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Inside College Football
Posted: Tuesday November 17, 1998 05:33 PM
Too Late for The Trophy | Chopping Down The Jerry Tree
Top 10 Assistants in Waiting | Win if by Land?
Fast Forward | Spotlight: Travis Prentice
After three years the Big 12 has finally lived up to big expectations
By Ivan Maisel
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:
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 Dwarfsas the other Big Eight teams were known in that conference's last daysand 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."
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' 43-yard line.
It might be the stuff national titles are made oflike 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 themhow 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 yardsthe 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," Henry said.
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 weeksand how many people get a chance like that?
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 stake.
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.
Alan Borges, offensive coordinator, UCLA
Rickey Bustle, offensive coordinator, Virginia Tech
David Cutcliffe, offensive coordinator, Tennessee
Turner Gill, quarterbacks coach, Nebraska
Ricky Hunley, associate head coach, Missouri
Carl Reese, defensive coordinator, Texas
Rich Rodriguez, offensive coordinator, Tulane
Kevin Rogers, offensive coordinator, Syracuse
Bob Stoops, defensive coordinator, Florida
Mike Stoops, defensive coordinator, Kansas State
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 seasonAir Force, Navy, Army, Ohio, Rice, Nebraska, New Mexico State, Missouri, Kansas State and Virginiawith those of the best running teams five years ago and 10 years ago.
Michigan (8-2) at Ohio State (9-1)
USC (7-3) at UCLA (9-0)
Auburn (3-7) at Alabama (6-4)
Florida (9-1) at Florida State (10-1)
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