LINCOLN, NEB., NOV. 19 -- Out here where the Great Plains are dotted with the flashing red crowns of Best Western signs and an incessant wind kicks around the dirt, a Nebraska man recently went so far as to name his child Husker. After last year's Oklahoma victory over Nebraska, a local newspaper reporting on life expectancy in various states produced the bitter headline, "Oklahomans Die Sooner."
It is what college football is about, a caprice that for one week enlivens and colors a bleak landscape when No. 1 meets No. 2. This time, they happen to be a couple of historical, hysterical rivals like the top-ranked Cornhuskers (9-0) and second-ranked Sooners (10-0), playing for the Orange Bowl and a shot at the national championship.
There are several reasons why Saturday's game at Memorial Stadium may not live up to its billing as Game of the Century II, ranging from the knee injuries of Oklahoma's Jamelle Holieway and Lydell Carr, to the ghost of 1971, when the teams met in what some still call the greatest college football game ever played. But it is the most important game of the moment and there is no equaling the extraordinary measure of feeling on both sides.
"Every play will be a near-fight," Oklahoma tight end Keith Jackson said. "There will be late hits, stabbing people in the back. No one knows who's going to win this game. It's a stare-down."
Anyone who doesn't believe the importance of the game should consider this: Only twice in the last 25 years has there been a Nebraska-Oklahoma game in which neither team has been ranked in the top 10. Now as always, this is regional, emotional conflict between two haystack, smokestack, whiz-through towns that value their football teams above almost all else.
Norman is a red dirt community with train tracks and water towers marking its outskirts and an abundance of small dark bars and charcoal grill restaurants surrounding a stately campus. Lincoln is a sprawling place, a capital that is more western than midwestern, retaining its dime stores and occasional movie palaces in between the high rises that jump out of forbidding brown plains and grain silos. Its social spots are sawdust-floored bars where college boys play cutting guitars.
The difference in personality between the two schools is well-documented if not particularly meaningful. The Cornhuskers are hulking impassives, the Sooners are quick and brazen. Coach Tom Osborne is one of the more subdued presences in college football, who is still seeking his first national championship after 15 years. Barry Switzer is unafraid of offending, and seeking his third national title with glamorous talent. They are the two winningest active coaches in the country, and in the history of the Big Eight.
"We get this every year," Switzer said. "I'll drink a beer and he won't, I'll joke around and he won't. Tom is a great coach, I think I'm pretty good. And it doesn't have a damn thing to do with any of it."
What it has to do with is bodies; who has more of them and better. These are the top two offenses and defenses in the country, although Oklahoma is hampered by the absences of Holieway and Carr, and even Switzer is in a cast with strained knee ligaments. Oklahoma has the superiority mentally, dominating the series in the last 15 years with an 11-4 record and three victories; Nebraska is undeniably healthier physically.
Nebraska has been more hostile than anyone can remember. Oklahoma has issued threats to quarterback Steve Taylor. The Sooners have greeted the hostilities with a condescension that is surely irritating. Cornhuskers tight end Tom Banderas predicted the score would be 42-10.
"I guess they're just trying to convince themselves," linebacker Dante Jones said.
Nebraska promises to return the favor if Taylor gets hurt, and one-on-one matchups promise to be ugly. When Jackson was quoted as saying Nebraska defensive end Broderick Thomas, who will be covering him, has a big mouth, Thomas' reply rang with indignation.
"I don't like to hear him tell me to shut up, so I'll put it like this," Thomas said. "He'll be here Saturday, and we'll see who does the shutting up. No problem. We will have contact, him and me."
Of course, this has all happened before. There have been innumerable Games of the Century through the decades, from Stanford and Ernie Nevers against the Four Horseman of Notre Dame in the 1925 Rose Bowl, to the 1971 Oklahoma-Nebraska game that the Cornhuskers won, 35-31. Nebraska was No. 1 and OU No. 2 and both unbeaten when they met that year. Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Rodgers returned a punt for a touchdown early in the game and the Sooners came from behind to take the lead twice before Nebraska scored on its final drive to win, Jeff Kinney getting his fourth touchdown with 1:38 to go.
There are some large differences: in 1971, Nebraska and Oklahoma were far and away the best teams in the country. There were no upstart third-ranked Miami and No. 4 Florida State to obscure matters. NCAA rules have become stricter, parity has increased and, through it all, the rivalry has gone on, waiting for an occasion like this.
Even so, don't expect the proper emotion from all the participants. When an Oklahoma band serenaded Switzer with "Boomer Sooner" and oranges at a press lunch, Switzer merely looked at them and said, "Do I have to get up?"