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COLLEGE FOOTBALL / GENE WOJCIECHOWSKI : Even With a 12-0 Record, Buckeyes Might Be Stuckeyes

Ohio State Coach John Cooper unhooked the governor switch on his mouth years ago. He says what he feels, and, these days, he’s not feeling too warm and fuzzy about the poll system.

The Buckeyes are undefeated, play in arguably the nation’s toughest conference, have beaten more top 25 teams (six) than anyone else, have three legitimate Heisman Trophy candidates and are clearing their bench before halftime.

And they’re ranked fourth?

“I read the paper,” Cooper said. “Obviously, we’re aware of the situation.”

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And the situation is this: Ohio State could finish the regular season 12-0, beat fill-in-the-blank in the Rose Bowl and then watch in horror as the winner of the Fiesta Bowl (presumably Florida State, Florida or Nebraska) is voted the national championship.

“I hope that it isn’t true, but there may be some people out there who want to see the Fiesta Bowl have One vs. Two,” Cooper said. “In my opinion, if you go undefeated, you ought to deserve a share of it.”

That’s what Penn State said last season and look what happened to the Nittany Lions. Prolific offense, just like Ohio State’s . . . Big Ten team, just like Ohio State . . . Unbeaten record, just what Ohio State is headed for.

Didn’t matter. Nebraska, also undefeated a season ago, finished No. 1 in the Associated Press and USA Today/CNN coaches’ polls. The whole thing still gives Cooper the heebie-jeebies.

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Reached at his office earlier in the week, the Buckeye coach began by taking the company line--"I’m concerned about our team more than I am about impressing voters"--but it didn’t last long.

“After we beat Washington, after we beat Notre Dame, quite honestly, I thought we would be No. 1,” Cooper said. “And I really felt after we beat Penn State and Wisconsin on the road, I thought we’d move up [to No. 1].”

Instead, Nebraska and Florida State are playing tag with the No. 1 ranking and No. 3 Florida is waiting nearby. Then comes Ohio State and the ghost of Penn State.

“I don’t know if we’re better than those teams or not, but we’ve played the toughest schedule by far,” Cooper said.

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COOPER--PART II

Now the fun part. Cooper--and he’s dead serious about this--wants the Rose Bowl winner, if it’s undefeated Ohio State, to play the winner of the Alliance’s Fiesta Bowl.

The Buckeyes vs. unbeaten Florida State, Florida or Nebraska. To the victor goes the No. 1 ranking.

“It would clear the air,” Cooper said.

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The game itself, he said, would generate incredible amounts of money, perhaps in the $75-million range. “And you could take that money and put it toward women’s athletics, research for AIDS, use a portion of it to fund assistant coaches’ retirements,” he said.

Play the game anywhere--it’d be a sellout. And don’t worry about players missing classes, Cooper said, because the academic impact would be minimal.

“Our football players at Ohio State never have an excuse to miss a class,” he said.

In short, Cooper can’t understand why no one else is pushing the idea of a Fiesta-Rose matchup. “I just think we’re missing the boat,” he said.

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If nothing else, it’s a nice thought. Problem is, it will never happen.

“You couldn’t do it because of the rules,” said Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany. “Moreover, just think about it.”

Which is a polite way of saying, “You’re kidding, right?”

NCAA rules allow for an 11-game regular season, with an occasional one-game exemption (as in the Kickoff Classic or Pigskin Classic), as well as a single bowl appearance. Thirteen games, tops. Cooper’s plan would call for 14.

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And what about the Fiesta corporate sponsors who thought they were buying advertising time for the de facto national championship game? Where would you play the game? What happens if Ohio State lost in the Rose Bowl? How exactly do you organize such an event in so short a time?

Meanwhile, Big East Conference Commissioner Mike Tranghese has a more feasible solution.

“If you want to make money, have a playoff,” he said. “If you want to have a true national champion, without the agendas, then have [the Big Ten and the Pacific 10 Conference] join the alliance. Let’s incorporate the Rose Bowl in the Alliance. That would solve the problem, period.”

TROY WHO?

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Let the Heisman Trophy campaigning begin.

“I’m getting a lot of talk about the Heisman,” said Troy Davis, the Iowa State sophomore running back who leads the nation in rushing with 1,526 yards. “People [are] coming up to me and saying, ‘Troy, do you think you’re going to win the Heisman?’ If I was the one picking, then, yes, I would pick me for the Heisman.”

That’s nice. Unfortunately for Davis, he plays for 3-5 Iowa State and is seen on national television about once every never. Meanwhile, front-runners Tommie Frazier of Nebraska, Peyton Manning of Tennessee, Danny Wuerffel of Florida, Danny Kanell of Florida State and Eddie George of Ohio State seemingly have their own weekly shows.

“It’s a shame,” Iowa State Coach Dan McCarney said of the lack of TV exposure. “He’s the type of football player that anybody would like to watch play.”

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No matter what happens in the Heisman race, Davis still remains the locker-room leader for heartwarming story of the year.

Davis is from Miami. When he arrived in Ames for his recruiting visit, it was during the dead of winter.

“I came with a jacket,” he said, “but the jacket wasn’t big enough.”

So thrilled was he about seeing snow for the first time, he spent part of his visit making a snowman. Later, he stuffed the white stuff into a bottle and took it on the plane home. Who cares if it melted? There was plenty more where that came from.

