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College Football
Ivan Maisel
November 23, 1998
Super LeagueAfter three years the Big 12 has finally lived up to big expectations
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November 23, 1998

College Football

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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.

YEAR

COMBINED RECORD OF
YEAR TOP 10 RUSHING TEAMS

PCT.

1998

59-40

.595

1993

79-33-1

.704

1988

85-35

.708

Super League
After three years the Big 12 has finally lived up to big expectations

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 sue 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 tire 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.

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