WAC ready to stop shuffling lineup and start playing

Thursday, August 17th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Karl Benson is anticipating the day when a lock is placed on the swinging door at the Western Athletic Conference.

Two years ago, there were 16 teams. Last season, there were eight; this season, nine; and next season, 10. Who's going? Who's staying? Tracking membership has been more complicated than keeping stats.

Benson, the league's commissioner, believes it's about to stop.

"For once, we know exactly what our membership is going to be," Benson said. "We have one more year of transition but after that year, we know that we will have a 10-team league and we can begin to evaluate our league for the future."

This season, Fresno State, Hawaii, Nevada, Rice, San Jose State, Southern Methodist, Texas Christian, Texas-El Paso and Tulsa will compete under the WAC banner. Next year, TCU moves to Conference USA, while Louisiana Tech and Boise State join the WAC.

TCU blossomed under coach Dennis Franchione, who immediately guided a 1-10 team to two winning seasons and postseason victories.

This year, tailback LaDainian Tomlinson is a Heisman Trophy contender.

Although the Horned Frogs are leaving, Benson doesn't consider the departure a blight on the conference's prestige.

"What success they have had is a tribute to the WAC," Benson said. "Having them in the league for one more year is going to create some great matchups as the team to beat."

Rice athletic director Bobby May said he's looking for more stability.

"We're finally in a position to build on the overall quality of the membership," May said. "The leadership at the schools have made it clear they are happy where they are. This has been an outstanding year."

Despite the distraction of comings and goings, the WAC sent TCU, Fresno State and Hawaii to bowl games. All three shared the WAC title.

This year, TCU, ranked No. 20 in The AP preseason poll, is the early favorite.

Tomlinson led the NCAA in rushing last season as a junior with 1,850 yards and set an NCAA I-A record with 406 rushing yards against Texas-El Paso. He finished fourth in the voting for the Doak Walker Award for top running back and 14th in Heisman voting.

Casey Printers was one of the top true freshmen quarterbacks last season for the Horned Frogs. He finished 28th nationally in passing efficiency and was the MVP of the Mobile Alabama Bowl in a 28-14 victory over East Carolina.

SMU is trying to inject some excitement into its program with a new $57 million on-campus stadium that the school hopes will be a cozier home than the cavernous Cotton Bowl, where empty seats have abounded for the past several seasons.

Fresno State is replacing quarterback Billy Volek with junior David Carr, but he'll have good receiving targets in Rodney Wright and Charles Smith. Six offensive and nine defensive starters return.

The Rainbows surprised everyone with the biggest turnaround in NCAA history, from 0-12 in 1998 to 9-4 last season under June Jones. Hawaii thrived under Jones' run-and-shoot offense, but he'll need to find a quarterback to join running back Avion Weaver and wide receiver Craig Stutzmann in the wide-open offense.

The rest of the pack will be playing chase, including Rice, which had a 5-6 record last season and will go with freshman quarterback Jeremy Hurd operating coach Ken Hatfield's spread option offense.

Franchione expects the departing Horned Frogs to be challenged.

"I'm sure I'm going to get a lot of good officials' calls this year being the lame duck in the WAC," he said. "Right now, we represent the WAC and we are going to do the best we can. When the last down is played, then we'll look forward to going to Conference USA."

Three teams have new head coaches: Gary Nord at Texas-El Paso, Keith Burns at Tulsa and Chris Tormey at Nevada.

"We've got a lot to build on, including Hawaii's success last year, but there are other teams that are ready to move into the upper division," WAC commissioner Benson said. "There are three new coaches that are ready to do what Franchione did in 1998 and June did last year.

"We'll see which one it will be."