.
Powerful Pittsburgh is generally regarded as the best in the East and a threat for the national title. The Panthers play four of my selections—Duke, Notre Dame, Army and Miami. If they win these four they deserve the undisputed national championship.
Jim Tatum left Tommy Mont loaded with seasoned lettermen and the best tackle squad in the country at Maryland. Last year I selected Maryland but in 1956, despite dire forebodings by "Preacher" Bill Murray at Duke, I am picking the Blue Devils to finish a notch above them.
My selection of Miami may lift some eyebrows. The Hurricanes are the forgotten men of 1956 after all the experts (excepting Hickman) rode the bandwagon last season. They lost three heartbreakers last year to Georgia Tech, Notre Dame and Texas Christian. The best three-time losers in college football will have ample opportunity to justify my rating them in the 11 elevens this season.
Mississippi may again win the SEC championship and possibly have an undefeated season, but—through no fault of their own, except possibly being too strong—they again do not have a representative schedule. Tennessee will be tough, but seven rugged opponents in a row may soften their sophomores.