After three years the Big 12 has finally lived up to big
It would be easier to find a Democrat on George Bush Drive, the
street that runs past Kyle Field on the Texas A&M campus, than
to find someone in Big 12 country who doesn't believe that the
three-year-old conference is the best league in college
football. That view is gaining credence outside the conference,
too. Consider the evidence:
Before last Saturday, when Kansas State knocked off Nebraska,
and Texas A&M edged Missouri 17-14 to win berths in the Big 12
championship game, five conference teams had reached the top 15
in the Bowl Championship Series rankings. The Big 12 not only
has a 30-8 record in nonconference play but also has the Heisman
Trophy favorite (Texas tailback Ricky Williams), a Butkus and a
Lombardi award finalist (Aggies linebacker Dat Nguyen) and three
of the top six rushers in the nation. Seven Big 12 teams have
already qualified for bowls.
Nice achievements, yet none is as important as the league's
rediscovery of a vital ingredient missing from the last days of
the Big Eight and the Southwest conferences, which merged to
form the Big 12: emotion. In Kansas, Missouri and especially
Texas, college football is alive again.
"What you see when you travel around the league now is passion,"
Big 12 associate commissioner Britton Banowsky says. Passion was
in short supply when Nebraska was pummeling the Seven Dwarfs--as
the other Big Eight teams were known in that conference's last
days--and when Texas A&M dominated the final years of the
Southwest Conference. "Our only game was Texas," recalls Aggies'
fifth-year tight end Dan Campbell. "Now, week in and week out,
everybody is as good as everybody else. It's fun to win by 50,
but competitive athletes thrive on competition."
Last Saturday, Texas A&M won its 10th straight, on Russell
Bynum's 39-yard field goal with 1:30 to play. The game between
the Aggies and Mizzou had all the trappings of a traditional
late-season conference matchup, including a crowd of 60,433 that
sat through a blustery rainstorm. The atmosphere was remarkable,
given that A&M and Missouri had never met as Big 12 members.
"The intensity of the rivalries is what makes teams play hard,"
Aggies coach R.C. Slocum says. "The first year, we didn't have
that intensity. This year we go up to Kansas, and they're fired
up to play us."
Another reason for the Big 12's rise, its coaches say, is the
conference rule that restricts members to no more than one
academic partial qualifier per year. In the Southwest
Conference, schools couldn't sign any, while in the Big Eight
each school made its own policy. Nebraska and Kansas State often
took players that, for instance, Missouri coaches were forbidden
to recruit. "The 12 school presidents evened the playing field,"
Tigers coach Larry Smith says of the one-partial-qualifier rule.
Whether the preeminence of the Big 12 will persist depends on
whether the conference stems the exodus of Texas high school
talent to other leagues. Ja'Mar Toombs, the Aggies' 6'1",
235-pound fullback from Kilgore, turned down Florida State and
Ohio State last winter to stay home. He rushed for 110 yards and
a touchdown in Texas A&M's 28-21 defeat of Nebraska on Oct. 10.
"The teams that are in the Big 12 are the premier teams," he
says, adding that he's even willing to help in attracting
talent. "I know one thing," Toombs says. "I'm not leaving campus
on recruiting weekends."
Close Shave in Knoxville
WHISTLIN' PAST THE GRAVEYARD
The 106,365 in Neyland Stadium were silent as the Tennessee band
broke into Rocky Top. The song seemed as inappropriate to the
occasion as those performed on the deck of the sinking Titanic.
Tennessee, ranked No. 1 in the AP poll for the first time in 42
years, trailed No. 10 Arkansas 24-22 with less than two minutes
on the clock and one timeout remaining. The Volunteers had just
lost the ball on downs at midfield. Their fans were sitting in
rain-drenched ponchos the color of dying autumn leaves.
They were rescued by the worst kind of miracle. Razorbacks
junior quarterback Clint Stoerner, trying to run a naked bootleg
on second-and-12, stumbled, reached down to regain his balance
and left the ball on the ground. Tennessee junior defensive
tackle Billy Ratliff landed on top of it on the Razorbacks'
It might be the stuff national titles are made of--like the
fluke kicked ball that helped Nebraska beat Missouri in overtime
last year on the way to a conational championship. The Vols
(9-0) cashed in the turnover for a touchdown and a 28-24 win.
"You're playing the Number 1 team in the country, and you're
about to beat them--how many people get a chance like that?"
Stoerner asked. "All I have to do is hold on to the football,
and I can't do it."
