It has come down to one last try for the Little Four in the Big
Eight. After 37 years of broken dreams and failed opportunities,
the conference have-nots--Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma State and
Iowa State--have one final season to win a Big Eight title
outright. Next year the Big Eight will become the Big 12, adding
Baylor, Texas, Texas A&M and Texas Tech, and split into regional
divisions. The question in 1995 is, Will any of the traditional
patsies from the lower pack climb out of the conference pit and
into its pantheon?
Perhaps if pigs learn to fly. After all, what are the chances of
one of these teams' soaring past rebounding Oklahoma (page 91)
and fully revived Kansas State (page 108), not to mention
Nebraska (page 66) and Colorado (page 80)? If any team can rise
up, though, it is Kansas. As recently as 1992, when the Jayhawks
defeated Brigham Young 23-20 in the Aloha Bowl and finished the
season No. 22 in the country, this program seemed to be on the
brink of national prominence. But that perception was quickly
shattered on a sultry summer afternoon in the New Jersey
Meadowlands when Florida State drubbed the Jayhawks 42-0 in the
1993 Kickoff Classic. After that thrashing Florida State coach
Bobby Bowden said, "We played a team that we were far superior
to. The skill levels weren't even close, and the speed wasn't
The tonic for most ailments in college football these days is
speed. So Kansas coach Glen Mason has made it his recruiting
mission over the past two seasons to infuse quickness into his
lineup. But as last season's 6-5 record indicates, that mission
has been only moderately successful. Though Mason's job is safe,
he and the program seem to be living in quiet desperation. In
the off-season Mason retooled his coaching staff--two new
assistants were brought in, and five others changed
responsibilities. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it, but if it is
broke, try anything," says Mason. "I thought we needed to try
On offense the Jayhawks are counting on June Henley, the
nation's leading true freshman rusher in 1993, with 1,127 yards,
to rebound from a shoulder injury that slowed him last season.
He'll be asked to carry a heavy load to compensate for a passing
attack that finished 91st in the nation in '94. The new
quarterback will be either senior Mark Williams, the favorite,
whose only start last year was in a 72-0 victory over hapless
Division I-AA Alabama-Birmingham, or Ben Rutz, a junior transfer
who once played at Nebraska. Whoever wins the job should know
that fans in Lawrence are expecting the team to get a bowl bid.
Missouri, which won conference titles in 1960 and '69 under Dan
Devine, would simply settle for a winning record. Since Devine
left Missouri to coach the Green Bay Packers in 1971, the Tigers
have had only 10 winning seasons. Their current streak of 11
consecutive losing seasons seems certain to stretch into the
millennium unless second-year coach Larry Smith can get his team
to play better at home. Last season, for the first time since
1985, the Tigers were winless at Memorial Stadium. The low point
came during a 38-23 homecoming loss to Colorado at which 23,099
seats--37% of capacity--were empty.
Yet there are signs of life for the Tigers, a team that went to
five bowl games between 1978 and '83. Last year they held
Nebraska to just 10 total yards in the first half, and three
weeks later they nearly defeated 11th-ranked Kansas State in the
game's waning moments. "We know what we want to do," says Smith.
"Now it's just a matter of us getting better at it, getting
players to do what we want them to do and do it consistently.
That was probably our biggest problem last year."
If the Tigers are to improve on their 3-8-1 record, then they
will have to find a replacement for quarterback Jeff Handy, who
graduated after throwing for the second-most yards (6,959) in
Big Eight history. Junior Brandon Corso leads two other
quarterbacks in the race for the starting job.
The winner will work with tailback Brock Olivo, a co-recipient
of the Big Eight coaches' Offensive Freshman of the Year award
last year. Not blessed with great size or speed, Olivo still
rushed for 614 yards in only five starts. He will be counted on
heavily, but no one will be able to carry Missouri to a winning
record in 1995.
At Oklahoma State, first-year coach Bob Simmons will attempt to
resuscitate a program still trying to recover from a four-year
stint on probation. In 1989, coming off back-to-back 10-win
seasons, the Cowboys were slapped with sanctions for recruiting
violations. The effects still linger today, but Simmons, who is
the first black head coach in Big Eight history, is full of
hope. "This school has won 42 national championships [in all
sports combined]," says Simmons. "We want to build on the
tradition in football."
There's not much to build on at present. The Cowboys are coming
off a 3-7-1 season, and they haven't won a Big Eight game since
1992. The building blocks for the offense will be sophomore
Andre Richardson and junior David Thompson, one of the nation's
top tailback tandems. They are small, speedy runners who
combined for 1,593 yards last season. Together they may eclipse
2,000 yards this year, but don't look for the Cowboys to win
more than four games in Simmons's inaugural season.
Iowa State has an even bigger challenge than Oklahoma State
does. The Cyclones--whose strength this year is their running
game, which features junior Calvin Branch and sophomore Troy
Davis--were one of only two teams in Division I that failed to
win a game last season. (Ohio, their opening-game opponent this
year, was the other.) Therefore it could be regarded as good
news that Iowa State lost 22 fifth-year seniors from last year's
squad. "The football program right now has a long way to go,"
says first-year coach Dan McCarney.
McCarney, however, has a winning pedigree. He was an assistant
to Hayden Fry at Iowa for 13 years. Recently, two of Fry's
disciples, Bill Snyder at Kansas State and Barry Alvarez at
Wisconsin, have turned around flagging programs. Just don't
expect McCarney to do it quickly.
COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Can Williams make the Jayhawks fly? [Mark Williams in game]
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID WALBERG Davis's Cyclones--like the rest of the Little Four--will again get the worst of it when they knock heads with the Huskers. [Troy Davis in game]
4. Kansas State
7. Oklahoma State
8. Iowa State