Season hangs in the balance for Texas and Kansas State

Friday, October 3rd 2003, 12:00 am

By: News On 6

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) _ Talk about crunch time for No. 13 Texas and No. 16 Kansas State. It's barely October and their national championship dreams are teetering.

The winner of Saturday's Big 12 opener remains an outside contender for the national title if it can run the table and win the conference. The loser gets pushed off the cliff.

When the season began, both teams had the swagger of potential title winners. Stiff punches from Arkansas and Marshall wobbled their legs and damaged their reputation.

While the college football world knows what's at stake for these preseason powers, the Longhorns (3-1) and Wildcats (4-1) are sticking to the mantra of one game at a time.

``That's somebody else's perception,'' Wildcats coach Bill Snyder said of the win-or-else aura surrounding the game. ``Those kinds of things (national championships) are way out there, way down the road.''

Texas coach Mack Brown said the game would be hard fought no matter what the records were. He scrambled to get his team refocused after their early loss and expects Snyder will have the Wildcats ready to play.

``I just think we're going to see a great effort out of them,'' Brown said. ``I think we'd see a great effort if they were undefeated. I don't think it changes.''

In Saturday's other ranked games, No. 1 Oklahoma visits Iowa State, No. 4 Virginia Tech plays at Rutgers, No. 7 Tennessee goes to Auburn, No. 9 Michigan visits No. 23 Iowa, No. 10 Southern California plays at Arizona State, No. 11 Georgia hosts Alabama, No. 12 Nebraska plays Troy State, and No. 14 Washington State hosts Arizona.

Also, No. 17 Northern Illinois hosts Ohio, No. 18 Washington visits UCLA, No. 20 TCU plays Army, No. 21 Minnesota goes to Northwestern, No. 22 Purdue hosts Illinois, No. 24 Florida plays Mississippi, and No. 25 Michigan State hosts Indiana.

The reality of a desperate situation is hard to escape, however for both Texas and Kansas State.

``Since each team has that one loss, two losses makes it tough to get into that national championship,'' Longhorns senior wide receiver Roy Williams said.

After the loss to Arkansas, it was Williams who had the bravado to predict the Longhorns could win the rest of their games. Williams gave up a chance in April to be a high draft choice in the NFL to chase a national title this year. After the loss, he seized the reins of leadership and challenged his team to respond.

Texas did that by outscoring Rice and Tulane 111-25 over the next two games. Although some dismissed the scores as coming against weak competition, to the Longhorns it was a statement that they could save their season.

``The loss was our reality check,'' Williams said.

Kansas State may have a similar leader stepping up. Starting quarterback Ell Roberson returns after missing two games with an injured left, non-throwing hand.

Roberson sat out the 27-20 home loss to Marshall that sent the Wildcats tumbling out of the Top 10 and sparked criticism that they were overrated.

``They've got new hope,'' Brown said. ``Ell's back. He's their identity.''

``We are going down there with a purpose, and that is to win a football game,'' Roberson said. ``I just want to go out and help this team accomplish what we set out to accomplish.''

The loser can still compete for the Big 12 title. The Longhorns haven't won the league since 1996 and Kansas State has yet to win the title.

Since Texas plays in the South division and Kansas State is in the North, a loss doesn't knock either team out of contention for the conference title and a BCS berth.

But a loss all but guarantees that the Longhorns or Wildcats will be relegated to national-title also-rans yet again.

In other games:

No. 7 Tennessee at Auburn

The Vols travel to Auburn on Saturday to renew what once was one of the SEC's bitterest rivalries.

Tennessee (4-0, 2-0) leads the East Division while Auburn (2-2, 1-0) were the preseason favorites to win the league before losing their first two games.

The teams ceased being annual foes after the 1991 game when the newly expanded SEC split up into Eastern and Western divisions with Auburn and Tennessee, once again, on opposite sides.

Tennessee is 5-0-1 in the past six meetings, but the teams haven't met since 1999 and have played only three times since 1991.

No. 10 USC at Arizona State

If Southern California needed a wakeup call, it came last week in a 34-31 triple-overtime loss to California.

``We've got to refocus,'' defensive tackle Shaun Cody said. ``Guys need to get better. We're at the bottom of the Pac-10 and have to fight our way back up.''

USC (3-1, 0-1) starts over Saturday against Arizona State, a team in even more distress.

The Sun Devils have disappointed their fans in four straight outings, beating two weak opponents and then losing 21-2 to Iowa and 45-17 to Oregon State in their first two road games.

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