Southern Mississippi Coach Thad (Pie) Vann, now in his 20th year, rarely has a loser, and he should not have one this year, even with Alabama and Ole Miss on the schedule. He has three of his starting back-field returning, including Quarterback Tommy Boutwell. The defense, nicknamed the Vandals, is mostly intact, too. It will be led by Rex Barnes, a 250-pound middle guard. West Texas State had one of the best offensive—and worst defensive—teams in college football in 1967. The results of its games read like oldtime basketball scores: 44-27, 37-27, 35-26. What saved a 7-3 record for the Buffaloes was their offense. The man to watch is Eugene (Mercury) Morris, a very fast halfback who rushed for 1,274 yards, second only to USC's O. J. Simpson. Mercury Morris had a good spring, and Coach Joe Kerbel says, "If he gets any better, he'll belong in another world." Most of last year's nondefenders are gone and the new group looks stronger, so it should be a better world all-round for West Texas.
New Mexico State, which always lived off its offense under retired Coach Warren Woodson, will have to look to the defense to carry it under new Coach Jim Woods. Quarterback Sal Olivas, who was No. 1 in the country in total offense, and Fullback Doug Dalton, who rushed for 1,132 yards, are both gone. But the defense, led by 280-pound Tackle Ruby Jackson and 245-pound End Bill Ackman, should assure New Mexico State of another winning season. The picture is also bright at Xavier, where the Musketeers have 16 starters back, among them Quarterback Jerry Buckmaster and Halfback Bill Waller. John Shinners, a 245-pound guard, is a solid pro prospect. Dayton suffered some major losses, but the Flyers still have Quarterback Jerry Biebuyck and a strong defensive line. They will not be too far off last year's 6-3-1 record.
If only half the wishful thinking at Pitt materializes, the Panthers will be sensational. In fact, after two 1-9 seasons, it won't take much to seem sensational—especially since Pitt has to play its usual formidable schedule. Coach Dave Hart, who spends his leisure hours prospecting in the Western Pennsylvania coal regions, has done some hard recruiting, so hard that opposing coaches are grumbling. But the result is a group of sophomores who may help the Panthers win three or four games. Linebackers Ralph Cindrich and Lloyd Weston are outstanding, while Danny Ferris, a speedy tailback, will spruce up the offense. But Hart must find a quarterback, or Pitt will find itself waiting for next year. As usual.
Joining Pitt in the category of Eastern independents with high hopes but rather low promise for success are Navy and Boston College. The Middies need a quarterback since John Cartwright, who passed for 1,573 yards, is gone. But that does not seem to bother Coach Bill Elias, a bubbling enthusiast who insists, "our passing will be better." He is optimistic, indeed, for Cartwright's potential replacements, Bob Pacenta, a 1967 jayvee, and Mike McNallen, a sophomore, are totally inexperienced. It is likely, though, that Elias will field a strong ground attack led by Halfbacks Jeri Balsly and Roland Laurenzo. Boston College, after some lean years, hopes to get back into contention under new Coach Joe Yukica. He plans to open up the BC attack and he has the players for it in Quarterback Mike Fallon and Halfbacks Dave Bennett and Fred Willis, a sophomore. But Yukica must plug some gaps in both interior lines.
Virginia Tech Coach Jerry Claiborne has Quarterback Al Kincaid and the rest of the backfield returning, but he is worried about a defense that is missing seven starters. He also would be happier if he did not have to open the season against Alabama and his old boss, Bear Bryant. The Bear has a way of clobbering friends. At Georgia Tech, Coach Bud Carson shuffled his coaching staff after last year's 4-6 disaster. He brought in three new assistants and switched two others to new assignments, but not even that will help Tech, for the schedule is too demanding. What Carson needs is more players to help Flanker John Sias and Linebacker Eric Wilcox. "If the alumni ask questions," says Carson, "I can stack excuses as high as their complaints." Tulane's Jim Pittman is in the same fix. His team is improving, but it faces Houston, Texas A&M and Florida in its first four games. Six sophomores will be starting, but perhaps Fullback Warren Bankston can keep the Green Wave from being inundated.
Buffalo, striving mightily to go big time, may be the best of the lesser independents in the East. Not many teams will take liberties with the Bulls' defense, which features 250-pound Tackle Don Walgate and Mike Luzny, an alert linebacker. But much will depend on the health of Quarterback Mick Murtha, who has had bursitis problems with his throwing arm. Colgate, 2-8 last year, has a new coach, Neil Wheelwright, who took over when Hal Lahar moved up to athletic director, and it looks like a good year to step in. Almost everybody returns from '67, including Quarterback Ron Burton and a number of large, mobile linemen. Rutgers figures to be improved, too, especially on offense where Quarterback Bruce Van Ness is in shape again after a shoulder operation and Tailback Bryant Mitchell is available to lead the running attack. But Coach John Bateman's defense is questionable. Holy Cross has a good passing combination in lefthanded Quarterback Phil O'Neil and Split End Bob Neary. The team will score, but a rebuilt defense may have trouble keeping Holy Cross ahead. About the best Villanova can hope for is to stave off humiliation every week. The Wildcats were picked clean by graduation.
Out West, neither Pacific nor San Jose State is likely to rattle its opponents. Only 10 lettermen return at Pacific, and Coach Doug Scovil has taken the quick route to fill the holes by bringing in 35 JC transfers. San Jose lost Quarterback Danny Holman, and he was about all the Spartans had last year when they were 2-7. Air Force could scare a few favorites. The Falcons are long on quarterbacks—Steve Turner and Gary Baxter are both back—and have two swift sophomores, Tailback Curtis Martin and Flanker Ernest Jennings. But the defense is ordinary, except for Tackle Ed Epping. "You won't find another tackle anywhere as rough or as mean," says Coach Ben Martin, who will turn mean himself if the Falcons don't better last year's 2-6-2 record.