LINCOLN, NEB., NOV. 20 -- College football's weekend of great rivalries stretches from Harvard-Yale for the Ivy League title to Southern California-UCLA for the Pacific-10 title. But in the middle of a great stretch of prairie, unbeaten Nebraska and Oklahoma will decide the Big Eight title and who goes to the Orange Bowl to play for the national championship.
"There's 365 days of talk," Oklahoma tight end Keith Jackson said. "And then it comes time to play the game."
Other games across the country pale in comparison as far as significance is concerned, although not in emotion. No. 7 Notre Dame (8-1) goes to threatening Penn State (7-3). No. 8 Clemson (9-1) travels to No. 12 South Carolina (7-2) (ESPN, 7:30 p.m.). Ohio State (5-4-1) won't be going to a bowl and its trip to Michigan (7-3) doesn't mean much, except that it's the last game as Buckeyes coach for Earle Bruce, who was summarily fired this week.
Most of the meaning and attention is here, for one of those rare compelling occasions when No. 1 meets No. 2 for everything at Memorial Stadium (WUSA-TV-9, 3 p.m.). Only some of the drama has been taken away by the knee injuries to Oklahoma quarterback Jamelle Holieway and fullback Lydell Carr. The Sooners (10-0) are seeking their second national championship in three years, and have won three straight over the Cornhuskers (9-0), who are still looking for their first national title in 15 years under Coach Tom Osborne, and are, for once, favored.
"First of all, there are no ifs to it," Nebraska quarterback Steve Taylor said. "We don't want to get started with the ifs and thinks."
It's a game of strengths against strengths. Nebraska's offense is No. 1 in the country, averaging 524.7 yards, while Oklahoma's defense is No. 1, giving up just 205 yards. The Sooners' offense is ranked second, averaging 505.3 yards, but it is their biggest question given that two-thirds of the wishbone -- Holieway and Carr -- is missing. The Cornhuskers' defense is allowing just 67.9 yards rushing, led by defensive end Broderick Thomas.
The focus, naturally, is on Oklahoma's two replacements, redshirt freshman quarterback Charles Thompson and sophomore running back Rotnei Anderson. Both have gained excellent yardage, Thompson averaging more than seven yards a carry and Anderson 6.8. But last week's 17-14 victory over Missouri was "scary," according to Keith Jackson, as the Sooners backfield fumbled four times.
Overall, Oklahoma has given up 19 fumbles and four pass interceptions this season. With that in mind, Nebraska will go after Thompson, who has shown a habit of rushing the wishbone. At 5 feet 10, 175 pounds and 4.2 speed in the 40, he is dangerous, but will be up against the fastest defense he has seen.
"No one has really tackled that guy," Thomas said. "No one has hit him yet. Getting hit is what football is all about. He will get hit Saturday."
Oklahoma's defense has made a simple request of Thompson and the offense: give it 20 points with no turnovers and the Sooners will win. But doubts about how Thompson will react linger among his own teammates. The Sooners have tended to throw, especially when they trail, and Thompson is an adept passer, completing 11 of 28 for 207 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions. But he has never played in a game of this magnitude.
"I think he has the presence to throw the ball in a big game," Jackson said. "But I've never seen him come from behind, under pressure."
It's no secret Oklahoma will try to go after Taylor early. He is an all-important operator of their multiple option offense, along with running back Keith Jones (902 yards) and wingback Dana Brinson (117.9 all-purpose yards a game), who suffered back spasms tying his shoes but should be healthy. However, the Cornhuskers are also susceptible to turnovers, giving up 18 fumbles and seven interceptions, and the Sooners will try to force a few more.
"There will be a lot of intimidation," Nebraska defensive tackle Neil Smith said. "If they're going to try to hurt our quarterback, there are 10 other people. If they try to hurt people, that will go on both sides."
If Oklahoma wins, it will be because of that defense, and the fact that there is no discounting the Sooners' superiority complex. In addition to winning the last three straight, the Sooners have taken 11 of the last 14 over the Cornhuskers. Six times, they have come from beind to win, four times in the final minute, including last year's 20-17 victory after trailing, 17-7, when Holieway drove them 94 yards to a touchdown, then drove again with 40 seconds left to Tim Lashar's 30-yard field goal.
Osborne shouldn't feel that bad, because none of the seven Nebraska coaches since 1945 has had a winning record against Oklahoma. Told of the overwhelming numbers in the recent series, Oklahoma Coach Barry Switzer said emphatically, "Good." Asked if he could explain the Sooners' ability to pull the game out, he smiled, hid his face and said, "Coaching."
But for all of the talking that has gone on this week, there is no lack of respect between the two teams. They have played too many great games for that, including the 1971 contest, arguably the greatest ever in college football, when Nebraska won, 35-31. This is the fourth straight year both teams have been ranked in the top six coming into the game.
What's more, this is almost invariably a game that meets expectations. In the last 12 games since 1976, six of them have been decided by a field goal or less.
"Be there or have your TV set on," Thomas said.