After recovering the fumble, the Volunteers called on sophomore
Travis Henry, the No. 2 high school rusher in Florida history
behind Emmitt Smith. During his senior year at Frostproof High,
he ran for 4,087 yards in 14 games. Last year, as a freshman at
Tennessee, he carried the ball twice for four yards. Over the
summer he considered transferring.
"I didn't care if I went down a level; I just wanted to play,"
Henry said. The Volunteers coaches and his mother persuaded him
to stay put. When sophomore starter Jamal Lewis suffered a
season-ending knee injury last month, Henry had a couple of
100-yard games as the backup to Travis Stephens. Less than eight
minutes into the first quarter on Saturday, when Stephens
fumbled for the third time in two weeks and was yanked from the
game, the 5'11", 212-pound Henry was suddenly indispensable. He
rushed 32 times for 197 yards--the last 43 coming on the Vols'
winning drive. On that last drive he ran like a bull in a
blindfold, charging into obstacles and getting madder each time
he hit something. "I think I get better as the game goes on,"
Should the Vols and Hogs hold on to their division leads, they
will meet again in Atlanta on Dec. 5 in the SEC title game.
Stoerner can have his revenge within three weeks--and how many
people get a chance like that? --Ian Thomsen
TOO LATE FOR THE TROPHY
Had he not laid an egg in a 38-17 loss at North Carolina State
on Oct. 1, Syracuse senior quarterback Donovan McNabb might have
won the Heisman based just on his performance last Saturday
night. McNabb directed the Orangemen 83 yards in 14 plays in the
final 4:42, finishing the game with a 13-yard touchdown pass to
tight end Stephen Brominski that gave Syracuse a 28-26
homecoming victory over 16th-ranked Virginia Tech. On the final
drive McNabb either threw or ran on 12 of the 14 plays,
including a 42-yard scramble to the Hokies' 15 on
fourth-and-seven. He finished with 289 total yards and two
touchdown passes, both to Brominski.
"He put the team on his back and said, 'Let's go,'" Syracuse
offensive coordinator Kevin Rogers said Sunday night. Virginia
Tech bottled up McNabb in the first half as it took a 21-3 lead,
prompting fans to offer Rogers advice. In the Carrier Dome there
are seats adjacent to the press box, from whence assistant
coaches watch the game. "They sell pizzas in triangular
cardboard boxes," Rogers said. "People were writing plays on the
back of the boxes and slamming them on the window in front of my
face. It got so bad I thought about using them."
Before the game's final play McNabb ran to the sideline and
threw up out of sheer exhaustion. Thus purged, he took the snap,
rolled to his right and then threw crossfield off his back foot.
With a move that would have made basketball coach Jim Boeheim
proud, the 6'5" Brominski boxed out 6-foot linebacker Michael
Hawkes, leaped and caught the pass. Pandemonium erupted as fans
poured onto the field. Syracuse old-timers can't recall the last
time that happened. Barring upsets this week, the Orangemen will
host Miami on Nov. 28 with a Bowl Championship Series berth at
CHOPPING DOWN THE JERRY TREE
One NCAA receiving record held by Jerry Rice has been broken
this season, and another may fall this week. Scott Hvistendahl,
a senior at Division III Augsburg College in Minneapolis, had
230 yards on 18 receptions last Friday to give him 4,696 career
yards, surpassing Rice's all-division mark of 4,693, set at
Division I-AA Mississippi Valley State from 1981 to '84. Nevada
senior Geoff Noisy needs 10 catches against Southern Mississippi
on Saturday to break Rice's all-division career-reception mark
of 301.... Wisconsin's Ron Dayne, who had rushed for 100 or more
yards in eight straight games, was held to a season-low 53 yards
in a 27-10 loss to Michigan. On at least three plays Dayne ran
the wrong way and failed to receive the pitch. Dayne said he had
an ear infection and couldn't hear the audibles.... Including
last Saturday's 27-23 Wildcats victory, the last 12 Arizona-Cal
games have been decided by a total of 42 points.... Despite
having replaced nearly its entire starting offense from last
season, Mount Union College of Alliance, Ohio, won its Division
III-record 38th straight game, a 30-21 victory over
Baldwin-Wallace College of Berea, Ohio.
Read more from Ivan Maisel, and cast your vote in our Top 25
fans' poll at www.cnnsi.com.
ASSISTANTS IN WAITING
Alan Borges, offensive coordinator, UCLA
His high-flying Bruins offenses have averaged 40 points a game
over the last two seasons.
Rickey Bustle, offensive coordinator, Virginia Tech
After holding together an injury-plagued Hokies offense, the
Clemson graduate is considered a favorite if the Tigers job opens.
