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Naysayers Get WAC-ed Early

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OK, big fella, you want to fight?

Banished to second-banana status by an alliance out to divide and conquer college football, the Western Athletic Conference is throwing back haymakers with all its 16-team might.

In Englewood, Colo., Commissioner Karl Benson all but stomps through the WAC war room with pith helmet and pointer, sticking pins into relief maps.

All is not quiet on this Western front.

“We kind of issued a self-imposed challenge,” Benson said from his car phone. “The only way the WAC is going to get respect, and credibility, is to win nonconference games. Brigham Young over Texas A&M; got it started. Other coaches in the league rallied around that.”

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Armed with a few good men and a cable deal, the WAC is scoring direct hits against the first-year Big 12, the power-gobbling conference with its $126-million television package.

The line score so far: WAC 3, Big 12 1.

The first salvo was fired Aug. 24, when Brigham Young upset Texas A&M;, 41-37, in the Pigskin Classic.

“WAC-ed” screamed the newspaper headline in Dallas, new headquarters of the Big 12, by the way.

The WAC wasn’t finished. Last weekend, Texas Christian, a former Southwest Conference school not deemed worthy of the Big 12, dumped on once-proud Oklahoma, 20-7, and Wyoming rallied dramatically to defeat Iowa State, 41-38, in overtime.

Even the WAC’s lone Big 12 loss, Colorado 48, Colorado State 34, was closer than expected.

Elsewhere against the alliance, new WAC member Southern Methodist, 2-0 for the first time since its days under the NCAA death penalty, beat Arkansas of the vaunted Southeastern Conference.

And, for good measure, Utah defeated Stanford.

The flip side? Auburn clobbered Fresno State, 62-0; Ohio State ran it up on Rice, 70-7, and Hawaii lost to Ohio.

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But the WAC’s top schools definitely made a statement.

Under the current bowl alliance format, conference champions from the Southeastern, Atlantic Coast, Big East and Big 12 conferences automatically qualify for one of six alliance bids in either the Sugar, Orange or Fiesta Bowl.

The WAC and others are left to grovel for one of two at-large alliance berths. One, really, because Notre Dame is guaranteed a spot if it finishes ranked in the top 10.

“There is definitely limited access for the WAC,” Benson said.

BYU could be 13-0 before the WAC title game Dec. 7. But if the Cougars lose, they could be bypassed for an alliance champion with a 7-4 record.

Fair?

The WAC will get further squeezed in two years when the Big Ten and Pacific 10 become conditional partners in the alliance.

“We think there are some ramifications in the future that could damage the WAC,” Benson said. “We realize the pecking order, that the WAC is the seventh-highest rated conference. We realize where we are. But we don’t believe the distance between the WAC and the No. 6 conference is that far.”

Heads up, though.

This week, BYU travels to Washington, Colorado State to Oregon, San Jose State to Stanford and TCU plays host to Kansas.

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RISING TIDE RAISES ALL BOATS

The WAC’s fast start has lifted two Heisman Trophy afterthoughts into unexpected early-season contention:

--BYU quarterback Steve Sarkisian. His 10 touchdown passes in two games put him on the Heisman radar screen.

--Wyoming receiver Marcus Harris. This reeked of a Heisman publicity stunt. The Cowboys’ sports information department touted Harris on the cover of its media guide, then sent national writers watches playing on a word association with the famous department store. Harris’ campaign is known as “Heisman Marcus.”

Harris is no joke, though. The 6-foot-2 senior from Minneapolis is the nation’s leading receiver. He caught a school-record 16 passes for 223 yards in Wyoming’s win over Iowa State, outdueling the Cyclones’ Heisman candidate, Troy Davis (146 yards in 35 carries).

Harris knows playing well against a Big 12 opponent is important.

Two years ago, he raised eyebrows with an eight-catch, 149-yard day against Nebraska in a 42-32 loss.

“That lets people know that you’re not a joke and that you can play with the big dogs,” Harris said.

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Harris, who wasn’t recruited heavily in high school, has a chance to become the first receiver in NCAA history to have three 1,400-yard seasons.

Harris isn’t too keen on his campaign slogan, though.

“When I was a kid playing around with it,” he said, “it was always Heisman Harris.”

TAKE IT, GULP, TO THE BANK

OK, deep breath, here it goes.

Prairie View A&M; is going to win Saturday.

The pathetic Panthers will post a “W” for the first time since Oct. 28, 1989, the day they hammered Mississippi Valley State, 21-12.

There have been 59 consecutive losses since, an NCAA record, but this Lone Star nightmare is about to end.

Dionne Warwick couldn’t be reached to confirm this psychic spasm, but a phone call to the Prairie View athletic department was reassuring.

“This is our best chance ever,” a spokesman confided when told of the writer’s premonition.

