Nebraska and Oklahoma have been playing each other since 1912 and, for most of the last quarter-century, the stakes usually have been the same: the Big Eight Conference title, a major bowl bid and, occasionally, a national championship.
Nothing will have changed Saturday when sixth-ranked Oklahoma comes here to take on top-ranked Nebraska (WJLA-TV-7 at 3:30 p.m.) in the continuation of what Sooners Coach Barry Switzer describes as "a rivalry of admiration and respect."
"It's a clean, class game, always has been and always will be," Switzer said. "I don't have to tell our kids a thing this week. They know what it means and so does Nebraska."
A Nebraska victory would mean a fourth straight Big Eight championship for the Cornhuskers (9-1), the favorite in front of the usual sellout crowd of 73,000-plus in Memorial Stadium. It also would mean a third straight trip to the Orange Bowl, a fourth straight undefeated conference record and a third straight year with its top ranking and a national championship on the line around New Year's Day.
An Oklahoma victory (the Sooners lead the series, 34-27-3) would keep alive its conference championship hopes, though it still would have to beat fourth-ranked Oklahoma State next week to go to the Orange Bowl. If Oklahoma beats Nebraska, and loses to Oklahoma State, then Nebraska and Oklahoma State would tie for the conference title. The Orange Bowl voted Thursday to invite Oklahoma State if that occurs.
"It's the same thing every year," said Nebraska Athletic Director Bob Devaney, who retired as coach in 1972 and has seen his successor, Tom Osborne, take the Cornhuskers to 11 straight bowl games, five conference titles and 11 straight top-20 finishes, nine of them in the top 10.
"For most of the last 23 years these teams have played each other for the title or a share of it. The games for the most part are very closely contested, hard fought. There's no bitterness between the schools. I think it's mutual admiration."
The Cornhuskers lost their entire backfield a year ago, including Heisman Trophy winner Mike Rozier and wingback Irving Fryar, the first player taken in the National Football League draft. They also graduated guard Dean Steinkuhler, the Outland Trophy winner. And yet, there have been more than enough sturdy replacements to allow the Cornhuskers to lead the nation in rushing, averaging 328 yards a game.
Running backs Doug DuBose (971 yards in 139 carries) and Jeff Smith (910 in 164 carries) are the leading rushers in the Big Eight and Smith leads the nation in punt returns, averaging 17.2 yards.
Quarterback Travis Turner, a junior walk-on who played only seven minutes a year ago, has grown into a polished team leader who has no qualms about getting behind his beefy offensive line and making like a running back himself. Last week he ran for two touchdowns and passed for another in a 41-7 rout of Kansas, the team that upset Oklahoma, 28-11.
"Yeah, both teams have a blemish on the record," said Switzer, whose team was tied by Texas, 13-13, in a controversial game that cost the Sooners the No. 1 ranking that week.
"Theirs was Syracuse (by 17-9), which I really can't understand after watching the films. We were forced to use a freshman at quarterback (Troy Aikman) against Kansas (starter Danny Bradley was out with a sprained ankle and a twisted index finger) and the young man did not get the job done. We were a different footall team without Danny Bradley."
Bradley operates the Oklahoma wishbone, which is no longer totally run oriented. He is 84 of 105 passing for 811 yards and seven touchdowns, with only two interceptions, and is rated the most efficient passer in the conference.
"Their offense is very dangerous from a passing standpoint because you've got to involve your secondary to stop all their options," Osborne said. "They have big-play capabilities."
Of course, Nebraska's defense also has the capability to dominate. The Cornhuskers lead the country in total defense (allowing 203.5 yards a game) and in scoring defense (8.8 points), and is second in rushing defense (72.5 yards a game.)
The Sooners (7-1-1) are no slouches, either, ranking No. 2 in the country in total defense, (212 yards) and No. 1 in rushing defense (69 yards). Last week, Colorado was held to minus 3 yards rushing.
One reason for Oklahoma's success is junior nose guard Tony Casillas, the 6-foot-6, 280-pounder whose eight sacks lead the conference.
"We want to show people Oklahoma football is back and something to be reckoned with," Casillas said. "And I'd kinda like to go to the Orange Bowl."