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Expectations run high heading into 2002 collegiate season

The folks in Austin haven’t been this excited about an upcoming college football season since a young man named Campbell was etching his name in Texas lore some 25 years ago. The same can be said for the folks north of the Red River, where the Oklahoma Sooners also have their eyes on another national championship, along with a handful of teams from Tallahassee, Miami and Knoxville.

Ah yes, while baseball’s millionaires head for another strike (let them, who cares anymore!), the college football season gets underway in earnest this Labor Day weekend with a number of intriguing encounters from the East to West and points in between. Somebody should tell baseball greedy owners and players that no one is really going to care or not if they strike Aug. 30. That’s because King Football is back!

And what a season it could be for folks in the Lone Star State. Texas enters the season ranked anywhere from first to fifth, depending on which publication you read. Texas A&M returns the brunt of a team which finished with a winning record last year and Texas Tech has one of the nation’s top quarterbacks in senior Kliff Kingsbury.

The three Texas schools, along with Baylor, will again be a part of the Big 12 Conference, which for the second straight year could be the best in the country.

But the college game won’t be the only one in town this year. The local high school season cranks up the weekend of Sept. 6-7 when Aldine ISD’s four varsity programs take to the field, and the NFL returns to Houston after a six-year absence when the Texans take on the Cowboys on Sunday night, Sept. 8 in sparkling Reliant Stadium.

The return of the football season also means the return of this column. The 2002 season will mark the fifth anniversary of this endeavor and I hope you’ve had as much fun reading it as I have had writing it. It is definitely a labor of love.

So without further ado, let’s take a look at what the college schedule has. to offer this first full weekend (a handful of games were played Aug. 24-25).

North Texas at Texas: My nephew is a junior at UT and he’s been bragging to me all summer that this will be the Longhorns’ year. The young lad may have a point, but if they hope to land a spot in the Fiesta Bowl (the site of this year’s BCS title game), they’ll have to get murderous a schedule that will have them playing at Nebraska, Kansas State, Lubbock, College Station and taking on Oklahoma in Dallas. Not exactly a cakewalk, but if they get to the Big 12 title game undefeated, not even Mack Brown will screw it up this time around. The ‘Horns will begin their quest this Saturday when they run roughshod over a hapless North Texas squad. Look for Cedric Benson and Chris Simms to have huge days. My pick, Texas 52. North Texas 10

Washington at Michigan: One of the best early-season games on the schedule as the Huskies pay a visit to the Wolverines in the Big House in Ann Arbor. A year ago Washington escaped with a narrow victory at home, so look for Michigan to be out for revenge as the Pac 10 meets the Big 10 in this intersectional battle. The Huskies are loaded with talent, led by quarterback Cody Pickett, while the Wolverines return the brunt of their defense that lifted them to eight wins a year ago. Washington may have the better talent on offense, but good defenses win games. That will be the case on Saturday. My pick, Michigan 20, Washington 14

Colorado vs. Colorado State: This has turned into a fierce in-state rivalry as the upstart Rams from the WAC always play the Buffs of the Big 12 tough. Colorado finished the 2001 season as one of the hottest teams in the nation, literally running over Nebraska and Texas en route to the Big 12 title. Gary Barnett’ s team was waylaid by 12-1 Oregon in the Fiesta Bowl, but there is plenty of talent left on hand to make another run at the Big 12 title. Look for the Buffs’ three-headed monster at the tailback position to pick up where it left off a year ago. My pick, Colorado 36, Colorado State 20

Auburn at Southern Cal: Both teams are coming off so-so seasons as Auburn finished 7-4 and USC finished 6-6. This should be a good one to watch at the SEC pays a visit to the Pac 10. USC has the edge at quarterback in Carson Palmer, but look for the quick and hard-hitting Auburn defense to apply plenty of pressure on the strong-armed youngster throughout the game. This game will be decided on which team runs the ball the best, and the last time I checked, they are still running Student Body Left and Right at ‘SC. My pick, USC 23, Auburn 21

Mississippi State at Oregon: Jackie Sherrill’ s Bulldogs are coming off a miserable 3-8 season, but Sherrill is too good of a coach to have that happen two years in a row. Expect a much-improved MSU team to take the field in the Pacific Northwest this Saturday. The ‘Dogs had better be prepared because they will be taking on a team that is coming off a 12-win season, but must replace one of the country’s top quarterbacks in Joey Harrington. Harrington’s heir apparent is Jason Fife and while he may not be as well known as his predecessor, he will be surrounded by some of the fastest players in the Pac 10 on offense and he plays for one of the country’s best coaches in Mike Bellotti. Look for Fife to have a nice coming out party on Saturday as the Ducks just keep on rolling. My pick, Oregon 26, Mississippi State 17

LSU at Virginia Tech: Another good early-season matchup pits LSU against Virginia Tech. The Tigers won the SEC title and the Sugar Bowl a year ago en route to a 10-win season. Head coach Lou Saban is one of the best in the business and his task this year is to find a replacement for two-year starting quarterback Rohan Davey. The Tigers return a number of key players, as do the Hokies, most notably the super running back duo of Lee Suggs and Kevin Jones. This should be as entertaining of a game as any in the country this weekend. Look for plenty of offensive firepower in this one. My pick, Virginia Tech 34, LSU 32

Oklahoma at Tulsa: Bob Stoops’ Sooners begin their quest for a second national title in the last three years when they visit in-state rival Tulsa this Friday. Like Texas, OU is ranked in the top four heading into the country and with good reason. Former Nimitz High star Quentin Griffin returns for his third year at tailback and the defense could be better than the one that led the Sooners to the national title in 2000. Look for OU to open the season with a lot of firepower on Friday night. My pick, Oklahoma 41, Tulsa 12

Notre Dame vs. Maryland: The Tyrone Willingham era begins at Notre Dame this weekend when the Irish take on last year’s surprise team, Maryland, at the Meadowlands in New Jersey. Willingham inherited a ND team which finished 5-6 a year ago, but that was the least of his worries as he began his job. During the spring former starting quarterback Matt Lovechio transferred to Indiana, starting tailback Julius Jones lost his eligibility due to grades and three lettermen were charged with sexual assault and dropped from the squad during the off season. Welcome to the job, coach! With all of those problems, Willingham also has to prepare his team for a schedule that includes nine teams that went to bowl games a year ago. If he gets through this season with all of his hair, watch out for this team in the future. Maryland won’t sneak up on anybody this year, but they return a good portion of a hard-hitting and opportunistic defense, which might be enough to win a close one this weekend. My pick, Maryland 17, Notre Dame 13