Granted, Prairie View Coach Hensley Sapenter Jr. was suspended last week for using a few ineligible players. “I didn’t have any other kids to play,” he told a Houston television station.

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And we’ll give you that the Panthers are 0-2 this season while playing with a freshman quarterback, Josh Barnes.

But those are only facts, cold and hard as they are.

We armchair palm readers have charted Prairie View’s season-opening loss to Texas Southern, 42-24, a cliffhanger by school standards.

And then noted the improvement in last week’s 30-14 gut-wrencher to Abilene Christian.

On Saturday, Division I-AA Prairie View plays at Hardin-Simmons, an NAIA school in Abilene.

The Prairie View insider says the ineligible players in question have been rooted from the roster, so Saturday’s imminent, streak-busting victory cannot be voided by the results of the school’s internal investigation.

FROM BISHOP (AMAT) TO KING

Ralph Brown II may still need directions to the student commons, but that didn’t stop the former La Puente Bishop Amat star from becoming the first true freshman to start at Nebraska since . . . ever?

The Cornhuskers’ sports information department confirmed Brown was the youngest player to start in the last 35 years, but suspected the debut was unprecedented.

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Brown, who turns 18 on Monday, is only months removed from Saturday night parties and leading his high school team to the Southern Section Division I championship.

But there he was Saturday, on national television against Michigan State, starting at right cornerback for the two-time defending national champions at Memorial Stadium.

“It’s unexplainable,” Brown said after the game. “When I ran out on the field, I got chills.”

Brown has yet to take his first written exam but received a passing mark from professor Tom Osborne.

“I thought Ralph did a real nice job,” Osborne said.

This time last year, Brown said he was getting ready to play Carson High.

A star tailback in high school, Brown was recruited to play corner and chose Nebraska over USC and Colorado.

Brown said Osborne was the difference.

“I like him,” Brown said. “When I watched him on TV, in my living room, he didn’t yell at kids.”

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Of course, college life is going to take some getting used to.

“Everything is on your own,” he said. “There are no parents to tell you what to do. You don’t even have to go to school.”

Ah, what Ralph means here, Mr. NCAA Investigator, is that no one makes you go to class, unlike in high school.

HURRY UP OFFENSE

--If Nebraska becomes the first school to win three consecutive national titles, expect Alabama to demand asterisks.

Nine schools have failed to three-peat as national champions, although the Crimson Tide hasn’t yet conceded 1966. After winning national titles in 1964 (UPI and AP) and 1965 (AP only), Alabama finished 11-0 in 1966 but ended up third in both polls. That was the year Notre Dame and Michigan State, ranked No. 1 and No. 2 respectively, played to their epic 10-10 tie.

Alabama Coach Bear Bryant didn’t agree with the pollsters.

“That was the greatest team I’ve ever seen,” the coach remarked of his team after a 34-7 victory in the Sugar Bowl. The school Alabama routed? Nebraska.

--Some Lexington locals are already calling for Kentucky Coach Bill Curry’s job after the team’s 0-2 start and Curry’s refusal to start freshman phenom Tim Couch at quarterback. Couch, who grew up in Kentucky, has played in both losses, but junior Billy Jack Haskins was the starter. Curry compared expectations of Couch in Kentucky to having “Daniel Boone and Abraham Lincoln on your shoulders. He must be given the privilege of growing up.” As for his own future, Curry says, “When you’re not doing well, that’s one of three games played every fall: the football game, the recruiting game and the off-with-his-head game. I’m not complaining. That’s part of our culture.”

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--How excited was Wake Forest Coach Jim Caldwell in the wake of his team’s stunning 28-27 win over Northwestern? Not very.

“I’ll enjoy it when the season’s over, if we’ve made great strides,” said Caldwell, whose 2-0 team has already bettered last year’s 1-10 mark. “I’ll smile a little bit then, have fun. Until then I’m not going to rest.”

Caldwell must have learned this deadpanned act while an assistant under Penn State’s Joe Paterno.

Then again, Northwestern Coach Gary Barnett wasn’t too excited about Wake Forest’s win either. “I think our kids thought we’d rest on our laurels of last year, especially our defense,” Barnett said.

--Sourpuss award: Michigan Coach Lloyd Carr refused this week to discuss the Wolverines’ stunning last-second defeat to Colorado two years ago at Ann Arbor. The rematch is Saturday in Boulder. “We have nothing to gain by talking about something that happened two years ago,” Carr said. A sore subject? “That’s your opinion,” Lloyd told a writer.

--Notre Dame Coach Lou Holtz, in his 11th season, had more victories (92) in his first 10 seasons than Knute Rockne (81), Ara Parseghian (85) or Frank Leahy (78) had in their first decade as Notre Dame coach.

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So why isn’t Holtz smiling? “Come read my mail; just come read my mail,” Holtz said. “You’re just thankful you have a job, period, at all.”

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