A SIMPLE TWIST OF FATE
The question posed to Nebraska's seniors elicited rueful grins:
Three years ago did you have any sympathy for Penn State, which
finished 12-0 yet didn't win even a share of the national
championship? The 1994 title had gone to the 13-0 Cornhuskers
"I didn't really feel bad for them," defensive end Grant Wistrom
said. "I suppose that's why I can't ask for sympathy votes now."
"I remember a lot of guys laughing that Penn State got screwed,"
tight end Tim Carpenter added.
"At the time you think you're the deserving team," tackle Eric
Anderson said. "Looking back, you feel for what Penn State went
through because we're going through the exact same scenario."
By embarrassing Texas A&M 54-15 in the Big 12 championship game
last Saturday, the Cornhuskers positioned themselves to again
finish 13-0. Nebraska led 23-0 before the Aggies picked up a
first down. "If they're the Number 2 team in the nation," said
Texas A&M quarterback Branndon Stewart afterward, "I'd hate to
play the Number 1 team."
Instead of top billing, Nebraska is in the role of Blanche
DuBois: The Huskers must depend on the kindness of strangers,
specifically the Washington State Cougars, who play No. 1-ranked
Michigan in the Rose Bowl. "People are talking only about
Michigan," defensive tackle Jason Peter says. "We're just the
other team that's undefeated. There's nothing we can do." As
Nebraska athletic director Bill Byrne says, adroitly combining
two cliches, "The shoe is on the other foot, and if it fits,
we'll wear it."
Quarterback Scott Frost is the most outspoken Nebraska senior on
the subject of the national title. He was at Stanford during the
1994 season, so unlike his classmates he has only one
championship ring, which he won after transferring to Nebraska
and playing quarterback on the '95 scout team. "It's just as big
a crime to deny these kids as it was to deny Penn State," Frost
said before last Saturday's game.
Against the Aggies, Frost ran for 79 yards and two touchdowns
and completed 12 of 18 passes for 201 yards. He felt the Huskers
made a sufficient statement. "I don't see how the coaches who
saw that game wouldn't vote for us," he said afterward,
referring to the panel of coaches who vote for the USA
Today/ESPN Top 25. "If we beat Tennessee, they have to give us a
share of the title."
Well, actually, they don't. To the voters who recall Nebraska's
miraculous 45-38 victory over Missouri on Nov. 8, the Huskers
are 12-0 only on paper. After narrowly escaping defeat, Nebraska
fell from No. 1 to No. 3. "This team put itself in a bad
situation when we didn't play as well as we're capable of
against Missouri," says senior linebacker Octavious McFarlin.
"The results weren't what people expected, and that cost us."
The Cornhuskers didn't help themselves with the voters, either
in the media or among the coaches, by only narrowly beating
Colorado three weeks later.
Nebraska is already indebted to Michigan. In 1995 the Wolverines
upset undefeated, second-ranked Ohio State 31-23 in the last
game of the regular season. The top-ranked Huskers then routed
second-ranked Florida 62-24 in the Fiesta Bowl to finish as the
"We've won national championships," says Byrne. "We know what it
takes. Sometimes it takes a little luck."
An hour after Colorado State's 41-13 starching of New Mexico in
the WAC championship game in Las Vegas, Rams coach Sonny Lubick
slipped on a black turtleneck and gray sport coat and headed out
for a night on the town with some friends. "C'mon, we're going
to go hit some casinos," he playfully told a reporter on his way
out the door. "Maybe we'll get lucky and make some money."
Lubick had ample reason for optimism. The victory, keyed by
sophomore fullback Kevin McDougal's 255 rushing
yards--second-best in school history--and three touchdowns,
raised Colorado State's record to 10-2 and gave it a third
conference title in four years. The 18th-ranked Rams, winners of
eight straight, will play Missouri in the Holiday Bowl, and
Lubick likes his chances in San Diego too. "This is the most
talented team we've had here," he says.
If Colorado State had any doubters, its gutty performance
against determined New Mexico changed their minds. On a day when
quarterback Moses Moreno was limited to just nine completions on
20 attempts for 92 yards, no touchdowns and three interceptions,
the Rams' defense, special teams and running game picked up the
The win was further evidence of the tremendous rebuilding job
Lubick has done since arriving in Fort Collins five years ago. A
former defensive coordinator at Miami, Lubick has lifted the
Rams from WAC doormat past BYU to preeminence in the conference.
Under him Colorado State is 40-19, including 31-9 in conference
games. Over the same span BYU is 30-10 in the WAC.
Lubick's first priority has been defense. The ball-hawking
Rams--No. 1 in the nation in turnover margin this season, at
plus 2.08 per game--feature a slew of speedy defenders,
including two smallish ends: Clark Haggans, a 6'4", 225-pound
sophomore who burned New Mexico with five tackles, a sack, a
fumble recovery and a blocked kick, and 6'3", 237-pound senior
Adrian Ross, who caused and recovered a fourth-quarter fumble to
set up the touchdown that put the Rams ahead 27-13. "If the
offense is struggling," Ross says, "we can carry the team."
