On Any Given Saturday

Although he didn't mention it by name, head coach <B>Mack Brown</B> was talking about the 'P' word this week.

The 'P' word has altered the of landscape college football, and it isn't about 'passing', 'punting', 'possession' time or new rules governing 'penalties'. Depending on your perspective, the 'P' word ain't 'pretty', either.

Instead, Brown was talking 'parity'.

The topic surfaced as an indirect result of a conversation he recently had with a few NFL scouts. Brown inquired what professional football personnel were generally observing these days within the college football ranks.

The response, in essence, was that all teams are alike -- but the elite schools are those that have two or three playmakers who can make all the difference. (A Roy Williams? A Cedric Benson? A Chris Simms?)

"The (teams) that are really good are those that have key players at the skill positions, "Brown said, "and those two or three players make them look better than the others. There are a lot of average players on really good teams that are hiding behind great players because nobody has got all great players."

Brown paused before adding, "Well, maybe Miami does."

While some notable traditional powers are on the upswing this season (Notre Dame, USC, Ohio State, Penn State), imagine glancing at the national rankings about 10 years ago and seeing the likes of Washington State, Colorado State, Kansas State, Iowa State, N.C. State, Oregon, or Marshall in the Top 25. (If someone were to have approached me at a party back then and intimated that these teams would some day occupy about one-third of the Top 25 , I would have taken their car keys and called a cab.)

Now, it seems at least every other week there is one relatively unheralded school (with just enough talent and motivation) that rises to the occasion to produce a season-making, coach-saving upset at home over Big State U with its national championship aspirations.

From a purely objective point of view, it's good for the game to broaden its appeal to include some of those less-than-traditional hotbeds of college football. Again, from an unbiased perspective, it makes for some truly unexpected and entertaining match-ups (nothing like seeing an Iowa State at Florida State's goal line with a chance to tie or win on the last play of the game; unless, of course, it's Texas' Kris Stockton having to connect on a last-second field goal at Iowa State the week after the Horns beat third-ranked Nebraska in 1999).

Which is to say, parity does not serve well the Longhorns (or the Sooners, or the Wolverines, or the Crimson Tides) of the college football world. Then again, it was never intended to.

What it means is there is not as dramatic a difference between the team ranked No. 2 and the team ranked No. 12, or No. 22 or No. 32, for that matter. It means road games are all the more formidable (see Penn State 40, Nebraska 7) and home wins are hardly a given (see USC 40, Colorado 3). It means there is far less depth on each team so that a single injury at a specific position can devastate an entire season. It means the margin for error is smaller than ever.

"What's happening right now in college football is you don't ever know who's going to show up on Saturday so you better play hard every week," Brown said. "You can't stand around any more."

Part of the parity picture at Texas is that its players may be just a little too heralded, and that complacency more than competition is what is more likely to upend the Horns on any given Saturday.

"Our kids get so much attention that we have to constantly keep on them about playing each week because they read and hear all the stuff from the fans," Brown said, "or they'll hear that Houston is not playing good and they'll hear that they (Longhorns) are great. They get cocky and go out there and just walk through it. The hardest thing about our jobs is that we take 130 kids, and they are kids, and we have to stay on them in a positive way every day. If you skip it one day, they'll know you didn't get on them and then they think things are okay. With kids, there is a fine line between being focused and being relaxed."

Case-in-point: the North Texas game.

"Offensively we thought we had put enough emphasis on the running game going into the first game, but we hadn't," Brown said. "We fixed it, but that doesn't mean we fixed it for this Saturday night. That's the hardest thing about my job. When it shows up, like the running game against North Texas, I want to throw up. I could not believe we were that poor after we had practiced that long. It looked like we had not practiced at all.

"About the time you feel like you're in pretty good shape in this business is when you get kicked right in the mouth. You need to always be working toward getting better instead of feeling pretty good about yourself. That's where you have to be confident enough to know if you do it to the best of your ability, then you're good enough -- but if you don't, you're not even better than anyone else."

Then again, Texas and other NCAA powerhouses have been down this road long before scholarship limitations went into effect 20 years ago. As Saint Darrell (Royal) has pontificated, it wasn't the Oklahomas or the Arkansas's or the Texas A&Ms of the NCAA world that handed his 1961 squad its only loss and postponed his first national title for another two seasons. Instead it was "the TCU Cockroaches" that brought their losing record to Austin and scuttled back to Fort Worth with an improbable 6-0 victory.

Back in the day, we'd call it an upset.

Now, it's all about the 'P' word -- but the results are just as upsetting. Only more so.

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