All right, dyed-in-the-wool college football fans. Here's the get-a-life test. On the evening of December 30, which game are you going to watch? The Carquest Bowl, featuring North Carolina's mighty Tarheels? Or the Peach Bowl, starring the tenacious Georgia Bulldogs?
Please keep in mind that although intercollegiate football is an honorable sport populated mostly by "student-athletes" who would really rather be absorbing Plato and the mysteries of calculus in a lonely carrel of the campus library than tearing the heads off the opposition, a couple of inconsistencies have crept into the game.
Like the fact that North Carolina and Georgia lost ten games between them this season--five apiece. Still, they are headed for postseason play, as are 6-4-1 Louisiana State, 7-4 UCLA and 7-4 Iowa. Oh, well. At least universities don't award philosophy chairs to those backslapping hardware salesmen in red blazers who hand out the bowl bids. Good thing, too: These guys would drop the Schopenhauer course in favor of the Bear Bryant course.
Simply said, there are but two bowl games this year that will contribute drama to the big picture of college sports--and perhaps to the bigger picture of the world beyond the gridiron. Both contests carry significances, symbolic and otherwise, that are worth noting, and we'll get to them in a minute.
But first, the obligatory local color, dim though it may be:
On December 27, the Zoomies of Air Force, well-behaved boys all and perennial bowlers, will face Texas Tech in Tucson at something called the Copper Bowl. As you may have surmised, this is strictly a minor-league affair, and the kids from Lubbock, who went 8-3 in the Southwest Conference's final year, are favored by a solid four points. But that underestimates the team discipline and sturdy will of Fisher DeBerry's undersized Falcons: Over the years, they have upset such as Notre Dame and Oregon in big games, and there's a good chance they'll do it again against the Red Raiders. If not, just pack the whole Air Force club off to Bosnia and be done with it.
Surprise. After 200 seasons of staying home for the holidays, Colorado State returns to the December 29 Holiday Bowl in San Diego for the second straight year. Credit head coach Sonny Lubick, who transformed the Rams into the college football phenomenon of 1994, with keeping his upstarts focused again this year. Give equal due to CSU's all-American defensive back Greg Myers, who won national postseason honors for his exploits on the field and in the classroom, for providing team leadership. However, the 8-3 Rams have drawn Kansas State in the Holiday, and that's bad news. The nation's lesser pride of Wildcats were ranked as high as number seven in the 1995 polls, beat powerful Colorado on November 18 and deserve every bit of their nine-point favoritism over CSU. Last year it was Michigan that spoiled the Rams' dream; this year it will be K-State.
As for the Golden Buffaloes, who are headed for the Cotton Bowl, what more can you say about a team that lost highly touted quarterback Koy Detmer to injury early in the season, lost (again) to Nebraska, but still managed to keep its first-year coach? Now that 34-year-old Rick Neuheisel, who looks younger and fresher than most of his players, has resisted the blandishments of his alma mater, UCLA, and vowed to stay on in Boulder, his troops should have added incentive to roast themselves some Ducks on New Year's Day in Dallas. Oddly, Oregon (9-2) and Colorado (9-2) have already met twelve times in the past (each team won six), but the Buffs appear to have the speed, class and form to shut down the Quack Attack and score at will themselves. Tricky Rick's boys are six-point favorites; go ahead and make that twenty-six.
Now let's move on to the real Light and Darkness--two major bowl games packed with melodrama and barely disguised meanings:
The Rose Bowl, which often holds the same fascination most linebackers have with math class, promises to be something special this year. Northwestern is one of the nation's toughest, least compromising academic schools (this grad will attest to that), but the former doormats of Big Ten football lost a record 34 straight games in the 1980s, and before 1995 they hadn't had a winning season for 21 years. In its earliest days, Northwestern was even defeated by a pickup team from the Denver Athletic Club. As for the Rose Bowl, the Wildcats have been there just once--in 1949. They haven't played in any bowl game since.
So when head coach Gary Barnett, a former assistant at Colorado under Bill McCartney, stood up at the halftime of a Northwestern basketball game three years ago and announced that he would "take the Purple to Pasadena," Wildcats fans (all 300 or so of 'em) quietly ignored him and stuck their heads back into their biology textbooks.
This year Barnett made good on his pledge. Astonishingly, Northwestern opened the season by beating Notre Dame in South Bend (first time since 1961), later took out Michigan in Ann Arbor (first time since 1959), and then manhandled Penn State and Wisconsin en route to an 8-0 conference mark. Aside from an early season collapse against lowly Miami of Ohio, the only disappointment in the Wildcats' miraculous 10-1 season was that Ohio State wasn't on their 1995 schedule. But when Michigan upset the Buckeyes at season's end, Northwestern defied 200-1 preseason odds by winning the Big Ten outright for the first time since 1936. They finished the year ranked third in both college polls.
The Purple's opponent in Pasadena on New Year's Day will be (8-2-1) Southern Cal, which has played in eighteen Rose Bowls but did not beat one high-quality opponent this year--not Washington, not Notre Dame, not crosstown rival UCLA. Still, the seventeenth-ranked Trojans are four-point favorites to beat Northwestern--and they don't even have O.J. anymore. The 'Cat players have a combined 3.21 grade-point average, and they averaged 1,100 on their SATs, but Vegas still don't give 'em no respect.
So watch out, USC. Barnett, who was named coach of the year and refused to let his players carry him off the field at Notre Dame ("Act like you've been there before," he told them) has lost his leading tackler, senior linebacker Pat Fitzgerald, to a broken leg. But 100-yards-per-game running back Darnell Autry and his teammates will be ready to roll. Barnett's advice all season long to his super-bright overachievers? "Believe Without Evidence."
Over in dull, dreary Nebraska, the team motto might well be: "Convict After Hearing the Evidence."
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Colorado football fans need no new reasons to detest the Big Red, but the Lincoln Police Department has provided them anyway. Among the bullies and felons liberally sprinkled through the Nebraska team roster are assorted rapists and knaves, as well as one spirited student-athlete who twisted a broken beer bottle into the face of a man with one eye. Now the man has no eyes.
These wayward children are not only forgiven in a place that has nothing but college football on its menu, they are lionized as heroes. You can probably commit murder in Lincoln and not be thrown off the team, and if an offender is ever benched, it's for a game or two. In all likelihood the miscreants will be suited up for the January 2 Fiesta Bowl in Tempe, Arizona, which is supposed to determine college football's mythical "national championship." The number-one, 11-0 Cornhuskers are three-point favorites over the second-ranked University of Florida, but that is hardly the point: If sainted head coach "Doctor" Tom Osborne allows the criminals on his team to play, we'll finally know just what it is he's a doctor of--mendacity and shame. Meanwhile, neither the NCAA nor the Fiesta Bowl money-grabbers dare lay a glove on Nebraska.
On the other hand, Florida's Gators, who went 12-0 thanks to the best offense in college football history (40 points and 500 yards per game), are coached by a man who's roundly despised almost everywhere but Gainesville itself. Steve Spurrier, a genius of the passing game, has been called arrogant, boastful and impossibly demanding--even by some of his own players. And the way he throws his visor onto the sideline every time his club screws up a third-and-thirteen is one of the truly distasteful sights in all of sport.
However...on the evening after the long-suffering, academically sound Northwestern Wildcats thrash USC, a lot of us will be rooting for Florida to give Nebraska one helluva beating. That's what some of the Nebraska players do to their girlfriends, and to guys in bars whose looks they don't like. Not everybody qualifies, but the creeps on this club deserve a taste of their own medicine. Unfortunately, the Gators are the only people on earth with enough guts to give it to them.