Big Red Alert

Itching for a fight?

Put a pipefitter from the Bronx and a cabbie from San Francisco on adjacent bar stools and ask which team will win the World Series. Or get a couple of lifelong Broncos fans going about where the worm must turn this season -- in Brian's brain, Terrell's toes or Romo's medicine chest. As a last resort, chain a Republican to a Democrat and let 'em argue the merits of the Texas preppie versus Slick Willie's towel boy.

But if you're looking for certainty of thought and unanimity of opinion, just ask the experts who's going to win the national championship in college football this year.

Their answer? Nebraska.

This, of course, pains the Colorado mind. The Nebraska grid dynasty, scented with alfalfa and cow dung, has tormented fans here for so long that it's become a condition of life. Last year's day-after-Thanksgiving game between the Cornhuskers and the Colorado Buffaloes was especially irksome: Late in the proceedings, the poor Buffs placekicker, whose name shall not be uttered again here, hooked a baby field goal that would have put the entire Boulder police force on riot alert. Instead, Nebraska prevailed 33-30 -- in overtime, no less.

But then, what's new? CU hasn't beaten NU since 1990, and although the Buffs have lost the last four contests by a total of only thirteen points, their futility is much larger than that, and it's tinged with obsession. It might be easier for Colorado's linebackers to take out Moby Dick than to stop the Huskers' fearsome running game.

And now this. Everybody but Bill Owens and Vladimir Putin is picking Nebraska as number one in the 2000 preseason polls. Prophets at the Sporting News predict "a smooth ride to Miami" (and the Orange Bowl) for the Huskers, while the Broncos' favorite publication, Sports Illustrated, crows: "In Lincoln, football is serious business, and this year's team is very, very serious." Virtually every college football annual but one (Athlon) and all of the coaches' polls see the Big Red as world-beaters. L'il ol' Florida State, last year's national champ, finishes second in the current polls and prognostications. In fact, the only question remaining for the pundits seems to be which school will need the bigger paddy wagon following the team bus: Among the Cornhuskers and the Seminoles, a lot more players go to jail than to grad school.

If they aren't charged with felonies, this year's Nebraska players look formidable indeed. On offense, third-year coach Frank Solich starts with tough guy Eric Crouch, a bruising runner who last season became the first quarterback since 1955 to lead the Cornhuskers in rushing (889 yards, 16 touchdowns). Only a junior, the Omaha native runs Nebraska's vaunted option attack like a master -- and he's gained seven pounds of muscle in the off season. He's recovering from a shoulder injury, and critics say he's an inaccurate passer who can't throw deep. But don't tell that to wingback Bobby Newcombe, the former quarterback whose job Crouch took, or to tight end Tracey Wistrom, who averaged 27 yards per catch in 1999. The real question in Lincoln is whether Crouch is the best-ever Nebraska quarterback -- better than former Colorado-tormentors Turner Gill and Tommie Frazier. It certainly doesn't hurt that the linemen he has playing in front of him are all the size of hay silos. Two of them are Outland Trophy candidates.

Those who say Nebraska's a little short of star I-backs this year may be whistling past the graveyard. Solich has no fewer than seven ball-carriers on scholarship -- including a junior-college transfer, Thunder Collins, who may be as good as his name if the early reports hold up. Naysayers point out that Nebraska fumbled 49 times last year, losing 25 of them, a national high. Sounds pretty inept, doesn't it? Well, if you got to run about 800 plays per game, you'd fumble a few times, too -- out of sheer exhaustion.

The Sporting News calls Nebraska's ground-pounding offense "boring." And "simplistic." And "archaic." Kind of like Nebraska country life in general. But the Husker ball-carriers are punishingly effective: Last year the Huskers averaged 266 yards rushing per game and lost exactly one game -- to an inspired Texas team. In 2000, all but two starters return on offense.

Now, then, want to hear about the Big Red defense?

Solich lost two outside linebackers to graduation, but returning middle linebacker Carlos Polk is said to be the best in school history, and the current defensive ends continue a long, long tradition of excellence. Otherwise, last year's "D," one of Nebraska's best ever, returns seven starters. This does not bode well for Nebraska's rivals in the Big 12. Meanwhile, Nebraska's special teams are outstanding: Newcombe, Joe Walker and Keyuo Craver are all fleet return men, and the kicking/punting game is impeccable.

There's also the matter of the schedule. Saint Tom Osborne is gone, so the Huskers won't be playing Northwest Alaska Teachers' College in the season opener. But if visiting San Jose State (preseason ranking: 103rd in the nation) knows what's good for it, it will get the engines on the jet fired up early in the third quarter on September 2. Tickets will be hard to come by (although a win probably won't) when Nebraska visits Notre Dame for the first time in 47 years on September 9, and then it's home again to face lowly Iowa, judged to be tenth of eleven teams in the Big 10 and 71st overall. Sports Illustrated says it plainly enough: Nebraska faces the 52nd toughest schedule out of 115 Division I-A schools. Number-seven Texas isn't even on its dance card this year.

Don't let this get around, but Colorado has college football's single most brutal schedule in 2000. That's right -- number one. The toughest. By the time they get through October, Gary Barnett's troops will have done battle with Colorado State, Southern Cal, Washington, Kansas State, Texas A&M and Texas. With the exception of Colorado State (which beat the Buffs 41-14 in the Tear Gas Bowl at Mile High Stadium last year), these are all top-25 opponents, according to current Bowl Championship Series rankings. Short on quarterback and rushing talent and inexperienced in the secondary, the Buffs might be lucky to win three of those first six. Four wins would be a minor miracle. But as Barnett determines to throw the ball less and smash it more, he may have a potent new weapon at his disposal. Freshman Marcus Houston, late of Denver's Thomas Jefferson High School, was said to be the country's top prep running back last year, with 1,743 yards and 23 touchdowns, and his decision to play for CU set hearts aflutter in Boulder. At 6' 2" and 205 pounds, Houston has the size to make an impact right away -- and the speed. "The Buffaloes play the nation's toughest schedule," Sports Illustrated notes. "Will they live to tell about it?"

If they do, their November 24 visit to Lincoln could find them less battle-weary than time-tempered. And itching for a fight.

For devout Colorado Rockies fans, summer is over. The newfangled club's ugly July collapse and the wholesale roster-dumping that followed (Where have you gone, Mike Lansing? Don't forget to write, Tom Goodwin) put the Rox in rebuilding mode once more. If they make a move toward the top of the division before 2003, even the beer vendors will be shocked.

So it's a particular pleasure, and a saving grace, to behold the feats of Todd Helton. The unflappable Rockies first baseman, who turned 27 on Sunday, gives baseball fans everywhere reason to rejoice. As of Monday morning, the 6-2 Tennesseean was hitting .398, and his quiet assault on the magical .400 mark continues apace. Frank Thomas, Sammy Sosa and the rest of baseball's overstuffed sluggers can smash all the cheap home runs they like; .400 is something special. Last achieved by the legendary Ted Williams in 1941 and last approached by Kansas City's George Brett in 1980 (when he wound up hitting .390), it is one of baseball's cherished unattainables, and even if the unassuming Helton doesn't get there, he has made this long season of woe worthwhile.

In an era when starting pitchers are replaced by fresh "middle" men, and those are replaced by "setup" men, only to themselves be replaced by "closers," it is considered impossible to hit .400. Helton's current hot streak -- kick-started on the road in Montreal and New York, no less -- wherein he gained twelve points of average, hit five home runs and retook the league lead in hits and runs scored, is astonishing. Not bad for the guy who had to replace Andres Galarraga at first.


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