Updated 7:16 AM on Saturday, October 6, 2007

Soap opera's over, time for some football

How ironic that the two Big 12 football coaches under the most scrutiny this season have their teams playing for sole possession of first place in the South Division.

With all the hullabaloo surrounding Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy and Texas A&M;'s Dennis Franchione, one would sense the matchup between the two teams - a classic that went to overtime last season - would be more about survival than sitting atop what was once considered one of the toughest divisions in college football.

Down to the wire finishes, upsets and even scheduling figure into the unusual scenario heading into just the second round of conference games.

Playing for first, though, is almost a sidebar to the soap operas that have surrounded the two coaches and their teams. The plotlines have unfolded in an almost eerily identical manner.

It began for both schools with embarrassing losses on the road. Both were midweek games and on national TV.

Oklahoma State didn't look good in any phase of the game in a 41-23 loss at Troy. The Aggies' performance in a 34-17 loss to Miami was just as horrid, with the only redeeming factor being it was against the tradition-rich Hurricanes. But even that was a hard sale for the Aggie fans, who felt Miami was primed for the taking after losing more games in its last 19 outings than the Hurricanes had in their previous 78 games.

Those losses, however, were like a trailer at the movie theater for what was next.

First, it was Gundy's now infamous "Come after me! I'm a man! I'm 40!" rampage after Oklahoma State beat Texas Tech two weeks ago. Gundy, pacing in front of the media as if he was giving a halftime pep talk to his team, blasted a columnist about a story that he believed was factually wrong and unfair toward former Cowboy starting quarterback Bobby Reid.

It made for great theater over the next week and is still giving YouTube fans great entertainment. Heck, it was so good, Mike Leach's tirade about the lack of effort his Red Raiders put forth in that same game almost went unnoticed.

In between the Cowboys' porous showing against Troy and Gundy's ESPN SportsCenter cameo, the Aggies fell behind 31-0 at Miami and set off Franchione's critics.

Then it got worse.

Before the A&M; players could get back on the field to redeem themselves, news of Franchione's secret newsletter to a dozen or so A&M; boosters for $1,200 a year was intercepted a media member and returned for a whopper of a story. Franchione's critics, already fired up after the Miami loss, wanted the coach fired, and sensing this, A&M; quarterback Stephen McGee blasted those critics after the Baylor game, showing his full support for Franchione.

The entire team then showed its support for Franchione by showing up at the midweek press conference, where Franchione addressed the criticism and recent calling for his head by reading a statement that he wasn't planning to step down anytime soon. The players' entrance and backing of their leader at the press conference was almost as impressive as their dominance of the Bears in the second half, and it capped a wild couple weeks of melodrama surrounding A&M.;

So while one team's coach is defending his backup quarterback and the other team's quarterback is standing up for his coach, the games leading up to and Saturday's game - again, for first place in the Big 12 South - have been downplayed.

Gundy's last word after an instant classic 49-45 victory over Tech was "puke," but he said nothing about how his team responded to everything Tech threw at it and held the high-flying Red Raiders to 10 second-half points.

After A&M; dominated Baylor, possessing the ball for 43 minutes and allowing only seven first downs, all the talk about Aggie football centered on McGee's emotional stand about how, win, lose or draw, Fran was their man.

So here's hoping football will take center stage Saturday night.

Unfortunately, the soap opera will end for only one team. The losing side will be right back in the middle of the South Division race and, whether it's brought on internally, by "supporters" or both, the saga its been trying to escape for the past couple of weeks will continue.

• Richard Croome's e-mail address is richard.croome@theeagle.com.

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