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December 3, 2010

Huskers, Sooners meet for final Big 12 title

Though the opinion won't be shared in College Station, Stillwater or Columbia, it seems appropriate -- perhaps even righteous -- that Nebraska and Oklahoma, once annual rivals, will clash in what may be the final Big 12 championship game.

Or maybe it's just ironic. After all, it was the formation of the Big 12 that ended the yearly series between the Sooners and Huskers -- a series that was as legendary and intense as Ohio State-Michigan or Auburn-Alabama.

Oklahoma and Nebraska dominated the old Big Eight. From 1960-95, they combined for 23 outright conference championships and shared five more. Most of the crowns were decided in their annual game. They were so competitive that in 1978 they even had a rematch in the Orange Bowl. They played annually from 1928-97. The Big 12 started in 1996.

Saturday's game at Dallas Cowboys Stadium may be the last time they play until 2020 (they're discussing a home-and-home series) unless they meet in future Alamo or Insight bowls or for the national championship. But on the last day when the Big 12 will actually have 12 football teams -- the final conference football game before Nebraska leaves to join the Big Ten and Colorado heads for the Pac-10 -- the No. 9 Sooners (10-2) and No. 13 Huskers (10-2) square off one more time as highly ranked opponents with identical 10-2 records.

"It's just fitting that it's us two at the end," said Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops, who was boyhood friends with Nebraska coach Bo Pelini in Youngstown, Ohio. "Both of us have earned our way through tough division fights.

"I can remember as a young kid in Ohio following the Steve Owenses, Greg Pruitts and Joe Washingtons, and couldn't wait for this game. It was watching the two teams in red and white go at it, and it was always a great game with great coaches. You have to admit everybody was watching it around the country. I was always an OU fan for their style of play and the backs they had."

The old wishbone teams of Barry Switzer certainly had a flair and an explosive quality as the Sooners sought to "hang half-a-hundred" on opponents. Stoops' Sooners are pass-oriented but still capable of posting 50-point-plus scores, which they almost did in last week's 47-41 victory over Oklahoma State.

Oklahoma has scored at least 45 points in each of its past three games and is ranked fourth in the nation in passing offense behind quarterback Landry Jones and receivers Ryan Broyles and Kenny Stills. Jones has thrown for more than 300 yards in six of the Sooners' past seven games, while Broyles leads the nation with 115 catches for 1,391 yards.

They face perhaps their most difficult challenge of the season against Nebraska, which has held 10 opponents to 21 or fewer points (four were held to 10 or fewer) and is ranked second in the nation against the pass.

"They have a lot of good football players. They're a good offensive football team with a lot of talent," Pelini said of the Sooners. "It will be a good matchup. We've got our work cut out for us."

Of course, that's a line that cuts both ways. Nebraska's secondary is among the best in the country. Cornerbacks Prince Amukamara and Alfonzo Dennard and safety Eric Hagg are All-Big 12 selections.

The Huskers have held in check celebrated passers such as Missouri's Blaine Gabbert, Texas A&M's Ryan Tannehill and Washington's Jake Locker. They gave up big plays to Oklahoma State quarterback Brandon Weeden, but the Huskers still won 51-41.

"I think that ultimately came down to how we played and how we executed at times," Nebraska safety DeJon Gomes said. "We had some errors [against Oklahoma State] and they took advantage of them. Against Missouri, we were well-prepared and executed the game plan."

Expect Nebraska's secondary to be executing at its best. The same goes for Oklahoma's passing game in a clear matchup of strength vs. strength for one last conference championship.

"There is a great tradition between the two schools so it's kind of fitting we'll be playing them in a game such as this," Pelini said. "As far as the future is concerned ... I don't know how that would ever play out."

WHO GETS THE EDGE?

