Texas primed for breakthrough season in the Big XII

Tuesday, August 13th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Chris Simms, Mack Brown and the No. 4 Texas Longhorns have everything going for them, except one crucial thing. They can't win the big ones.

Brown has returned the Longhorns to national prominence, yet hasn't put them over the top. He has no conference championships, much less a national one.

Losses to Oklahoma derailed the last two seasons. The Longhorns rebounded in December and were lucky enough to get within a victory of the Rose Bowl, but blew it by losing to Colorado in the Big 12 title game.

Simms threw eight interceptions and no touchdowns in those three games. He wound up watching last year's Holiday Bowl from the bench.

This year, Simms is the unquestioned starter for the first time. And with a supporting cast featuring receiver Roy Williams and running back Cedric Benson, plus a staunch defense led by hard-hitting linebacker Derrick Johnson, the No. 4 Longhorns expect to finally break through.

``The program is walking with a swagger again,'' Brown said. ``We're at the point that, if we do our jobs, there may come a time when the ball bounces right and we could win a national championship.''

Texas' biggest obstacle remains the second-ranked Sooners, who have proven they can make big plays in big games, especially against the Longhorns.

Despite replacing All-Americans Roy Williams and Rocky Calmus on defense, Oklahoma's unit is expected to be among the nation's best. The question is whether an offense led by unproven quarterback Jason White and first-year coordinator Chuck Long can score enough, especially on Oct. 12 when the Sooners and Longhorns meet for their annual grudge match in Dallas.

``Jason will do fine,'' safety Michael Thompson said. ``He's shown everybody he's got all the intangibles you need _ he can scramble, he's smart, he's up here studying tape, he's got tape at home, he can throw.''

Texas' other challenges include playing at Nebraska and Kansas State; no team has won in both places the same season since 1987. At least the non-conference schedule is soft and UT's other big rivalry game, against No. 23 Texas A&M, is in Austin.

``Our team and staff are much more prepared for those three, four tight games you have each season,'' Brown said.

The North race appears more open. Tenth-ranked Nebraska must replace Heisman Trophy winner Eric Crouch, No. 7 Colorado must prove last year's success wasn't a fluke, and Kansas State must prove that last year's disappointment was.

The title game is Dec. 7 in Houston.

Tem capsules, in predicted order of finish:


OKLAHOMA: The defense is anchored by a front four led by DT Tommie Harris and DE Jimmy Wilkerson. ... White took over against Texas last season and started the next two games, then was lost to a knee injury. Speed and mobility are his best attributes.

TEXAS: Record-setting QB Major Applewhite is now a graduate assistant and hosts a sports-talk radio show in Austin. ... TE Bo Scaife, expected to be key cog in the offense, was lost for the season because of knee problems.

TEXAS A&M: Despite raves for QB Reggie McNeal, the job still belongs to 27-year-old Mark Farris. ... LB Jarrod Penright leads a defense intent on regaining its Wrecking Crew label. ... Offense coming off worst yardage total in 30 years.

TEXAS TECH: QB Kliff Kingsbury will have plenty of chances to shed the underrated label pinned on him by coach Mike Leach. ... DE Aaron Hunt had school-record 12 sacks last season; 26 for career are one shy of another school mark. LB Lawrence Flugence has conference-best 301 tackles the last two seasons.

OKLAHOMA STATE: Beating Oklahoma in season finale gave the Cowboys plenty of momentum. ... WR Rashaun Woods, star of OU game, set a school record for receptions (80) and led the Big 12 with 1,023 receiving yards.

BAYLOR: Bears have lost 29 straight conference games since beating Kansas in October 1998. ... Jayhawks could be streakbusters, too, on Oct. 5 in Waco.


NEBRASKA: QB Jammal Lord replaces Crouch, but I-back Dahrran Diedrick _ who led league with 1,299 rushing yards last season _ should help ease burden. ... ``Blackshirt'' defense turned ghostly pale after giving up 62 points to Colorado, then 37 to Miami in the Rose Bowl.

COLORADO: The Buffaloes will try keeping up last season's average of nearly 45 ppg with QB Craig Ochs healthy again and an impressive group of RBs. But Buffs are replacing several top linemen. ... Circle the date: Nov. 29 is when CU goes to Lincoln to face revenge-minded Cornhuskers.

IOWA STATE: QB Seneca Wallace was conference's offensive newcomer of the year, but he no longer has two-time All-Big 12 RB Ennis Haywood to keep defenses honest. ... The Cyclones open against Florida State on Aug. 24. ... Terry Allen, fired as Kansas coach last season, is associate head coach and in charge of tight ends.

KANSAS STATE: Wildcats returned to their mild ways by going 6-6, fewest wins since 1992, and had a four-game losing streak. ... Scrambling QB Ell Roberson trying to remain starter over stronger-armed Marc Dunn. ... Defense that was among nation's top four the last three years has a new coordinator. Bobby Elliott replaces Phil Bennett, now the SMU coach.

KANSAS: The league's only new coach is no stranger to the conference. Mark Mangino was an assistant at K-State from 1991-98, then Oklahoma from 1999-2001. ... QB Zach Dyer, who started four games last year, is battling juco transfer Bill Whittemore.

MISSOURI: WR Justin Gage will try building on junior year in which he caught 74 passes for 920 yards. ... Throwing him the ball will be either redshirt freshman Brad Smith or senior Kirk Farmer.