As college football begins a new century, it may well have said goodby forever to the fullback constantly running up the backs of his guards and tackles. It may have also bid farewell to the quick kick, field position, clawing defense—to every conservative element that once helped distinguish the game by regions and made it different from the pitch-and-catch style of the professionals. It started happening early in the 1960s, it happened in 1968 as never before and this year it should be even more so. For better or worse the collegiate game is now played the same way over the entire country. No more can one look at the Big Ten and say, there are the brutes who control the ball, or glance at the Deep South and say, there is what defense is all about, or probe the Southwest to see if the forward pass is alive and well at, for example, Baylor. Everybody throws the ball, everybody catches it and everybody runs with such alarming success that scoreboards have taken on the appearance of a light show for hippies.
This may not have been exactly what the rules makers intended when they gradually resurrected free substitution and then last season added more plays per game by stopping the clock after every first down, but this is what they got. Last season produced so much offense that even the pros looked stodgy. The average number of points scored in a game leaped to 42.4, the average total offense per game jumped to 657 yards, the average passing yardage climbed to 315.4 and the number of total-offense plays reached a peak of 150.1.
What the collegiate sport has come to can be highlighted by reviewing the scores of a few of last season's games: Indiana 40, Baylor 36; Air Force 58, Colorado 35; Virginia 63, Tulane 47; Ohio 60, Cincinnati 48; Rice 35, Washington 35; Wake Forest 48, North Carolina 31; Abilene Christian 50, Howard Payne 49; and Houston 100, Tulsa 6.
There were many, many more absurdities, of course, as just about every team had somebody trying to be a passer and as a record 16 ballcarriers, led by O. J. Simpson, gained more than 1,000 yards. The paranoia that beset coaches who thought they taught good defense was best exemplified by Arkansas' Frank Broyles. His team led Chuck Hixson and SMU into the fourth quarter by 35 points but barely held on to win 35-29. And Broyles explained, "We shouldn't have gone for a first down at mid-field instead of punting. A 35-point lead just isn't safe anymore."
Completing more passes for more yards than any nonsenior ever, Hixson—only a sophomore—provided some indication of the future. Fourteen of the top 25 passers from 1968 return this year, and 10 of those are juniors. At the same time, a lot of top runners may have departed, but many splendid ones are back. Foremost is Oklahoma's Steve Owens who needs only 1,045 yards—one can use "only" for such a figure now, it seems—to become the alltime major-college career rusher. Other excellent ones are Arizona State's Art Malone, Penn State's Charlie Pittman, Texas' Steve Worster and New Mexico State's Ron (Po) James, and there will naturally be a whole new cast of runners whose names will glitter by midseason.
With conservatism a thing of the past, defensive geniuses like Woody Hayes, Bear Bryant and Darrell Royal have learned to split at least one receiver out wide and hope a quarterback will drift the ball toward him. Even on a sluggish, muddy field (and there will be fewer of those with the rush to Tartan and AstroTurf) a team has become accustomed to calling a minimum of 20 passing plays per game. As Texas' Royal says, "We didn't use to mind giving up the football because we trusted our defense. Now we aren't so eager to give up the ball to anybody—anywhere."
In an effort to try to keep the ball with a strong ground game, Royal developed a formation last year—the Wishbone T—that will be the vogue in 1969. Basically, it is a straight T formation utilizing the triple-option play of the quarterback, but a receiver is split wide and the fullback is moved a step closer to the line of scrimmage.
Nearly everyone else this season will have a Wishbone T of some kind, just as everybody went to the I formation of USC's John McKay a few years back. Whether it works, however, will depend on the option finesse of the quarterback, the running and blocking prowess of the fullback and the team's ability to run and pass with equal talent.
The qualifications for a winner are becoming more complex. A good drop-back passer who can do nothing else or a sprint-out quarterback who can't drop back or the player who has to make up his mind whether he is going to keep or pitch before a play unfolds—all of these types—are losers. The winning quarterbacks, those who can take their teams to championships and not just to statistics, are those who can do it all: a Rex Kern at Ohio State (see cover), a James Street at Texas or a Bill Montgomery at Arkansas, to cite three good examples from a year ago.
But more than just this, the team that finds itself in the Top 20 will have good runners and receivers—and kickers as well, especially placekickers, since five times as many field goals were scored a year ago (566) as were booted 10 seasons previous.