Seeing Red Once Again

Beyond the Gainesville city limits, cocky Steve Spurrier may be the least popular head coach in big-time college football. But even those who'd like to see the man vanish in the Everglades may have sympathized last January when his high-octane Florida Gators were blown out of the Fiesta Bowl, 62-24.

"We have no answers, no answers," a deflated Spurrier admitted post-slaughter. Indeed. Florida quarterback Danny Wuerffel, who had passed for more than 3,000 yards and 35 touchdowns in the 1995 season, was all but shut down in the Fiesta, and the Gator offense, which had averaged more than 500 yards per game, was held to minus-28 yards rushing in Tempe. Meanwhile, Florida's opponent ran for 524 yards and passed for 105 more en route to a 38-point win and a second consecutive national championship.

That opponent was, of course, Nebraska.
No college football fan in these parts has to be reminded. Sour Nebraska jokes still echo off the Flatirons, and wags on the Pearl Street Mall will advise checking out the Lincoln police blotter if you want a preview of Tom Osborne's starters. Coloradans with long memories still refer to their flatland neighbors to the east as the Bugeaters.

But a glaring fact remains: The Colorado Buffaloes haven't beaten Nebraska since 1990. They have had no answers, no answers. Last October 28 in Boulder, it was the same old story: Nebraska 44, CU 21.

However, a gleam of light striped the picture as the Buffs got 1996 under way in style Saturday with a 37-19 win over outclassed Washington State. Colorado is a stronger team this year on both sides of the ball--maybe even No. 1 material. Fifty-five lettermen, including sixteen starters, have returned from 1995, and slender quarterback Koy Detmer is back in the pocket after losing most of 1995 to a torn anterior cruciate ligament and some of the early summer to tendinitis. Head coach Rick Neuheisel, he of the stress-relieving rafting trips and team bowling nights and impromptu guitar recitals, now has a full season of battle and worry and surprises behind him. When he took over from Bill McCartney, he faced the unenviable task of replacing ten 1994 Buffs drafted into the NFL and responded with a 10-2 season as a rookie head coach, including a Cotton Bowl blowout of Oregon.

The toll? Look at Baby Rick these days and you'll see a few faint creases of, well, experience around the eyes. And a post-1995 assessment of himself that indicates, if obliquely, just what he learned in his baptism of fire: "Everybody starts with a blank canvas and just paints, and there will be certain colors I won't use next year."

Count on him, though, to use Red. Lots of Red. Big Red.
In a masterpiece of scheduling, Colorado and Nebraska will meet November 29, the day after Thanksgiving, in Lincoln. The final regular season test for both teams, it's already being touted as the "game of the year," and the football cognoscenti will be mildly surprised if Neuheisel and Osborne don't bring perfect records into the thing. Getting motivated for this one won't be any problem.

That might be leaping ahead of the story, though. In the next three months, the teams will face two of the country's ten toughest schedules: Nebraska's 1996 opponents were 76-40-2 last year, Colorado's 74-43-1. Almost everyone they will play went to a bowl game and won it. Not only that, the Buffs' and Huskers' newly expanded conference, now called the Big 12, is clearly the country's best, beefed up with the addition of four big-deal teams from Texas--Texas A&M, Texas, Texas Tech and Baylor. Luckily for the newcomers, they have been placed in the league's South Division with regional rivals Oklahoma and Oklahoma State; unluckily, A&M and Texas both face CU this year; Baylor and Texas Tech get Nebraska.

Meanwhile, Colorado faces sky-high Colorado State, still-mad Michigan, A&M, Oklahoma State and Kansas (which beat CU in '95) in its next five games--four of which are on national television. Reading between the lines: The Buffs have exactly two apparent pushovers on their schedule--Missouri and Iowa State, Big 8 cellar-dwellers in 1995. That Neuheisel's kids play those clubs on November 2 and November 9, respectively, probably isn't a bad thing--not with Big Red looming a few weeks later. But then, didn't it take an illegal extra down to beat Mizzou's toothless Tigers a few seasons back?

The burning question, as always: How does Colorado find the answers it has lacked against Nebraska for five long years?

One major clue may come straight from the Buffs' old antagonists. After Nebraska crushed Florida in the Fiesta Bowl, Huskers defensive backs coach George Darlington was asked about the vaunted speed of the Gators' wide receivers. "Quite frankly," he answered, "I thought Colorado had more speed than Florida."

So, then. The good news: Neuheisel not only gets back Detmer, a quarterback who was leading the nation in passing when he got hurt last year, he also gets his entire 1995 receiving corps--a year smarter, a year faster, a year hungrier. There's senior Rae Carruth, who led the conference last year in receiving yards per game (91.6), caught 53 passes and scored 9 touchdowns. Oh, and he smokes the 40-yard dash in 4.17 seconds. There's junior Phil Savoy, an eyelash slower at 4.35, with 49 catches and 5 TDs in 1995, and James Kidd, with 23 catches and 5 TDs. Tight end Matt Lepsis, meanwhile, was hailed as the team's most improved player (25 catches, 341 yards, 2 TDs). This could be the finest group of receivers in America, with a golden arm pitching at them. But even if Detmer gets dinged again, backup John Hessler got so much playing time last year that he wouldn't be much of a come-down.

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