Nebraska rush offense vs. Oklahoma rush defense: Sophomore RB Rex Burkhead has been effective in the "wildcat" formation. He's gained at least 74 yards in each of the past four games and exceeded 100 twice. Leading rusher Roy Helu has gained 1,120 yards. The Huskers average 269.2 yards per game and are eighth nationally in rush offense. But the rushing attack has been weakened because of an ankle injury to QB Taylor Martinez. Oklahoma has been uncharacteristically vulnerable against the run; six opponents have exceeded 150 rushing yards. The loss of DT Adrian Taylor (knee) has hurt, but the return of LB Austin Box from injury has given the Sooners a boost. Edge: Nebraska

Nebraska pass offense vs. Oklahoma pass defense: In last week's win over Colorado, Burkhead and backup QB Cody Green each threw two touchdown passes. Still, this remains an area of concern for the Huskers, especially if Martinez can't play. WR Niles Paul is out with an ankle injury, but WR Brandon Kinnie has been productive in the past three games. Nebraska has passed for fewer than 170 yards in five consecutive games. Oklahoma has given up 14 touchdown passes, but has compensated to some degree with 16 interceptions. FS Quinton Carter is among the best in the country at his position, and CB Jamell Fleming has four picks and 11 pass breakups. The Sooners best weapon against the pass still may be DE Jeremy Beal, who has 8.5 sacks. Edge: Oklahoma

Oklahoma rush offense vs. Nebraska rush defense: Though the Sooners are a better passing offense, they can get the job done on the ground, too. RB DeMarco Murray has rushed for 1,053 yards, but he hasn't exceeded 80 yards in the past six games and is slowed by a knee injury. Freshman backup RB Roy Finch, another speedster with big-play ability, has had a greater role in recent weeks. Nebraska has been inconsistent against the run. The Huskers held Colorado to 95 rushing yards last week and Kansas to just 72 three games ago. But five Big 12 opponents have rushed for more than 140 yards against the Huskers. LB Lavonte David, a junior college transfer, has 128 tackles. Edge: Nebraska

Oklahoma pass offense vs. Nebraska pass defense: The Sooners are ranked fourth in the nation in pass offense (336.6 yards per game). QB Landry Jones has 3,947 passing yards and 34 touchdowns, and has passed for at least 290 yards in seven consecutive games. Explosive WR Ryan Broyles has at least eight catches in each of the past seven games and has scored at least one touchdown in eight games. Freshman Kenny Stills has emerged as an effective complement to Broyles. Nebraska is second in the nation in pass defense. The Huskers have 18 interceptions and have allowed 12 touchdown passes. Prince Amukamara and Alfonzo Dennard may be the best set of cornerbacks in the country, while S Eric Hagg has five interceptions. DT Jared Crick leads a pass rush that has 29 sacks. Edge: Nebraska

Nebraska special teams vs. Oklahoma special teams: Paul's ankle injury deprives the Huskers of their best kick and punt returner and they need to tighten up their coverage. But there may not be a better kicker than Alex Henery, who has converted 16-of-17 field-goal attempts, including a 52-yarder. He also averages 43.5 yards as the punter. Broyles on punts and Mossis Madu on kickoffs give OU two threats to go all the way. P Tress Way, who averages 44.1 yards, is one of the best in the nation. Ks Jimmy Stevens and Patrick O'Hara aren't great, but they have combined for a solid 18-of-23 success rate on field goals. Kick coverage is an area of concern. The Sooners have allowed three kickoffs to be returned for touchdowns. Edge: Oklahoma

Nebraska coaching staff vs. Oklahoma coaching staff: Bob Stoops is seeking his seventh Big 12 championship in 12 seasons, and that says about all that you need to know in this category. In the past five seasons, offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson has supervised four units that ranked among the nation's top 20 in scoring offense. Nebraska is making its second appearance in the Big 12 championship game in three seasons under coach Bo Pelini. He and his brother, defensive coordinator Carl Pelini, have developed standout defenses, while Shawn Watson is in his fourth season as offensive coordinator. Edge: Oklahoma

X-factor: Martinez's health is a major issue. If with his ankle and toe are sufficiently healed and he can be effective as a runner, the Huskers' offense becomes much more versatile. If he isn't healthy, OU's defense can overplay the run to slow the Huskers down.

Nebraska will win if: The Huskers must minimize their penalties and finish drives with touchdowns rather than field goals. Oklahoma has the ability to score often, so Nebraska cannot get into a shootout. Containing OU's running game will be vital. OU has a productive passing game, but if the Sooners get in obvious passing situations, they will be playing into the strength of Nebraska's defense.

