Once touted as the superconference of the future, with 16 schools in four time zones, the wild WAC has become a wild mess. Last spring eight schools-Air Force, BYU, Colorado State, New Mexico, San Diego State, UNLV, Utah and Wyoming-announced that they were leaving the WAC to start their own conference, effective July 1, 1999. As a result, the guaranteed payout from this year's WAC title game has been reduced from $1 million to $250,000 by the city of Las Vegas, its sponsor. (The contract had been for the next two WAC football and basketball championships; the conference breakup effectively nullified the deal.) Moreover, the Holiday Bowl won't extend its traditional invitation to the WAC champ. Instead, it will invite the Pac-10's runner-up and will take a WAC team only if that team is ranked higher than the Big 12's No. 3. That's unlikely: Five Big 12 teams are rated higher than No. 25 Air Force, the WAC's sole ranked team.
It's possible that the WAC champion will be shut out of a bowl entirely. The conference does have a pair of guaranteed slots, in the Las Vegas Bowl and the Aloha Christmas Classic, but the former is unlikely to take a team that played in Las Vegas just two weeks earlier in the WAC title game, and there's speculation that out of loyalty to Hawaii, the Aloha will invite one of the teams that plan to remain in the WAC rather than a breakaway school. The exception would be Air Force, which has a big following in Hawaii.
The name of the new conference—the Mountain West—hasn't drawn raves. "It sounds like a trucking firm," says New Mexico basketball coach Dave Bliss. Sun Belt Conference commissioner Craig Thompson has been hired to assume that role with the Mountain West, which hopes to get a television contract and a guaranteed bowl bid for next season.
The future of the WAC looks bleak. Of its eight remaining schools (Fresno State, Hawaii, Rice, San Jose State, SMU, TCU, Tulsa and UTEP), not one has a football record of better than .500 this year. But commissioner Karl Benson says he has begun preliminary talks with schools wishing to enter the WAC (among the possibilities are Nevada and Utah State). "Obviously some serious damage has been done," says Benson. "I don't think it will cause the WAC to roll over and give up. You'll see an aggressive attempt from us to compete against the Mountain West and other conferences."
Follow the Bouncing Ball
At Missouri's first practice after the Tigers lost to Nebraska two weeks ago, coach Lany Smith garnered his players in the indoor practice facility. As he was speaking, dozens of tennis balls suddenly dropped from the rafters and bounced off the players' helmets and shoulder pads. Smith asked every player to cany a ball with him all week and bounce it as a reminder of the Tigers' mission: Bounce back It's an old Smith ploy, and it worked. Missouri rebounded last Saturday, handing Texas Tech its first home loss, 28-26. With Colorado, Texas A&M and Kansas State remaining on the schedule, the Tigers should keep those balls handy.
Ricky Williams all but locked up the Heisman by rushing for 150 yards as Texas snapped Nebraska's 47-game home winning streak with a 20-16 victory. But as good as Williams is, the Longhorns (6-2) have won their last five games because their defense has grown up. The same team that gave up 35 points and 379 yards in the first half while losing 49-31 to UCLA on Sept. 12 and was crushed by Kansas State 48-7 a week later, limited Nebraska to 311 yards and one touchdown.
With 14 freshmen and sophomores on Texas's two-deep roster, defensive coordinator Carl Reese has kept it simple. He didn't introduce nickel or dime defenses in practices until mid-October. "They didn't have a clue about tempo," coach Mack Brown says. "If something bad happened, they'd let three other bad things happen."
Now, if something good happens, the Longhorns feed off it. After the defense held the Huskers to 16 yards on their first eight snaps, its confidence surged. Tackle Casey Hampton, a 6'1", 300-pound sophomore and Texas's strongest player, plugged up the middle, limiting Nebraska fullback Joel Makovicka to 11 yards on seven carries.