The Dallas Morning News Big 12 Kickoff

Thursday, July 27th 2000, 12:00 am

By: News On 6

Can Nebraska Get to Miami?

Anyone who saw Nebraska's offensive line manhandle Tennessee in the Fiesta Bowl had to wonder why the Cornhuskers weren't playing in the national title game. A 24-20 regular-season loss to Texas was why.

The Huskers got rid of their Texas hex with a 22-6 domination in last year's Big 12 championship game. This year, Texas is off the schedule, and most of that powerful offensive line is back, led by center Dominic Raiola and guard Russ Hochstein.

Also back is quarterback Eric Crouch, who is getting Heisman consideration after forcing Bobby Newcombe to switch to wingback. Crouch is coming off shoulder surgery in the spring but is expected to be at full strength this fall.

Unless the luck of the Irish gets them, the Huskers shouldn't be challenged by a nonconference schedule that sandwiches a trip to South Bend, Ind., between San Jose State and Iowa.

After that, the biggest tests will come in the last third of the schedule. The Oklahoma rivalry gets renewed Oct. 28 after a two-year hiatus, and Nebraska has to play at Kansas State on Nov. 11. The regular season concludes Nov. 24 with Colorado, which took the Huskers to overtime last season.

Although quarterback depth is thin and there were some key losses in the secondary, Nebraska fans probably have already made plans to be at the FedEx Orange Bowl on Jan. 3 for the BCS championship.

Who Won't Play Quarteback at TU

Job security is a funny thing in Austin.

Last year Major Applewhite led the Longhorns to the Big 12 championship game and a second straight Cotton Bowl appearance and won Big 12 offensive MVP honors. This year, he may not start.

Sophomore Chris Simms will be given a chance to win the job, and not just because Applewhite is coming off knee surgery. The Longhorns may go to a platoon system.

How coach Mack Brown handles this situation could become the key to the season. The Longhorns are the favorite to win the Big 12 South and could make a run at an even bigger prize.

But if there are bitter feelings about the quarterback situation, it could split the team. It isn't a matter of keeping both players happy, since one of them will be playing and the other won't. Keeping the guy who isn't playing happy may be Brown's biggest coaching job of all.

Is OU Ready for the Next Step?

In one year, coach Bob Stoops transformed a down-on-its-luck Oklahoma program and took the Sooners to their first bowl game since 1994.

Sooners fans were grateful to see a competitive team again in Norman, but being competitive isn't going to satisfy them for long. The OU program made such a quick rise back to prominence, the next logical step is to compete for a conference title.

Oklahoma may just do it now that quarterback Josh Heupel is in his second season in Stoops' pass-happy system. Heupel doesn't have the strongest arm but he knows where to put the ball. He passed for 3,460 yards and 30 touchdowns last season, plus his receivers will have spent a full season in the system.

The key to taking the next step is an improved defense capable of holding onto the big leads the offense can generate. Part of that is the offense's responsibility, too, and the emergence of running back Quenton Griffin could keep the defense off the field longer.

Can the Aggies Win a Bowl?

The latest nitpick of Texas A&M coach R.C. Slocum is that the Aggies can't win bowls. At least not often, or big bowls, in Slocum's tenure.

Texas A&M is 2-7 in bowls under Slocum, with victories in the 1990 Holiday Bowl over BYU and 1995 Alamo Bowl over Michigan.

Since their last bowl win, the Aggies have been beaten by UCLA in the Cotton (29-23), Ohio State in the Sugar (24-14) and Penn State in the Alamo (24-0).

The blanking by Penn State will make this even more of an issue should the Aggies go bowling again this year. They should, once the three-way quarterback battle between Mark Farris, Colby Freeman and Vance Smith gets resolved.

Then it's up to the bowl matchmakers (i.e. Big 12) to make sure the Aggies aren't overmatched again. The Aggies have been a much better program than their bowl record indicates, but sometimes the price of success is playing a better team.

Will Tech's New Offense Fly High?

The wind doesn't blow hard all the time in Lubbock. Sometimes it blows even harder.

Perfect place for a highly sophisticated passing game, at least in the mind of new Texas Tech coach Mike Leach. The state's ground-oriented football reputation is as much environmental as it is historical, but Leach is bringing his passing offense from Oklahoma to the windy South Plains.

If the Red Raiders take to the new passing game the way the Sooners did, look for Tech to post some impressive offensive numbers. The Red Raiders appear to have a capable quarterback in Kliff Kingsbury, and running back Ricky Williams should return from a knee injury to provide balance.

But like Oklahoma last year, the Red Raiders may have trouble holding a lead. Tech could end up in some wild shootouts, so Leach would be wise to know which way the wind is blowing in the second half.

Games to Watch

Aug. 31
Baylor at North Texas: The Bears need an early confidence boost, but a Big 12 team venturing into Denton smells like an ambush.

Sept. 2
Texas A&M at Notre Dame: Two of the most tradition-rich programs in the nation. A chance for the Big 12 to shine in the Irish spotlight.

Sept. 9
Nebraska at N. Dame: See above.

Sept. 9
North Texas at Texas Tech: Spike Dykes couldn't beat UNT in Lubbock. Chance for Mike Leach to win over a lot of fans.

Oct. 7
Texas-OU: Not just for bragging rights. This year, it may be for the Big 12 South title.

Oct. 28
Nebraska at Oklahoma: After two-year break, old Big Eight rivals meet again.

Nov. 11
Nebraska at Kansas State: Big 12 North title should be on the line.

Nov. 11
Oklahoma at Texas A&M: Sooners looking to pass A&M in the Big 12 hierarchy, but Aggies won't forget last year's 51-6 whipping.

Nov. 24
Texas A&M at Texas: No hotel hassles for Horns.

Big Twelve coaches meet with the media Thursday and Friday in Kansas City. The Dallas Morning News will provide us with two-day coverage of all news conferences.


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