It’s finally here. The conference with hair on its chest and grit in its belly has arrived.
This league is going to be so danged tough, every player should wear all black and fit a pack of cigarettes into his rolled-up sleeves. And that’s just the kickers. Tattoos are mandatory; teeth optional.
Even the name suggests strength. The Big 12. It doesn’t roll, it rumbles off the tongue. Say it. The Big 12. The rumble song from “West Side Story” should be the league’s theme song. That or the theme from “Rocky.” Its slogan should be: “We’re so tough, we can do push-ups with no arms.” It should resurrect John Facenda to voice-over the highlights.
The Western Athletic Conference implies a fancy-pants league where the players say “excuse me”if they accidentally hit anyone. The Atlantic Coast Conference? Please. You’ve got Florida State and a bunch of academic factories that produce athletes in short pants. In name alone, the Big Ten compares favorably, but let’s face it, it’s mathematically challenged and has better recruiters than coaches (see John Cooper and Lloyd Carr).
Yes, Texas A&M wimped out against Brigham Young, but we’ll call that a mulligan. R.C., did somebody rip the blitz page out of your playbook or didn’t you read Darrell’s book on dancing with what brung ya?
The rest of the league still has its defiant attitude. I mean, the Big 12 doesn’t have the nation’s top-ranked team, three in the top eight and six in the top 25 because Commissioner Steve Hatchell’s got good breath.
And why not? This league is about strength. Raw, unadulterated, knock-’em-in-the-chinstrap strength.
“I’m pretty sure they’ll have more physical players than Houston or SMU, ” University of Texas quarterback James Brown said. “SMU had recruiting problems and didn’t have real good players. Virginia Tech (in the Sugar Bowl) was a physical game. We weren’t ready for that.”
Texas defensive coordinator Gary Darnell, who has forewarned his players, is a former All-Big Eight linebacker at Big 12 member Oklahoma State.
“Yeah, but that was before the prehistoric age, ” Longhorns senior linebacker Tyson King says. “Seriously, you’re not going to really know what it’s like till somebody pops you in the jaw. Everybody’s talking about how physical all these teams are. And they are physical, but we’re not pantywaists here. A&M and Baylor’s got good, physical players. And we played Notre Dame. They looked like a bunch of road graders.
“It’s just going to be a physical league. I hope we don’t get run over.”
Not likely with an offensive line that averages 295 pounds and a defensive front that weighs 281 a man. The defensive backups weigh even more.
They represent Texas’ revamped recruiting plan and wish-list for players of substance. Coach John Mackovic said that as recently as five years ago most programs were satisfied with defensive linemen measuring 255 to 260 pounds. Now they need to weigh 280 or more.
“Teams that we played and matched up well with in the Big Eight were big, physical, strong teams, ” Mackovic said. “We knew we had to recruit size and strength and speed. We targeted players to move in that direction.”
Of Texas’ four rookie defensive linemen, all but one is 260 pounds or greater. All six offensive line recruits top 270 pounds, and Roger Roesler and Richard Land exceed 300.
Nebraska returned only one offensive lineman a year ago and averaged — averaged, mind you — 399.8 yards rushing per game to lead the nation. This year, the Cornhuskers have a 6-foot-3-inch, 310-pound guard. Is that a pulling guard or a plowing guard?
Kansas State ran all over Colorado last year. Even Iowa State had a 2,010-yard rusher, Troy Davis, and has two 300-pounders after winning only three games. Eight Big 12 teams ranked in the top 29 rushing teams in the country in 1995, and the league also had five of the nation’s 12 best rushing defenses.
Missouri, which ranked 27th with 200 yards per game, brings a hybrid offense to town Saturday that combines the option with a pro-style attack. The Tigers are one of five Big 12 clubs that either dabbles with the option or, as in Nebraska’s case, dominates with it.
Texas and Colorado will boast the league’s most diversified offenses but will need to stress the ground game for those November bad-weather trips to Lawrence and Lincoln. No one knows that better than Mackovic, who weathered four years at Illinois in the equally rugged Big Ten, where the relentless pounding taxes depth and emphasizes constant recruiting success.
And should any team really try to go against Big 12 type and totally veer away from a fast and physical style, what would be its prospects of success?
“It’d be an interesting experiment to go small and slow, ” Mackovic chuckled. “But I would not recommend it.”