Coach Fred Akers of the Texas Longhorns likes to say that Austin is the greatest setting for college football in all of America. But he doesn't like it when opponents agree with him, and there was SMU's Craig James last Saturday doing just that. "This place does give me thrills," James was saying. "When I was a child in Houston, watching Longhorns like Steve Worster and Jim Bertelsen, watching the band march onto the field...I dreamed about playing here. Coach Akers is right. This is college football. This is the greatest."
Of course, James's euphoria may have been induced by the fact that the Mustangs had just beaten Texas 30-17, thereby avenging their only loss of last season, extending their winning streak to 11 games—the nation's longest—and legitimizing their standing as the No. 4 team in the land. That result hadn't been part of Akers' plan or, in Texas football talk, Akers' scheme, and for one afternoon you might expect Akers would have to temper his enthusiasm for football in Austin just a bit.
"Nope," said Akers. "One play. Except for one freak play, it was our ball game. Boy! One darn play." That one play was a fourth-quarter Texas pass interception turned SMU touchdown, and it was a freak play in a game that had several. When a quarterback—in this case SMU's Lance McIlhenny—completes four of nine passes and three go for TDs, any one of them could be considered a freak play. But freak plays didn't win the game for SMU. It was SMU's defense and SMU's offense that won the game. And it was the scheme—Texas' scheme—that didn't work.
According to that plan, Texas was going to play most of its defense by controlling the football on offense, by keeping it away from SMU's tailback tandem of James and Eric Dickerson, who together were averaging 280.6 yards of offense per game. And when it had to, Texas would make fierce tackles and grind those glorified tailbacks into the carpet. As a result, the Mustangs would limp back to Dallas as 6-1 Ponies who had once again been gored by the Longhorns, rather than as 7-0 Mustangs stampeding toward the Cotton Bowl.
Akers was counting on Texas tradition and intimidation to make up for what the 3-1 Longhorns lacked—and because there were no more Hams, Lams, Jams or Simses around, that meant Texas lacked an established offense and defense. With two weeks to prepare for this Southwest Conference showdown, Akers did a masterful job of motivating his young team. The Longhorn players so saturated the newspapers with ugly noises about their opponents, it began to appear that Texas might have a Heisman-quality press agent hidden among its redshirts. "I respect every quarterback's ability to take a lick except for that guy at SMU," said Defensive End Kiki DeAyala. "McIlhenny is a crybaby," said Middle Linebacker Jeff Leiding. "I think they're scared. Deep down they don't really think they can beat us. If we can put a couple of sticks on Dickerson, he'll fold up and go tippy-toe."
Someone showed Leiding's quote to Dickerson at breakfast Saturday morning, and he was flabbergasted. He then showed it to James. The two of them laughed. "What's this?" James said to Dickerson. "I don't know if they think they're psyching us out or what," said Dickerson. "It's like they think we're freshmen or something."
The only freshman of consequence at SMU is Bobby Collins, 49, who came aboard last winter after a long, successful run at Southern Mississippi. He replaced Ron Meyer, who left SMU to take over the New England Patriots. The Mustangs, most of whom are seniors, including Dickerson and James, treated Collins like an unwanted stepfather at first. "I avoided him," says Dickerson. "To tell you the truth, I was really afraid of him. I saw the white hair and I thought, 'Oh, no. A father-figure type.' "
But the coaching transition went smoothly for the most part, mainly because Collins has the personality of a country parson, his football concepts are nearly identical to Meyer's and, more than anything, he was determined not to mess up a good thing. "It was an act of faith on the players' part," says Collins. "I get to Dallas, have a meeting with these players and say, I'm here. I'm happy to be here. But you're not going to see me for a while. Got to go recruiting.' Then I'm on the road, or at the motel where I'm staying in Dallas 'cause the family's still in Mississippi, and I think, 'Oh, my God! I haven't even met my players yet, and they're the ones I'm going to have to depend on. This whole thing could be a washout. We could go 5-6 with this great senior team. I ought to be out talking to a recruit. Or talking to my new linebackers. Just what am I selling? I don't even know where the chow hall is.' "
He did know about Dickerson and James, though, and beyond that, there wasn't much he needed to know. "In a coach's lifetime there's a good possibility that he'll never have one James or one Dickerson," he says. "To have both at the same time...." Dickerson is a 6'2", 217-pound natural, with very long, powerful legs, who ran a 9.4 100-yard dash as a high school junior in Sealy, Texas. James, at 6'1", 215 pounds, is just slightly more to the power-back side of the spectrum and about a quarter of a step slower than his backfield mate. But beyond that and the fact that Dickerson is black and James is white, there's little discernible difference between the two. "I never have any idea which one of them is in the game," says McIlhenny. "It doesn't matter one bit."
Through SMU's first six games, Collins stayed with Meyer's practice of alternating James and Dickerson—the Pony Express—as the tailbacks in the I, a strategy that last year enabled the two to become only the fifth pair of backs on the same team to average 100 yards or more apiece per game for a season. Dickerson's average was 129.8; James's was 104.3. Going into last week's game the Express was rushing for 253 yards a game, 19 yards ahead of last year's pace; Dickerson was averaging 166.8 and James 86.2. They were still alternating—one possession you play, one possession I play—but Dickerson had carried the ball 29 more times, or about a game's worth of carries, than James. But then, James had become SMU's punter and was booming them 46.1 yards per boot, fourth-best in the nation.