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College Football / Richard Hoffer : Sanders’ Dominating Season Entitles Him to the Heisman

The Heisman Trophy is one of our quirkier awards (Doug Flutie? Tim Brown?) but even so, it would be hard to imagine it going to anybody more deserving than Oklahoma State’s Barry Sanders. It’s possible it won’t, of course. Sanders is just a junior and he didn’t play in any network television games. But who deserves it more?

You could, many will, argue for USC’s Rodney Peete or UCLA’s Troy Aikman. They play on better teams than Sanders does and enjoy higher profiles. Also, quarterbacks (with the exception of Syracuse’s Don McPherson last season) tend to get the most attention.

But nobody has been more consistently dominating than Sanders, a 5-9 running back who will probably break the NCAA single season rushing mark (2,342 yards, set by 1981 Heisman winner Marcus Allen). He has gained 2,296 yards and is averaging 7.7 yards per carry and nearly 230 per game.

More important, he did his part against the big-time. He gained 189 yards against Nebraska, which is nearly twice as much as the entire Oklahoma backfield did. And he gained 215 in a near upset of the Sooners. Last we looked, Nebraska and Oklahoma still had some small reputation in college football.

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(Statistical analysts might enjoy this comparison: Aikman passed for 205 yards against Nebraska, Peete 198 against Oklahoma.)

As for the matter of Sanders not appearing on television, well, he hardly remains a secret. His long runs are incredibly telegenic nonetheless; is it possible to watch the Saturday night news and not see one of them unspooled? Did any sports fan not see Saturday’s highlight, Sanders’ 80-yard run against Iowa State?

Sanders’ numbers, week in and week out, are simply too compelling to ignore. And though Peete and Aikman are legitimate candidates, their play has not been as consistently significant. Peete has come on strong but Aikman seems to have trailed off. And Sanders is still there.

To the victor goes...Miami?: Oklahoma Coach Barry Switzer took his team’s loss to Nebraska last week pretty well. Actually, he seemed flat-out relieved. Accepting the bid for the Citrus Bowl immediately afterward he said, “Miami won’t be there, will they?” Told that Clemson would appear, he shook the bowl rep’s hand with glad relief.

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Never mind that Miami is 3-0 against Oklahoma. How about Miami against everybody. The Hurricanes have beaten the Big Ten champion (Michigan, 31-30) and the SEC champion (LSU, 44-3). They have beaten the preseason No. 1 (Florida State, 31-0) and came within a failed two-point conversion of beating current No. 1 (Notre Dame, Miami’s only loss).

They will play the Southwest Conference champion, Arkansas, this week. And wind up the season with the Big 8 champion, Nebraska, in the Orange Bowl.

Poor Nebraska. You can hear Switzer chuckling from here.

Add Sanders: Although he has set a record for total all-purpose yards (his 2,897 breaks Whizzer White’s 51-year-old record), it’s his per-carry average that seems most incredible. Nobody with 300 carries a season has ever come close to his 7.7 average. The NCAA has calculated, moreover, that even if Sanders had 95 carries in his final game--for zero yards!--he’d still average more than Marcus Allen’s NCAA record 5.81.

Last add Sanders: Brother Byron, who has rushed for 1,062 yards at Northwestern, gives the Sanders family 3,358 yards for the season. We don’t know of a better brother act. Incidentally, Barry didn’t play tailback until his senior season at Wichita North High School; his brother owned the tailback spot.

Once every 50 years: Penn State has a 5-6 record, its first losing record since 1938. Seems only yesterday the Lions were smacking Miami around in the Fiesta Bowl, winning the 1986 national championship. Coach Joe Paterno, who got some heat for a political endorsement earlier in the season, promises more hands-on direction. “The last five years maybe my presence wasn’t strong enough,” he said. Paterno, 62, has committed himself to 4 more years as a head coach.

Sugar Bowl shakedown: All the bowls are filled but the Sugar, which awaits the outcome of today’s game between Alabama and Auburn. LSU has clinched at least a tie of the Southeastern Conference championship but if Auburn (9-1) beats Alabama (7-2) in Birmingham and wins the other half, Auburn will surely go instead of LSU. LSU just got pounded big-time by Miami and what bowl wants a loser.

An Alabama win flags LSU on to the Sugar against Florida State and Auburn to the Hall of Fame to meet Syracuse.

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Other games: With bowls all decided, this final week of football seems anticlimactic. Yet some good games remain. Arkansas (10-0) at Miami (8-1) is one of them. The Razorbacks are in the Cotton Bowl with UCLA and Miami is in the Orange with Nebraska. The Hurricanes, however, are still contending for the national title. Their only loss was to top-ranked Notre Dame and it’s likely there will be a lot of other once-defeated teams once the season is over. Then the hollering begins.

Miami Coach Jimmy Johnson got a surprise phone call from Notre Dame Coach Lou Holtz, who wondered how the Hurricanes manage to win on the road. Johnson told Holtz, “I’ve got to pull against you on this one.”

Another game to pay attention to is Florida (6-4) at Florida State (9-1). The Seminoles are perfect at home but have paid in the rankings for that road loss to Miami. Florida’s Galen Hall, meanwhile, got an endorsement from president Marshall Criser Wednesday. Hall, under some scrutiny, apparently will be retained. Florida was 5-0 before a slide that attracted the attention of certain alumni. Tropical storm Keith could leave some bad weather in its wake for this one.


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