David Cutcliffe, offensive coordinator, Tennessee
He groomed the inexperienced Tee Martin, who has led the Vols to
No. 1 and didn't do badly with Peyton Manning, either.
Turner Gill, quarterbacks coach, Nebraska
The former Huskers star has the name recognition and the
Nebraska coaching pedigree to generate attention and ticket sales.
Ricky Hunley, associate head coach, Missouri
The college football Hall of Famer oversees linebackers and
special teams. He's a good motivator and recruiter who'd excel
at the p.r. aspects of a coach's job.
Carl Reese, defensive coordinator, Texas
In his first year in Austin, he is being acclaimed for the
Longhorns' dramatic defensive improvement.
Rich Rodriguez, offensive coordinator, Tulane
The head coach of NAIA Glenville (W.Va.) State from 1990 to '96
is the architect of the nation's second-best scoring offense.
Can he make the leap from obscurity to the big time? Ever heard
of Hal Mumme?
Kevin Rogers, offensive coordinator, Syracuse
He developed Marvin Graves and Donovan McNabb into polished
multiple-threat quarterbacks, and his offenses have averaged
more than 30 points a game over the last four seasons.
Bob Stoops, defensive coordinator, Florida
Stoops transformed the Gators' defense from average to dominant
in three years. He's expected to stay put until Hayden Fry
retires at Iowa, Stoops's alma mater.
Mike Stoops, defensive coordinator, Kansas State
So what if Nebraska put up 30 on the Wildcats? Bob's younger
brother is a step closer to getting a national championship ring
like the one Bob won two years ago.
Win if by Land?
It used to be that the teams that ran most successfully won the
most games. That's not necessarily the case anymore, as is
evident in comparing the combined winning percentage of the top
10 rushing teams this season--Air Force, Navy, Army, Ohio, Rice,
Nebraska, New Mexico State, Missouri, Kansas State and
Virginia--with those of the best running teams five years ago
and 10 years ago.
COMBINED RECORD OF
YEAR TOP 10 RUSHING TEAMS PCT.
1998 59-40 .595
1993 79-33-1 .704
1988 85-35 .708
--Michigan (8-2) at Ohio State (9-1)
Best game: 1969, when the Wolverines and first-year coach Bo
Schembechler ended the Buckeyes' 22-game winning streak and beat
a team Woody Hayes considered to be his best. Last game:
Michigan's Charles Woodson clinched the Heisman by returning a
punt 78 yards for a touchdown and shutting down wide receiver
David Boston in a 20-14 Wolverines victory. This game: There's
no better way for the Buckeyes to make up for the dream lost
against Michigan State than to beat the Wolverines. Since we're
suckers for happy endings, Penn State will beat Wisconsin, too,
and the Buckeyes will have their Rose Bowl bid.
--USC (7-3) at UCLA (9-0)
Best game: 1967, when O.J. Simpson's 64-yard sprint for a
touchdown sealed the Trojans' 21-20 victory over eventual
Heisman-winning quarterback Gary Beban and the Bruins. Last
game: After a wild first half that ended 21-21, UCLA held USC to
a late field goal and defeated the Trojans for the seventh
straight time, 31-24. This game: USC and quarterback Carson
Palmer had last week off. Even with a month off there's no way a
freshman quarterback with two starts will beat the Bruins and
their senior quarterback, Cade McNown, in a game this big.
--Auburn (3-7) at Alabama (6-4)
Best game: 1985, when the lead changed hands four times, the
last on Tide placekicker Van Tiffin's 52-yard last-second field
goal, which gave 'Bama a 25-23 win over Bo Jackson's Tigers.
Last game: Alabama blew a 17-15 lead in the final minute when
Auburn recovered a fumble at the Tide 33 and kicked a 39-yard
field goal to win. This game: Since 1989, when the Tide came to
Auburn's Jordan-Hare Stadium for the first time, eight of the
nine games have been decided by 10 points or fewer. More
important, the home team has won every year. It's the Tide's turn.
--Florida (9-1) at Florida State (10-1)
Best game and last game: Doug Johnson's 63-yard pass to Jacquez
Green with a little more than two minutes left set up the
game-winning touchdown as Florida upset unbeaten Florida State
32-29. This game: The Seminoles have stripped down their offense
for quarterback Marcus Outzen, who in his second career
start--subbing for the injured Chris Weinke--will face one of
the best defensive fronts in the nation. Florida State's
stifling defense, plus the home crowd, will more than compensate.