Oklahoma will win if: Jones needs to have a strong game, which won't be easy against Nebraska's coverage. Avoiding turnovers will be key, too. In last season's 10-3 loss to Nebraska, Jones threw five interceptions. He's a more experienced, better quarterback now, but that's still going to be an important issue. Defensively, the Sooners must keep Nebraska's running game under control. Not giving up big plays in kick coverage will be important, too.

KEY TO VICTORY

Olin Buchanan: Nebraska's secondary. Nebraska is ranked second in the nation in pass defense and three members of its secondary earned All-Big 12 recognition. But the last time the Huskers faced a passing offense as explosive as Oklahoma's, they gave up 41 points to Oklahoma State. I'll be watching to see if the Huskers' secondary can neutralize Landry Jones, Ryan Broyles and Kenny Stills. Nebraska's hopes of winning the Big 12 championship may depend on it.

Tom Dienhart: Nebraska's penalties. The yellow flags killed the Huskers in a loss at Texas A&M a few weeks ago. Nebraska had 16 penalties; Texas A&M had two. Nebraska had eight last week; Colorado had six. There are conspiracy theorists out there who think the Big 12 will do all it can to prevent the Huskers from winning the conference championship as it runs off to the Big Ten following this season. Is it true? There are only 10 schools that have been penalized more the Huskers. But two of those are Big 12 schools remaining in the league - Texas A&M and Baylor. Still, it will be interesting to see the penalty breakdown in the title game.

David Fox: Landry Jones vs. Nebraska's secondary. Nebraska's two losses have something in common, and it's not just that both came against teams from the state of Texas. The Huskers' defense didn't have an interception against Texas or Texas A&M, the only times Nebraska failed to pick off its opponent. Landry Jones has had interception problems, and if Nebraska's defensive backs can't get their hands on the ball at least once, history shows us Oklahoma can win.

Mike Huguenin: Oklahoma WR Ryan Broyles vs. Nebraska CB Prince Amukamara. This should be one of the best individual matchups of the entire season, as two likely first-team All-Americas will duel. Broyles has had a phenomenal season, with 115 catches for 1,391 yards and 13 TDs. He had at least eight receptions in every game but one (against Texas) and has had nine 100-yard games and three multiple-TD games. Amukamara has no picks but does have 13 pass breakups, and opponents generally have shied away from throwing his way. OU has a deep group of receivers, but Broyles has to have his usual game if the Sooners are going to win. And that means Amukamara will have to be sharp.

Steve Megargee: Nebraska's quarterback situation. Taylor Martinez missed last week's game against Colorado with ankle and toe injuries, and the Huskers aren't saying whether he will be ready for the Big 12 championship game. Nebraska's chances of beating Oklahoma could depend on his availability. If Martinez is playing at close enough to full strength that he can showcase his dynamic running ability, the Huskers could - perhaps should - win this game. But I can't see the Huskers winning if Martinez doesn't play or is a shell of himself. Nebraska trounced Colorado with Cody Green at quarterback, but Oklahoma offers a much greater challenge.

EXPERT PICKS

Olin Buchanan: Nebraska 20, Oklahoma 17. The questions surrounding QB Taylor Martinez have some doubting the Huskers' chances, but remember they almost beat Texas a year ago with Zac Lee at quarterback. I'm guessing the Huskers' defense has an excellent performance and that Alex Henery kicks a game-winning field goal.

Tom Dienhart: Oklahoma 33, Nebraska 17. Nebraska says QB Taylor Martinez is going to play despite injuries to his right ankle and a toe. But he hasn't been the same for the past month, since incurring the injuries against Missouri. Without a healthy Martinez, the Huskers won't be able to keep pace with the Sooners.

David Fox: Oklahoma 31, Nebraska 27. I don't feel comfortable picking a team with hobbled freshman quarterback in a game of this magnitude. Nebraska brings the best defense Oklahoma has seen all season, but the Sooners have good reason to be confident, scoring at least 45 points in each of the past three games.

Mike Huguenin: Oklahoma 30, Nebraska 24. A hobbled Taylor Martinez is bad news for the Huskers. OU's rush offense is the key.

Steve Megargee: Oklahoma 27, Nebraska 20. If I knew that Taylor Martinez would be close to full strength, I'd pick the Huskers. But even if Martinez does play, I'm guessing he won't be nearly as explosive as usual. Nebraska isn't good enough to beat Oklahoma with Martinez at half-speed.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.



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