That hasn't been necessary too often this year. Moreno, a senior
who entered the game ranked second in the NCAA in pass
efficiency, has thrown for 2,257 yards and 20 touchdowns.
Fullback Damon Washington has rushed for more than 1,000 yards
in each of the past two seasons, and McDougal, a converted
defensive back, has been a big-play runner all year. Against the
Lobos he had touchdown dashes of 44, 42 and 66 yards; Washington
added a 51-yard scoring run. "The key is balance," Lubick says.
"You're not going to win throwing the ball 40 to 50 times."
A decade ago such talk would have gotten a coach laughed out of
the WAC, but now that Lubick has shown it's possible to commit
to defense and still win, teams such as Air Force, Utah and
Wyoming are following his lead. "The WAC's identity as a passing
conference is changing," says New Mexico coach Dennis
Franchione, whose Insight.com Bowl- bound Lobos have relied on a
balanced attack for years. "Sonny and some of the other coaches
have come in and shown that defense really makes the
difference." --MARTY BURNS
A WAIT ENDED, A WEIGHT LIFTED
The pile grew at Peyton Manning's feet, as jersey, pads, shoes,
wristbands dropped into a pungent heap in front of his dressing
stool. Then he paused and smiled crookedly. "I knew we would
win," he said, long after Tennessee's 30-29 victory over Auburn
in the SEC championship game last Saturday night in Atlanta and
long after the celebration that followed. He knew when the
Volunteers fell behind 20-7 in the second quarter, and 27-17
late in the third? "If we stayed calm, I knew we would win this
game," Manning repeated. Believe it. Patience isn't just a
virtue for the Vols of the Manning era, it's a necessity.
For three years Tennessee has seen its season seemingly
destroyed by early-season losses to Florida. Yet for three years
Tennessee has run the rest of the SEC table to keep its slim
hopes for a conference championship alive. Credit for such
perseverance goes to coach Phillip Fulmer, who despite an
overall record of 54-10 has been sliced up by Vols fans for
falling to the Gators for five straight years. Two years ago
Tennessee blew a 30-14 lead to Florida and disintegrated in a
62-37 loss. The next morning Fulmer told his staff, "This is
going to be the best week of practice we've ever had." Indeed,
the Volunteers' workouts were exceptional that week. They would
set the tone for the recovery that would follow--and that would
remain an indelible experience for the many current starters who
were sophomores then.
This season, nine days after losing to Florida 33-20 on Sept. 20
(Tennessee had a bye the next week), the same Vols, seniors now,
convened a players-only meeting and implored their teammates to
hold together. "Keep the faith," Manning remembers saying that
day. "Things can happen." Things did happen. Florida lost to LSU
and Georgia, and now Tennessee, which remained No. 3 in both
polls after the squeaker over Auburn, has its first conference
title since 1990. The Volunteers will play Nebraska in the
Orange Bowl with a shot at the national championship should
top-ranked Michigan fall in the Rose Bowl.
In his final SEC game, Manning threw for 373 yards and four
touchdowns. This came at the end of a 12-day period during which
he was often preoccupied with the condition of his 24-year-old
brother, Cooper, who two days after watching Tennessee's Nov. 22
victory over Kentucky, underwent emergency spinal surgery to
relieve worsening numbness in his left side from a congenital
condition that ended his football career.
Cooper watched the Auburn game at home in New Orleans with his
younger brother, Eli. At halftime he talked by phone with his
mother, Olivia, who was at the Georgia Dome. "What's
[Tennessee's] problem?" he shouted despite his discomfort. The
other Mannings hope Cooper can travel to New York City this
weekend for the Heisman Trophy ceremony, in which Peyton is one
of four finalists. If not, his presence will be felt
nonetheless. "Cooper and I were together out there tonight,"
said Peyton after the win over Auburn. "We're always together."
Though some at UCLA may be disappointed that the Bruins are
going to the Cotton Bowl to play Texas A&M instead of to an
Alliance bowl, coach Bob Toledo relishes the opportunity to face
his old boss. Toledo was fired from his job as A&M's offensive
coordinator by Aggies coach R.C. Slocum after the 1993 season.
Toledo won't say so, but he already feels somewhat vindicated.
After last season Slocum fired Steve Ensminger, the man who
succeeded Toledo as A&M's coordinator, and replaced him with
Steve Marshall, who had been on Toledo's staff at UCLA.
Mack Brown spent the early part of last week insisting that he
had no interest in the Texas coaching job. "Really and truly, I
felt that way," he said. "I was planning on staying at North
Carolina. I was serious." Brown spoke these words last Saturday
from his new office at Texas.
