From the apex of the Texas Star, the tallest Ferris wheel in North America, the Cotton Bowl looks like a big ashtray. So commanding is the view from 212 feet above the Texas State Fairgrounds, so card-table flat the surrounding countryside, you can almost see into Arkansas.� That wasn't necessary last Saturday, however, if you happened to be sharing a mesh-enclosed compartment with Judy Randall of Van Buren, Ark., who'd just gotten off the phone with a friend back home. "Zero-zero in the second quarter," she reported during the second of our four rotations on the Ferris wheel—a solid value, we agreed, for eleven 50-cent coupons. She was referring to the score of the Auburn-Arkansas game, unfolding back in Fayetteville as we spoke. It was still a couple of hours before kickoff at the 98th Red River Shootout, between top-ranked Oklahoma and No. 11 Texas. "It's going to be hard to root for Texas," said Judy's daughter, Sandy, who was riding with us, "but we need OU to lose a game."� It turned out to be a tough afternoon for the Randalls but a wild, wonderful weekend for college football. Ten teams in the Top 25 faced each other; and six unbeatens—Minnesota, Nebraska, LSU, Florida State, Judy's Razorbacks and defending national champion Ohio State—went down. Unfortunately for those first-time losers, the college football season does not work like a Ferris wheel. What goes down does not necessarily come back up.
We all knew going in that this would be a transforming weekend. But who was ready for what Oklahoma did at the fairgrounds, the neutral-site backdrop to the Red River Shootout since 1929? By the time the game was 34 seconds old, the Sooners were up 7-nil on a Renaldo Works score. That was set up by a 30-yard interception return by Derrick Strait, a senior who has shone for four straight years against the Longhorns and whose hometown is Austin, an added pinch of salt in the wound. While it lacked the drama of Miami's 22-14 upset of Florida State (box, page 46) or of Ohio State's choke job (literally) against Wisconsin (box, page 48), Oklahoma's 65-13 embarrassment of the Long-horns was the day's most revealing result. Right now the Sooners are playing at a different level from even the best of the rest.
What else did we learn on Revelation Saturday? While Miami might be less physically talented this season than last, the Hurricanes are mentally just as tough, maybe more so. They're also excellent mudders. We learned that Auburn (a 10-3 winner over the Razorbacks) actually deserved some of those preseason hosannas, that a team like Florida (which beat LSU 19-7) can discover its heart after a players-only meeting, that Nebraska (a 41-24 loser to Missouri) was overrated and that Notre Dame, if possible, was underrated (the Irish topped Pitt 20-14). We learned that you cannot stop Matt Schabert, you can only hope to contain him.
Schabert was the unknown understudy of Jim Sorgi, the Wisconsin quarterback rendered mute by an after-the-whistle, under-the-pile throat massage from Ohio State linebacker Robert Reynolds. Forced into the game in the third quarter of a nail-biter without so much as a warmup throw, Schabert will now go down in Badgers annals as the hero of one of the most stirring victories in Wisconsin's history. It is Reynolds's fate to grow old wondering if the Buckeyes would have been better off with Sorgi in the game.
Wisconsin's win in particular, and Saturday's games in general, provided multiple reminders of why college football is so much more captivating than the brand played on Sundays. How could a team that lost to UNLV a month ago knock off the defending national champs?
Because that sort of thing happens all the time in college football. Washington State loses to Notre Dame, which is dismantled by Michigan, which is dominated by Oregon, which is handed its worst home defeat in a quarter century by... Washington State. Keen though they are to affect the mannerisms of the pros, the guys playing on Saturdays (and Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays) are still 18-to-23-year-old amateurs prone to homesickness, lovesickness and brain cramps.
Sooners coach Bob Stoops says that the "incredible passion" of college fans, combined with the fact that "the players are still young, still learning," results in "a kind of purity in the college game." While there was a decided absence of purity in the choke hold that knocked Sorgi out, Stoops is right. Because of the parity brought about by scholarship limits, college football has never been less predictable, or more fun. Its unruliness—even its arcane formula for determining which two teams will play in the BCS title game, which is understood only by Stephen Hawking, Jeff Sagarin and a handful of other eggheads—adds to its charm.
Is the Cotton Bowl a moldering concrete pit begging for the wrecking ball? That's fair to say. But I'd rather watch a game there than in any of the corporate-sponsored behemoths blighting the NFL landscape. The people running college football understand that they don't need NFL-type bells and whistles: instant replay, radios in helmets, coaches with red "review" flags. They don't need to kick off their season with a concert featuring Britney Spears or some superannuated '70s band. College football trusts the product it is selling: high drama. Unlike in the NBA, NHL, NFL or major league baseball, there are immediate, permanent consequences for defeat in college football. This isn't the NFL, in which you lose six games and still have a solid shot at a wild-card spot. In college if you lose once you might still be able to play for the national title. Lose twice, you're out.
In college football the stakes are high on opening day. The postseason is now. "That's what makes the regular season so special," says Tennessee coach Phil Fulmer. "Every week in this country a playoff is going on." In their de facto playoff at Neyland Stadium last Saturday, the Volunteers spit the bit against Georgia after Bulldogs safety Sean Jones took a fumble 92 yards for a touchdown on the final play of the first half, a 14-point swing from which Tennessee couldn't recover. The only other team to collapse as completely was Texas, which like Tennessee now finds both the national championship and its conference title out of reach.
During their respective postgame inquisitions by the media, both Fulmer and Longhorns coach Mack Brown apologized to their team's followers. Smart men. Another difference between the college game and almost every other major sport is the rabidity and depth of the fans' passion. You don't want these people turning on you. Walking the Midway after I got off the Ferris wheel, I saw a Sooners fan pushing a wheelchair bearing an elderly gentleman. The oldster sported an Oklahoma cap and seemed to be enjoying the fair, until a muscle-bound Texas rooter leaned over and shouted in his face, "OU sucks!"