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Bowling For Dollars
Tim Layden
December 16, 1996
Thanks to a daring call, Texas stunned Nebraska, won the Big 12 and reshuffled the postseason matchups
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December 16, 1996

Bowling For Dollars

Thanks to a daring call, Texas stunned Nebraska, won the Big 12 and reshuffled the postseason matchups

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An hour before last Saturday's inaugural Big 12 Conference championship game, members of the Texas band rolled onto the floor of the Trans World Dome in St. Louis, wearing their burnt-orange cowboy and cowgirl uniforms like period pieces from the Longhorns' storied football past. "Horns, 31-27, just watch!" shouted a tuba player, and you had to think, O.K., Roy, now run along and play with Trigger. Yet as the game's end approached, there was the band and 4,000 or so Texas fans celebrating the seemingly impossible and resembling a rust spot on the side of a fire truck as they ignored the 40,000-plus red-clad Nebraskans surrounding them in the stands.

On the sideline below, Longhorns players howled at the disrespect shown them before the game and danced at their 37-27 upset in the making. Senior wideout Mike Adams pounded his chest with his fist and screamed, almost in anger, "To hell with Nebraska. We got the heart." A few feet away sophomore offensive tackle Octavious Bishop raised a helmet in his hand and barked in the language of the little man made large. "Nobody gave us a chance." he yelled. "We shocked the world."

The Texas victory could not have been more fitting. It sent into complete disarray a college football season that had been running off the rails of reason since Sept. 21, when Arizona State shocked the two-time defending national champion Cornhuskers 19-0. What made this coup de grace fiendishly pleasing was that it was delivered in one of three terrific conference championship games played on Saturday—games that some coaches had bemoaned as representing the evil of excess in their sport (part of that evil being the danger of exposing their teams to another challenge and possibly another loss). "Of course, if you win the game, you're more for it then." flat-lined Nebraska coach Tom Osborne, one of the most strident opponents of the title-game concept. His team, with only that one loss to the Sun Devils, had been projected as No. 1 Florida State's opponent in the Sugar Bowl, with a good shot at a third straight national title. Instead, the Cornhuskers suffered a bitter loss and wore the look of a dynasty that had run its course.

In the hours following the Longhorns' triumph, Brigham Young won the first WAC title game in overtime, 28-25 over Wyoming in Las Vegas (page 44), and Florida won its fourth consecutive SEC championship game, 45-30 over Alabama in Atlanta. Those results—plus Army's nail-biting, come-from-behind 28-24 victory over Navy—provided the final pieces of the bowl puzzle, particularly for the selection committees from the Fiesta, Orange and Sugar bowls, which are part of the bowl alliance. Under terms of the alliance, those committees would choose their matchups from among the conference champions of the Atlantic Coast, the Big East, the Big 12 and the SEC as well as two at-large selections.

And so they did. On Sunday afternoon the Sugar Bowl grabbed Florida State, the ACC champ, and No. 3 Florida for a been-there, done-that sequel to those two teams' pressurized-but-sloppy Nov. 30 game. The Fiesta Bowl followed by snubbing 13-1, No. 5-ranked BYU in favor of 10-2, No. 7-ranked Penn Stale and matching the Nittany Lions with automatic qualifier Texas, which is 8-4 and ranked No. 20. The Orange Bowl snatched 10-2, sixth-ranked Nebraska to play the Big East champion, 10th-ranked Virginia Tech, which is 10-1.

But more than creating matchups, Sunday's selections shed revealing light on the alliance. It had been expected since midseason that at least two teams would reach January undefeated and that the Rose Bowl's absence from the alliance would prevent those unbeatens from meeting. Sure enough, Florida State and No. 2 Arizona State are 11-0, but the Sun Devils will meet No. 4 Ohio State in Pasadena. It was the shunning of Brigham Young, however, despite the fact that the Cougars have a higher ranking and a better record than either of the at-large teams chosen (Nebraska and Penn State) by the alliance, that served to trash two widely accepted myths.

•Myth No. 1: The purpose of the alliance is to determine the true national champion.

Not even close. The purpose of the alliance is to avoid the creation of NCAA-run national playoffs. Such playoffs would put the NCAA in charge of the beaucoup dollars the event would generate. The alliance exists to keep the power and the money in the hands of the alliance bowls and the four conferences that receive guaranteed berths in those bowls. In the spring of 1994 the NCAA tried to study the possibility of starting a playoff system but, overwhelmed by political and economic issues, gave up right after breakfast on the first day. Conference commissioners and bowl representatives, meanwhile, jumped to fill the void and protect themselves, creating the alliance. Any national championship games that result are a bonus.

•Myth No. 2: The alliance bowls exist to give fans the best possible games.

Bowls are businesses, with major corporate sponsorship and huge television deals. Their purpose is to fill stadiums, generate TV ratings and create precious "economic impact" on their communities in the days leading up to the games.

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