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As a freshman, Davis gained only 187 yards in 35 carries. He did, however, lead the country in tears spilled. For the first time in his life, he was away from home and hating every minute of it.

“I had to cry myself to sleep, just like little babies cry themselves to sleep,” he said. “Every time I’d wake up, I’d say, ‘Oh, man, I’m still in Iowa.’ ”

THE REST

It would have been nice to report that Prairie View A&M; ended its NCAA-record 54-game losing streak last Saturday against Mississippi Valley State, the same team it beat before beginning this dreadful free fall. But it didn’t happen. Prairie View lost, 35-14. . . . The next time you hear players whine about the demands on their time, remember Wake Forest’s Rusty LaRue, who starts at quarterback, pitches for the Demon Deacon baseball team, is sixth man extraordinaire for the basketball team and carries a grade-point average suitable for diploma framing. LaRue set an NCAA record for completions (55 of 78 overall, 41 in the second half) in a 42-26 loss to Duke last Saturday. LaRue did stiff reporters Sunday at the Atlantic Coast Conference basketball media day, but no one seemed to mind. “I need a day off,” he said. . . . After firing Jack Crowe only one game into the 1992 season, then dumping Joe Kines 10 games later, then hiring Danny Ford, bottom-line Arkansas Athletic Director Frank Broyles is looking like a genius. For the first time since 1989, the Razorbacks are bowl bound. The upset of Auburn gives them six victories and, if they defeat Mississippi State or Louisiana State, a guaranteed place in the Dec. 2 Southeastern Conference championship game.

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THE END

This is my final column for The Times, which explains why they’re breaking out their Sunday-best overalls in Nebraska, why Touchdown Jesus is high-fiving NBC executives and why West Virginia yahoos, still bitter over my 1993 Associated Press ballots, can quit with the crayon faxes.

Certain moments stick out, few of them actually having to do with X’s and O’s.

--While waiting for a Times photographer to set up his equipment, Bo Jackson shyly pointed to the Auburn insignia at midfield of Jordan-Hare Stadium and, in his then-stuttering voice, said he once had a brief makeout session with a date right there on the AU logo.

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To this day, I wonder: hickey or no hickey?

--Notre Dame’s Raghib Ismail, so determined to elude a herd of reporters in the Irish locker room, hid in a towel cart and was wheeled out by a team manager. Kids.

--Shortly before the start of a Mississippi State game at Starkville (if ever a city’s name fit, this is the one), everyone in the wasp-infested press box was instructed to stand. I figured it meant the band was getting ready to crank up, “The Star Spangled Banner.” Instead, the public address announcer wanted us to acknowledge the pork farmers of America.

--Just this past Saturday, a handful of Nebraska fans, many with a full set of teeth, recognized my name on my press pass and unleashed a tirade that put a part in what’s left of my hair. Then they happily took turns shaking my hand and patting me on the back.

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Must have been the corn whiskey.

--Notre Dame Coach Lou Holtz had already started his weekly teleconference when I came on the line one Tuesday. ". . . And I’m telling you right now,” he was saying, “these shuckers are a very, very fine football team, extremely well coached and they’ll get after you. And I’m being very sincere when I say that.”

Uh oh. In the immortal words of the “Lost In Space” robot: “Danger, Will Robinson!” Holtz is sincere about a thousand times a day. The opposing juggernaut that week? Navy.

--The one 1994 weekend I skip to get married, Kordell Stewart heaves a last-second prayer to Michael Westbrook and Colorado beats Michigan.

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But I’ll still take the “I do” over the “Hail Mary.”

--I’ve seen then-Stanford coach Bill Walsh walk off a team plane wearing Groucho Marx nose glasses, been flat-out lied to by UCLA’s Terry Donahue and then-Miami Coach Dennis Erickson, gagged on Howard Schnellenberger’s Sooner brand of pipe tobacco, held an actual Heisman Trophy; seen David Housel, now the athletic director at Auburn, become so emotional about the first-ever Alabama visit to Jordan-Hare that he sobbed in the end zone after the 1989 Tiger victory (Pat Dye, then the Auburn coach, compared it to the fall of the Berlin Wall); and most of all, discovered that whatever these players are getting in scholarships, it isn’t enough.

Sports Editor’s note: Gene Wojciechowski will join the sports staff of the Chicago Tribune next week. We wish him and his snow - blower much success.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

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Top 10

As selected by staff writer Gene Wojciechowski

*--*

No. Team Record 1. Nebraska 8-0 2. Ohio State 8-0 3. Florida State 7-0 4. Florida 7-0 5. Tennessee 7-1 6. Northwestern 7-1 7. Michigan 7-1 8. Notre Dame 7-2 9. USC 6-1-1 10. Kansas State 7-1

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*--*

Waiting list: 11. Kansas (7-1); 12. Colorado (6-2); 13. Texas (5-1-1); 14. Penn State (6-2); 15. Washington (5-2-1); 16. Texas Tech (5-2); 17. Syracuse (6-1); 18. Texas A&M; (5-2); 19. Alabama (6-2); 20. Oregon (6-2); 21. UCLA (6-2); 22. Virginia (6-3); 23. Arkansas (6-2); 24. Oklahoma (5-2-1); 25. Virginia Tech (6-2).


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