For the longest time, the Big Eight Conference was jokingly called the Big Two because of the dominance of Nebraska and Oklahoma. Now it's being called the Big Three, and it's no joke.
Colorado, which had been making a move in recent years, won the Big Eight title last season with a 7-0 record. The Buffaloes were unbeaten after the regular season, but lost their chance for a national title when Notre Dame beat them in the Orange Bowl, 21-6.
Now Colorado has 13 starters back from that 11-1 team, including the league's top offensive and defensive players, quarterback Darian Hagan and linebacker Alfred Williams.
The Buffaloes, it seems, are in the picture for good.
"They've obviously established a very solid foundation," Oklahoma Coach Gary Gibbs said. "When you go back to the '85, '86, '87 years and see how competitive they were in our games and the kind of talent they've acquired since then. . . .
"You look at Colorado's team last year and their team for this upcoming year and you see truly some of the outstanding players in the country."
You can start with Hagan. As a sophomore last season, he became only the sixth player to run and throw for more than 1,000 yards in a season.
"They've been good," Oklahoma State Coach Pat Jones said. "You throw in one exceptional skill player--Hagan--and I think that's a great example of what one real good one can do for you."
Williams teams with Kanavis McGhee to give Colorado two of the best outside linebackers in the country. Both were all-conference choices last year.
Last year's success hasn't changed Coach Bill McCartney's cautious way of looking at things.
McCartney is concerned about the schedule--the Buffaloes have non-conference games against Tennessee, Illinois and Texas and must play Nebraska in Lincoln--and is worried about a potential lack of depth.
"We have 89 players on scholarship now," he said. "We don't get enough walk-ons; we're not rock-solid in that area. We can ill afford to get these guys hurt."
Oklahoma's Gibbs found out about depth problems and injuries last season. When the Sooners went to Nebraska for their season finale, they weren't even able to reach the NCAA limit of 60 travel squad players.
The Sooners, 7-4 in Gibbs' first year, played without first-string quarterback Steve Collins for several games. Tailback Mike Gaddis, regarded by the coaches as a franchise player, hurt his knee and isn't going to be available this year. Several other players spent time on the sidelines.
"It was tough to watch those people get hurt and tough to watch your football team go out there knowing their teammates--the best players who had played beside them the week before--weren't on the field," Gibbs said.
Oklahoma, which is in the second year of a three-year probation, started last season with only 74 scholarship players. This year, the number figures to be between 80 and 85.
"We've improved to some degree, but we're still a long way from being out of the numbers problem," Gibbs said. "There's really not one position where I can say we can afford to have anyone hurt."
Nebraska always has great numbers, and this season Coach Tom Osborne will use them to rebuild. The Cornhuskers, 10-2 last season, have just two starters back on offense and must replace their entire backfield.
But experience won't be a problem on defense, where seven starters return.
"Defense is very important in winning championships and having great football teams," Osborne said.
Iowa State, at 6-5, was the only other team in the Big Eight that had a winning record last season. The Cyclones again figure to tangle with Oklahoma State, Missouri and Kansas for an upper-division finish in the conference.
The region's top independent, Tulsa, is coming off its first bowl game in 13 years--an Independence Bowl loss to Oregon. The Golden Hurricane returns quarterback T. J. Rubley, who threw 22 touchdown passes last season, and 1,000-yard rusher Brett Adams.
But the team will have to replace second-team All-America receiver Dan Bitson, who was severely injured in an automobile accident in December. Bitson caught 73 passes for 1,425 yards and 16 touchdowns last year.
"We don't have a proven game-breaker," Coach David Rader said. "Hopefully, somebody in there will put a lot of pressure on the defense somewhere."
TOP 3 OF BIG 8
OKLAHOMA/Coach Gary Gibbs
NEBRASKA/Coach Tom Osborne
COLORADO/Coach Bill McCartney