By CATHY HARASTA / The Dallas Morning News
Someone forgot to tell college football that it is not supposed to deliver late hits.
But somebody must have reminded the Big 12 that it is supposed to flex some muscle in the football department.
Surprise, surprise. The Bowl Alliance had to eat its script on Saturday, when conference championships acted part spoiler, part savior.
If anyone had said beforehand that almost 12 hours of college football would wrap March Madness-style tentacles around a December day, especially a critical shopping day, I would have said, "Dream on."
Texas did, turning its dream into about $8.3 million and assuring the Big 12 of a second team in the Bowl Alliance. Enter renewed faith in the conference's identity as a football heavyweight. With Texas in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl and Nebraska in the FedEx Orange Bowl, the Big 12 equals one-third of the Bowl Alliance, after the league opened its first football season without the expected punch.
A rogue elephant, wearing burnt orange, upended the post-season pairings and charged the atmosphere with unseasonable excitement.
March is when the Cinderella season is supposed to strike, not December. The NCAA Basketball Tournament is the brainchild that includes daylight for teams to play their way in. But the bowl system traditionally had more Scrooge than sizzle. At least it did until Saturday, when the set-up got a workover.
Talk about changing the face of the bowl season; Texas, in upsetting Nebraska in the inaugural Big 12 championship, altered just about every bone in the post-season's body. The plot thickened through Sunday, when Bowl Alliance announced its matchups in a TV selection show similar to the pairings program that comes on the heels of college basketball conference tournaments and sets up the Big Dance.
The past weekend revolutionized college football, not to mention the Longhorns' reputation and the Big 12's football credibility.
The Western Athletic Conference and the Southeastern Conference championships later Saturday acquired new meaning after Texas ruined Nebraska's day. In the end, the three Alliance bowls had to settle for the truth: Three will not do the job of delivering justice.
Three's not a crowd. Three's not enough.
The process, fortunately, is open to evolution.
The Alliance knew going in that its most glaring flaw was the absence of the Rose Bowl, which matches the Big Ten and Pac-10 champions. With the Alliance's intent of providing a national championship settled on the field, the capacity for trouble lurked in the Rose Bowl's detachment. Undefeated Arizona State could steal the Alliance's thunder this time by emerging with the national title.
But that problem exits with the 1998 season, when the Rose Bowl joins forces with the Alliance to make a foursome. The most serious injustice this season, however, concerned the WAC.
Any cooperative that excludes the WAC is unconscionable. WAC champion BYU, at 13-1, fell out of Alliance at-large consideration because even at 10-2, Nebraska was more desirable to the Orange Bowl and Penn State (9-2) appealed to the Fiesta Bowl as a strong generator of TV ratings.
Texas did BYU no favor by bouncing the Cougars from the Alliance payday. But the Longhorns did tremendous favors for the Southwestern Bell Cotton Bowl and for the longterm bowl outlook.
By introducing Cinderella to college football's post-season, Texas demonstrated that the Alliance can't assume anything too soon when it comes to pairings. If you are a fan, any time spontaneity asserts itself in sports, you can't complain.
The Cotton Bowl, with a 13-1 team in No. 5 BYU and a Big 12 team in No. 14 Kansas State, certainly can't complain.
"We have two teams that have never been in a New Year's Day bowl," Cotton Bowl chairman W. Mike Baggett said.
Though the Cotton Bowl failed in its bid a few years ago for one of the three coveted spots in the Alliance, the fact that a 13-1 team was shut out of that trifecta proved that the Alliance has room for improvement.
In 1998, talks among conferences and networks will begin, while existing contracts still are operating. Non-Alliance bowls will have an opportunity to assert their presence. Baggett said the Cotton Bowl wants to get into the Alliance-level act. "We are going to do everything we can," he said.
The excitement has only just begun.
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