With fewer than eight days to go until Texas A&M and Oklahoma face off in the Cotton Bowl, the hype is increasing and the drama is intensifying.
The contest offers an intriguing confluence of two top contenders from two of the top conferences in college football. It also gives the Sooners a crack at the Heisman Trophy winner, the only 2012 Heisman finalist the Sooners have yet to face.
For Oklahoma, topping Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M will require nothing less than a team effort. But solid performances from several leaders on both sides of the ball will be key factors in the outcome of the game.
Here are five OU players who need to have big games in the Cotton Bowl for the Sooners to win.
Landry Jones will play his last game as a Sooner in the Cotton Bowl, and he needs to make his finale a memorable one.
OU's success begins and ends with their record-breaking signal caller. Consistent offensive success will be especially important against Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel and the potent Texas A&M offense.
Jones has been phenomenal in key contests this season (with the exceptions being Kansas State and Notre Dame), and his ability to deliver once more against the Aggies may determine the outcome of the game.
Of course, offensive success requires a team effort. Jones must get good protection from his offensive line, and the wideouts need to continue to make clutch catches. But Jones needs to show poise, make good reads and above all avoid turnovers for the Sooners to leave Texas with a win.
Also important for the Sooners will be establishing the running game against the Aggies. For this to happen, Damien Williams needs to come through.
The junior tailback has had a solid debut in Norman, leading the crimson and cream with 905 rushing yards and 12 total touchdowns. He is a strong, explosive runner capable of breaking away for huge runs (he has logged four runs of at least 65 yards this season).
Williams' success will be important because the Sooners need to develop a balanced offensive attack. They have shown the ability to win games with virtually no running game, but that is not a reliable path to victory.
Running the ball effectively will keep the Aggies off guard and make it very difficult to account for all the OU offensive threats. It will also eat up clock and keep Johnny Manziel on the sideline, both of which help the Sooners' chances.
Oklahoma's offensive line as a whole needs to play at a high level Jan. 4, but left tackle Lane Johnson has an especially important role.
In addition to having the crucial responsibility of protecting his quarterback's blind side, Johnson is also tasked with neutralizing Aggie second team All-American Damontre Moore.
Moore, a defensive end/linebacker, is a top NFL draft prospect and a potential nightmare for the Sooner offense. The 6'4", 250 pound junior leads Texas A&M with 80 total tackles and 20 tackles for loss and is tied for second in the SEC with 12.5 sacks.
Johnson is no slouch himself. The 6'7", 303 pound senior is a seasoned and reliable presence on an offensive line that has been a bright spot for the Sooners this season despite numerous injuries.
The Johnson-Moore matchup will be compelling and possibly a key factor in determining the Cotton Bowl champion.
Defensively, the Sooners have their work cut out for them. They need to do their best to contain the dual-threat Heisman Trophy winner and make a balanced offense one-dimensional.
A key factor in these tasks will be pressuring and containing Johnny Manziel. This is where Chuka Ndulue comes in. The sophomore defensive end leads the team with five sacks and is second in quarterback hurries with four.
As a defensive end, Ndulue's priorities are not letting Manziel get outside or break into the second and third levels of the defense. Ndulue also needs to apply pressure on Manziel early and often. If he and his D-line comrades can pressure Manziel and take away the Aggies' overall ability to run the football, they will have a better chance of taking control of the game.
This would also involve limiting tailbacks Ben Malena and Christine Michael—no small feat.
On the other hand, if Ndulue and fellow linemen like David King and Jamarkus McFarland can't pressure Manziel and disrupt the A&M rushing attack, it will be a long, point-filled day for the Sooner defense.
If the Sooners win the Cotton Bowl, it's likely free safety Tony Jefferson will have played an integral role.
Jefferson has been one of the best defensive players for the Sooners the past three years. He has played in all 39 games since his freshman year and has started 33. This season he showed once again how polished he is, leading the team in tackles and earning first team All-Big 12 honors.
Run support and pass coverage, two areas in which the junior excels, will be crucial for the junior against the Aggies. He will be a key player in simultaneously limiting talented A&M receivers Ryan Swope and Mike Evans and preventing Manziel from gashing the Sooners with his legs.
Expect a little bit of everything from Jefferson; he'll make his share of tackles and pass break-ups. The real question is if he can make enough plays for the Sooners to score more points than a top-tier offense.