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Sign of the times: Big 12 is nation's best conference

By: Tom Dienhart, The Sporting News

November 14, 2000

It hung right there in red numerals above Jonathan Beasley's locker: 41-15. The score of Kansas State's loss at Nebraska last season. For almost a year, the handmade sign had been there for all to see. Teammates, coaches, trainers, managers, janitors. Beasley, the Wildcats' senior quarterback, didn't want to let himself forget it. The loss wasn't his fault, but Beasley didn't feel that way.

Such is life as a quarterback -- and why Beasley was crying in the locker room Saturday after Kansas State's 29-28 victory over Nebraska. Beasley had exorcised his Big Red demon. He was a pretty good quarterback after all.

"I'm proud of Jonathan," says K-State coach Bill Snyder, who improved to 2-19 against top 10 teams. "He has lived with this for a year. He was injured last year, but no one wanted to admit that (he was playing hurt). They just wanted to criticize him.

"He took responsibility for the loss (to Nebraska) last year. He shouldn't have."

Statistically, Beasley's winning effort wasn't one for the fire safe. He completed only 12 of 36 passes with an interception, but his passes covered 234 yards and accounted for two touchdowns. This is one of those performances that will look a lot better later in life, when Beasley's waist is expanding.

Time and again, Beasley threw deep, trying to expose the most vulnerable part of the Nebraska defense: its secondary. The naked truth was, it worked.

"We knew that it was part of our game plan," says Beasley, who hooked up with Quincy Morgan seven times for 199 yards and two touchdowns. "We were going to have to be able to pass and run. It worked for us in the first half, being able to pass like we did. The second half, we got away from things a bit. When push came to shove, we were able to come out and get it."

As for Nebraska, these aren't your father's Cornhuskers. Heck, they aren't even Tom Osborne's Cornhuskers. Frank Solich has to claim them. Nebraska, which entered the game with the best rushing average in the nation at 371.8 yards per game, ran 45 times for 200 yards. That effort looked good compared to quarterback Eric Crouch's performance. He hit 2 of 13 passes for 39 yards with an interception.

Nebraska, TSN's preseason No. 1, can forget about the national title. The only thing the Huskers have to look forward to is a Cotton Bowl bid, snowmobiling and recruiting season.

"Late in the game when the snow covered the field, we were almost ineffective in getting anything done," Solich says. "Kansas State played well."

For Kansas State, the season is just beginning. The Wildcats' victory was the culmination of the biggest day ever in the Big 12. Earlier, Oklahoma won at Texas A&M and remained the only unbeaten team in the nation, retaining its No. 1 ranking. People who live by the oceans love to poke at the gut of the heartland. But on this day, the second Saturday of November, the nation's breadbasket was rock solid. Indeed, the Big 12 served as ground zero of the college football universe. Beef was best. Flat was fabulous.

Oklahoma and its blitz-defying, I-can-make-that-throw-off-my-back-foot quarterback Josh Heupel were the stars in the earlier game. Texas A&M's strategy to drop as many as eight men in coverage worked for the most part. The Aggies forced Heupel to be patient and make decisions.

When teams have blitzed Heupel this season, he has had success. Against Texas A&M, Heupel showed he could inch the Sooners down the field. He knew he wasn't going to get the big play, so he took what was given him: 5 yards here, 8 yards there.

Hitting 28 of 42 passes for 263 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions, Heupel secured his position as the No. 1 Heisman contender. Sorry, Chris Weinke. No quarterback has done as much as Heupel, even though his stats didn't glow against A&M. Victories over Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska and Texas A&M are Heupel's free pass to the Downtown Athletic Club. Never has a quarterback thrown the ball so ugly, yet so effectively.

Heupel and the Sooners are why the Big 12 is the land's best conference. Being the best always was the idea behind the Big 12 -- it has just taken awhile. The Big 12 football story began in 1996, when Heupel was a skinny redshirt freshman throwing wobbly passes for Weber State. Back then, when schools from the Big Eight and the Southwest Conferences were joined, no one knew what to expect. Now, the league has matured.

The Oklahoma-Texas A&M and Nebraska-Kansas State games commanded the nation's attention because they figured to shape the BCS picture as much -- if not more -- than any two games in any league during the first two years of the Bowl Championship Series. This is what the powerbrokers in Dallas and Kansas City envisioned when they dreamed up the Big 12.

The only bad idea was to stage a title game between the champs of the North and South Divisions. Sure, the game is good theater and a great way to grab a wad of money, but it's an unnecessary season-ending hurdle that the conference's best teams must clear. The SEC is the only other power league that stages such an event.

Two of the first four Big 12 championship games have been car wrecks. In 1996, Texas stunned Nebraska when the Cornhuskers were gunning for their third consecutive national championship. In 1998, Kansas State was defeated in two overtimes by Texas A&M. The Wildcats entered the game perfect and poised to win it all. At least Nebraska got it right in 1997, when the Huskers won the league title game on their way to a share of the conference's only national championship.

This season, it looks like 9-0 Oklahoma and 9-2 Kansas State will meet December 12 in Kansas City, Mo., in the Big 12 title game. That'll be Big 12 commish Kevin Weiberg holding his breath in the press box. For that matchup to happen, it's just a matter of both teams winning out. The Wildcats finish Saturday at Missouri, and the Sooners play host to Texas Tech the same day before finishing November 25 at Oklahoma State.

Oklahoma-Kansas State II would be a reprise of the Sooners' 41-31 win October 14 that really wasn't that close. The Wildcats hope the sequel is better than Caddyshack II.

Aside from the Big 12 championship game, the Florida at Florida State game Saturday has the most BCS implications of any remaining game. If Oklahoma and Florida State win out, they figure to meet January 3 for the national championship in the Orange Bowl. The other BCS bowls likely will shape up like this: Rose, Purdue-Oregon; Fiesta, Notre Dame-Washington; Sugar, Florida-Miami.

But BCS matchups weren't on the minds of Manhattanites on this cold Saturday night. Instead, Kansas State was more interested in knowing what others thought of its win over Nebraska. The Wildcats are a program that begs for approval. Please, evaluate us. Please, rate us. Please, grade us.

On this night, K-State was OK. No, it was good, especially on defense. But the Big 12 looked even better -- and the best likely is still to come.


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