Though he had led the Tar Heels from back-to-back 1-10 records
in 1988 and '89 to consecutive 10-win, top 10 seasons in '96 and
'97, Brown's appointment was a mild surprise. Gary Barnett of
Northwestern, who in the last two years had turned aside
overtures from UCLA and Georgia, wanted to go to Austin. But
Brown so captivated Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds and the
selection committee in an interview on Wednesday, Dec. 3, that
they offered him the job that day. "I anticipated that they
would interview five or 10 guys, that my wife, Sally, and I
would have a few days to talk it over," Brown said last
Saturday. "I took a deep breath and said, 'Excuse me?'"
In the end Brown, the grandson of a fabled high school coach in
Cookeville, Tenn., just couldn't say no to the Longhorns. "My
grandfather always talked about Wally Butts at Georgia," says
Brown, 46. "He talked about Bear Bryant at Alabama. He talked
about Darrell Royal at Texas, who was winning national
championships when I was in high school. That's why I'm so
easily impressed by the old Top 10 schools. The tradition is so
different at places like this."
Among the successful coaches interested in a move to a more
prominent school: New Mexico's Dennis Franchione and Virginia
Tech's Frank Beamer. Last year 24 jobs became available after
the season, but by week's end only eight had opened up this
year, and three of those have already been filled.... Texas
Tech, which removed itself from the bowl picture after an NCAA
investigation turned up 18 rules violations, also plans to limit
the number of scholarships it will award to recruits in
February. Texas Tech will wait to see how recruiting goes,
though, before deciding how severely to penalize itself. Any
sanctions by the NCAA would be announced early next year.
COLOR PHOTO: LOUIS DELUCA Despite manhandling Texas A&M, the Cornhuskers still find their fate resting in the hands of others. [Three University of Nebraska players and one Texas A&M player in game]
COLOR PHOTO: GREG CAVA Washington excelled as the Rams ground up the Lobos. [Damon Washington and others in game]
COLOR PHOTO: WINSLOW TOWNSON Don Highsmith and New Haven: title-bound? [Don Highsmith in game]
WINNERS & LOSERS
1. THE COTTON BOWL For the second straight year the once-mighty
Dallas game gets a top five team. The 1998 Heisman campaign for
UCLA quarterback Cade McNown starts here, as the No. 5 Bruins
face Texas A&M.
2. NEBRASKA First a wipeout of the Aggies. Then the Orange Bowl
delivers Tennessee instead of Florida State on Jan. 2. All
that's left for the Huskers is to learn Washington State's fight
3. JIM DONNAN Though the Georgia coach turned down the North
Carolina job, the Tar Heels' interest means he will no longer be
one of the SEC's lowest-paid coaches.
1. GARY BARNETT His Northwestern Wildcats suffer their first
losing season in three years, and now Texas passes over him.
Could it be that two years after going to Pasadena, the bloom is
off Barnett's rose?
2. NORTH CAROLINA The Tar Heels lose their coach and then hear
that the Sugar Bowl doesn't want a 10-1 team without a coach.
Let's get excited about the Gator Bowl--again.
3. THE INDEPENDENCE BOWL Notre Dame and Louisiana State will
meet for the second time in six weeks. And you thought Speed 2
was the worst sequel of the year. --I.M.
--DIVISION I-AA SEMIFINAL: MCNEESE STATE (12-1) AT DELAWARE
(12-1) The Cowboys, coming off a tough 14-12 victory in
24[degree] weather at Western Illinois, won't get another road
win here. Delaware coach Tubby Raymond, whose record after 32
seasons with the Blue Hens is 270-102-3, should reach his second
--DIVISION I-AA SEMIFINAL: YOUNGSTOWN STATE (11-2) AT EASTERN
Youngstown State knocked off top-seeded and unbeaten Villanova
37-34, but the Penguins don't figure to be able to stop the
Eagles' offense, the best in I-AA, at 505.6 yards per game.
--DIVISION II CHAMPIONSHIP: NEW HAVEN (12-1) VS. NO. COLORADO
Though Northern Colorado has won nine in a row, the Bears aren't
likely to win a second straight national title in Florence, Ala.
The Chargers have a big-play defense (47 turnovers forced) and a
big-name quarterback in Cazzie Kosciolek, who has passed for
3,050 yards and 32 touchdowns. The city of New Haven should have
its first national football champion since Yale in 1909.
--DIVISION III CHAMPIONSHIP: LYCOMING (12-0) VS. MOUNT UNION
Lycoming quarterback Jason Marraccini has run or thrown for 30
touchdowns. But his Warriors will have all they can handle in
the Purple Raiders, whose average margin of victory this season
is 45.5 points. In the Stagg Bowl in Salem, Va., Mount Union
should extend college football's longest winning streak to 28
--THE HEISMAN TROPHY
Charles Woodson, the Michigan Slash, rides such a wave of hype
into New York City's Downtown Athletic Club that he could be the
fourth Hanson brother. Enough already. Peyton Manning proved
against Auburn that he can overcome two teams: the opponent and
his own error-prone Vols. He'll win it. --I.M.
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