The joke for years has been to refer to the Big Ten as the Big Two, Little Eight, and to the Big Eight as the Big Two, Little Else. This season, the Big Two in the Big Eight -- Oklahoma and Nebraska -- are really big.

Oklahoma and Nebraska are just about everyone's favorites in the preseason. Oklahoma received 55 of the 60 first-place votes in the Associated Press preseason top 20. Nebraska got three of the remaining first-place votes, with UCLA and defending national champion Penn State splitting the other two. But the Sooners are No. 2 in Sport and No. 3 in Inside Sports, behind Nebraska, which was voted to the top spot by those two magazines.

How experienced is Oklahoma? The Sooners return eight starters from last season's offense, which led the nation in rushing at 404.7 yards per game (51 touchdowns). How deep? The Sooners had eight backs who each gained more than 300 yards (including junior quarterback Jamelle Holieway, who led the team with 911 yards), and most of them are back.

Add to this senior all-America tight end Keith Jackson, who averaged almost 29 yards a catch last season, and you have a dynamic offensive show.

Defensively, the Sooners return seven starters from last season's squad, which was first in the nation against the run (60.7 yards per game), against the pass (108.9 yards per game), in points-allowed (6.6 points per game) and, obviously, first in the nation in overall defense (169.6 yards per game).

The Sooners also get a month to beat up on teams such as Tulsa before Showdown No. 1, against Texas, Oct. 10. Showdown No. 2 -- in Lincoln, Nov. 21 against Nebraska -- might be for a national championship.

Nebraska returns Keith (End Zone) Jones, who led the Big Eight in rushing (830 yards) last season and scored 14 touchdowns. Junior quarterback Steve Taylor won the MVP award in the Sugar Bowl (11 for 19, 110 yards, 1 touchdown), but probably is just as adept running (537 yards last season). That is important for the Cornhuskers, who amassed their lowest rushing total in nine seasons last year.

Defensively, all-conference junior defensive end Broderick Thomas, the Huskers' top returning tackler (58) from last season, keys a defense that lost six starters. Cornerback Charles Fryar will lead a secondary trying to duplicate 1986's 11th-ranked pass defense (139.9 yards per game).

However, the Cornhuskers don't get the benefit of an easy schedule, having to play UCLA on Sept. 12, then 14th-ranked Arizona State on Sept. 26.

Defeating UCLA won't be easy. The Bruins have Gaston Green in their backfield. The senior halfback is an early Heisman candidate, coming off a 1,405-yard rushing and 17-touchdown campaign. He needs 562 yards to surpass Freeman McNeil as the school's all-time leading rusher. Defensively, senior linebacker Ken Norton Jr. is a Lombardi Award candidate following his 106 tackles in '86. And yes, he is the boxer's son.

Not many people will beat up on Ohio State this season. Despite the loss of wide receiver Cris Carter, ruled ineligible after receiving $5,000 from agent Norby Walters, the Buckeyes will, as usual, face off against Michigan for supremacy in the Big Ten. Quarterback Tom Tupa is the key for Ohio State offensively; without Carter, the former Buckeyes punter becomes even more important. Defensively, Ohio State will form around all-America linebacker Chris Spielman.

You'll see a more traditional Michigan squad this season with the graduation of Jim Harbaugh. Running back Jamie Morris will bring back the cloud-of-dust offense, running behind block-out-the-sun tackle John (Jumbo) Elliott, at 6 foot 7, 305 pounds. Mark Messner will lead the Wolverines' defense.

In the Southeastern Conference, Louisiana State is solid offensively, with sophomore running back Harvey Williams (700 yards rushing, six touchdowns) and sophomore quarterback Tom Hodson, who threw for 2,261 yards and 19 touchdowns in his freshman season. The problem is on defense, where the Tigers lost all three of their linemen. This season's emphasis will be on the linebacking corps led by Ron Sancho and the secondary with senior safety Chris Carrier. Auburn will provide the chief opposition, but Florida could surprise depending on the play of quarterback Kerwin Bell.

A little farther north, Clemson is the Atlantic Coast Conference standard this season. The Tigers have three factors going for them: an offensive line now led by senior all-America guard John Phillips that allowed only three quarterback sacks last season to protect junior quarterback Rodney Williams; Michael Dean Perry, William Perry's younger brother and an appliance in his own right (18 sacks in his career) on defense; and eight home games in Death Valley.

Among the independents, Miami and the two States, Florida and Penn, are the best. Vinny Testaverde is gone, but Miami's Hurricanes still have Melvin Bratton and junior wide receivers Michael Irvin and Brian Blades for sophomore quarterback Steve Walsh to throw to. All-America linebacker George Mira Jr. and all-America safety Bennie Blades will provide a rock-solid backdrop for a line led by Dan Stubbs.

Florida State returns 17 starters from last season and has dropped Nebraska and Michigan from a perennial killer schedule; Furman and Memphis State will prove more digestible. The Seminoles will run with sophomore Sammie Smith and try to stop their opponents with junior cornerback Deion Sanders and senior linebacker Paul McGowan.

Penn State Coach Joe Paterno has a lot to replace (D.J. Dozier on offense, Shane Conlan on defense for starters), but a relatively easy early schedule will give the Nittany Lions time to rebuild. Blair Thomas will try to take the offensive load off quarterback Matt Knizner as Dozier did for John Shaffer. The heart of the defense is gone, and linebackers Trey Bauer and Pete Giftopolous (he of the last-minute interception to seal last season's national championship against Miami) will have a lot of field to cover.

So, this season's national champion most likely will come from elsewhere. Most probably, in the big country of the Big Eight, from one of the Big Two.