When can a team lose and still deserve to improve its position in college football's Top 20? When it scares the hip pads off the country's unanimous No. 1 squad, which is just what Oklahoma State did to Nebraska last Saturday.
The Cowboys were clinging to the 20th and last position in the UPI coaches' poll upon entering the game. After holding Nebraska 44 points below its nation-leading scoring average in a gallant 14-10 loss, OSU was expected by many observers to move up at least a few notches. Inexplicably, however, the nationwide panel of voters just left the Cowboys in the same No. 20 spot.
What has surprised some people is that Oklahoma State managed to win its first four games without Ernest Anderson, the hard-nosed running back who denied Herschel Walker last year's national rushing crown. Anderson has virtually disappeared this season. An injury has kept the star senior out of the lineup since the first game, eliminating any hopes he may have had for winning the Heisman Trophy or equaling last year's rushing output of 1,877 yards, the fifth highest ever.
Playing without a fit Anderson, Oklahoma State still managed to win its first four games and move into the rankings for the first time since 1976. Taking Anderson's place at tailback is Shawn Jones, the team's 1981 rushing leader.Jones actually preceded Anderson into the tailback slot, but sat out last season with an injury, opening the door for Ernest to step in. Against Texas A&M this year, Jones ran for 203 yards.
In winning their first four games, the Cowboys were off to their best start since 1975. But even the solid OSU defense couldn't entirely halt Nebraska, which seems to be playing in a different world from everyone else.
Oklahoma State could use a breather this week, but instead must face its fiercest rival, Oklahoma, which it's beaten just once in the last 16 years.
This marks the 78th time these schools have met, but nothing has ever topped the zany touchdown play that occurred during their inaugural confrontation in 1904. As related in John Keith's book ''Oklahoma Kickoff,'' the Sooners scored on a punt recovered in a creek. The rules of the day required that possession be established whether the ball was in or out of bounds. Therefore, when a stiff wind carried an OSU punt backward out of the end zone and down an embankment, a comical chase began. It culminated with an Oklahoma player touching the ball down on the creek bank for six points.