Big 12 coming up small at start of season

Losses by Kansas St., Missouri, Nebraska stun proud league


September 13, 2004|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

The argument as to which is the best conference in college football usually takes an entire season to settle.

Here's a thought: The Big 12 is not.

It didn't take long to come to that opinion after watching what transpired last week.

Fresno State 45, then-No. 13 Kansas State 21.

Troy State 24, then-No. 19 Missouri 14.

Southern Mississippi 21, Nebraska 17.

Those three defeats - along with then-No. 7 Texas squeaking by Arkansas, 22-20 - are clearly not going to help Oklahoma's power rating when it comes time to figure out the Bowl Championship Series rankings later in the season.

Given that Troy State's victory came at home in one of those crazy Thursday night settings and Fresno State is a legitimate Top 25 team (after also winning at Washington in the season opener), the shocking result was Southern Miss.

It wasn't that the Golden Eagles won - they were 9-4 last season and have been to bowl games five of the past six years - but where they won. The Cornhuskers were 102-7 at Memorial Stadium since 1988 and hadn't lost a nonconference game since 1991.

It was also how Nebraska lost.

The honeymoon officially ended Saturday in Lincoln for first-year coach Bill Callahan and his West Coast offense. After throwing four interceptions against Division I-AA Western Illinois in the opener, Nebraska quarterback Joe Dailey had three more passes picked off against Southern Miss.

"This was a game that was ours for the taking, and we gave it away," Callahan said. "There's nobody to look at but ourselves."

Everyone is looking at Dailey, a sophomore who has been interception-prone going back to spring practice. Nebraska's Black Shirt defense knew that the turnovers - five overall resulting in 18 points for Southern Miss - had cost the Cornhuskers the game.

"It was like, `Here you go,' " said linebacker Barrett Ruud.

Somewhere, Frank Solich is smiling.

Opening-night jitters

If the Miami-Florida State game had been a Broadway show, it might have closed - at intermission.

Given the rich history of great matchups between the two schools, Friday night's showdown at the Orange Bowl was one of the more sloppily played, sleep-inducing games in memory.

Sure, it had a great ending if you're a Hurricanes fan, and the last minute of regulation and the overtime were exciting, but how many of those watching on television stayed with it the whole way through?

"It's a game you'll remember the rest of your life," said Miami coach Larry Coker.

He might, but the rest of us won't.

Coker also made another interesting comment.

"Are all games like this in the ACC?" he asked shortly after Frank Gore's touchdown gave Miami a 16-10 win.

Hope not.

One-week reprieve

The bandwagon that had quickly become a funeral procession of those calling for Tyrone Willingham's head at Notre Dame might have turned off for a brief celebration after the team's 28-20 upset of then-No. 8 Michigan in South Bend, but given the Fighting Irish schedule, it's only a matter of time before the dirge begins anew.

It might not be this week at Michigan State, where the Spartans are rebuilding, but it will happen unless what transpired at the storied stadium Saturday was not some sort of gift from the football gods.

Even Willingham understands this.

"This is still just one game," he said.

It was certainly a big game for Willingham, whose aloof personality has not exactly endeared him to the Notre Dame faithful or the media. A sure sign that the bandwagon was emptying had come when ESPN chose to switch its Game Day location from South Bend to that football mecca, Columbia, S.C., for the South Carolina-Georgia game.

Sad state in Happy Valley

There was a lot of talk this year of Penn State being one of the most improved teams in the country, of restoring Joe Paterno's slightly tarnished legend after last season's 3-9 debacle.

Maybe the talk was a bit premature.

The Nittany Lions weren't horrendous in a 21-7 loss at Boston College, but they looked pretty mediocre. Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the defeat was senior quarterback Zack Mills.

The senior from Urbana completed 23 of 41 passes for 254 yards and a touchdown, but was just nine of his last 24 and threw four interceptions. After showing signs of being a potential star as a second-year freshman, Mills hasn't been the same since injuring his shoulder midway through his sophomore year.

And now?

"He's under a lot of pressure," said Paterno.

Paterno was talking about the Boston College defense, but Mills has become sort of a scapegoat since ripping Paterno in and around Happy Valley seems to be in bad taste given his age and the fact that he's the second-winningest coach of all time.

Is another 3-9 season - or worse - possible?

"This isn't last year," said Mills. "We have to put it behind us."

So what happens if the Nittany Lions lose next week at home to Central Florida?

The Associated Press and other news organizations contributed to this article.

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