Oklahoma vs. Nebraska: Big 12 Championship Preview
Championship games are supposed to be full of great story lines, so it's only fitting that the final Big 12 Championship game would be between two historic rivals: the University of Nebraska and the University of Oklahoma.
This historic rivalry between two of the greatest college football programs has been killed in a big way by the creation of the Big 12, and will die altogether with Nebraska jumping ship to the Big 10 next season. There is currently no plan to continue the rivalry as an out-of-conference game in the future.
Nebraska comes in with a 10-2 record and ranked No. 13 in the latest BCS poll. Huskers fans would like nothing more than to have Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe hand over the last championship game trophy to head coach Bo Pelini on the Huskers' way out of the conference.
On the flip side, Oklahoma comes into this game also with a 10-2 record and ranked No. 9 in the BCS poll released on Sunday. The Sooners got to this point by way of their thrilling 47-41 Bedlam victory in Stillwater over Oklahoma State on Saturday, which propelled them to the highest BCS ranking of the three Big 12 South teams tied at 6-2 in conference. This is Oklahoma's eighth Championship game appearance in Bob Stoops' coaching tenure, and a win would give the Sooners their seventh Big 12 Championship.
This battle between these college football powers has the potential to be one of the most exciting of the series, and it will all be decided on Saturday night.
Nebraska Cornhuskers Offense
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The 2010 edition of the Nebraska offense took on an entirely new look when Taylor Martinez became the starting quarterback. The redshirt freshman opened the season with a bang with his brilliant speed and quickness. While only an adequate passer, Martinez has made do throughout the year. Martinez has thrown for 1,435 yards on the year with nine touchdowns and five interceptions, while also accumulating 974 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground.
Martinez is complemented in the backfield by running back Roy Helu Jr. Helu has racked up 1,120 yards and 10 touchdowns in his final season as a Husker. Most impressive is his 6.7 yard per carry average, which is tops in the conference amongst rushers. Rex Burkhead has also been a dominant force in the running game, piling up over 800 yards to go with seven touchdowns.
While Nebraska doesn't have the most dangerous passing attack, they do have two very dangerous receivers in Brandon Kinnie and Niles Paul. Paul has been injured and could miss Saturday's game, which would be a huge blow to this Nebraska offense. Paul is second on the team behind Kinnie with 39 receptions for a team-leading 516 yards. Kinnie has 40 receptions for 455 yards and five touchdowns.
The big question for Nebraska will be whether Martinez plays or if Cody Green will get the start. Head Coach Pelini said that they will start whoever they feel gives them the best chance to win the game, and that a combination of the two is a possibility.
Nebraska Cornhuskers Defense
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Gone from this unit is Ndamukong Suh, but this defense has still been very good throughout the season.
The strength of this unit is their pass defense, which ranks second in the nation. The Huskers are second in both passing yards allowed and pass efficiency defense. The secondary is led by defensive backs Eric Hagg, DeJon Gomes and Prince Amukamara. Hagg has five interceptions on the season, Gomes has three and, while Amukamara doesn't have a pick to his credit, the senior has 13 pass breakups and is one of the best cornerbacks in the country. This is the secondary that picked off OU quarterback Landry Jones five times in Lincoln last year.
The front seven have regressed slightly from last year, but after how dominant they were a year ago, it was going to be a tall order to top that performance—or even match it. The Huskers are led by linebacker LaVonte David, who leads the team with 128 tackles and has accumulated six sacks on the year, and defensive tackle Jared Crick, who leads the team with seven-and-a-half sacks. The Huskers weak point on defense is their run defense, which gives up almost 145 yards a game, good for 56th in the country.
However, the Blackshirts are still out in Lincoln and this is a scary-good unit.
Nebraska Cornhuskers Special Teams
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Senior placekicker/punter Alex Henery is the Nebraska special teams unit. Henery has been phenomenal throughout his career as a kicker for the the Huskers, and this year has been one of his best. Henery is 16-for-17 on the year in the field goal department, including 8-for-9 beyond 40 yards. His one miss on the season was blocked. Punting, Henery is among the top players in the country, averaging 43.5 yards a kick with 23 of his 55 kicks being downed inside the 20-yard line.
Not only is Niles Paul a valuable receiver, but he is also the Huskers' main kick return man. He has averaged 11.4 yards on punt returns and 25.2 yards on kickoff returns, including a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown earlier in the season.
Nebraska Cornhuskers Coaching
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Coach Pelini has gotten a lot of press and a lot of flack for his actions during the Texas A&M game on November 20th, but the job he has done at Nebraska the past three seasons cannot be ignored.
Pelini took over a program struggling following a failed experiment with former Oakland Raiders head coach Bill Callahan, and has resurrected it to national acclaim once again. Love him or hate him, you have to admit, the guy can coach. This season has been the next step in a permanent return to the top of the college football world, and a second straight Big 12 North division title is a great starting point.
Bo's brother, Carl, has done a phenomenal job of restoring the Blackshirt tradition amongst the defensive unit and has made it one of the best in the past two seasons. Offensive coordinator Shawn Watson has also done a good job with quarterback Martinez, using him to make the Nebraska offense relevant again after a 2009 season in which they were absolutely dreadful.
Pelini isn't feeling any pressure from Huskers fans at this point, but winning a championship Saturday would really put him in a secure position for a while.
Oklahoma Sooners Offense
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The Oklahoma offense has been very good in 2010 and much more consistent than it was in 2009. Much of that can be attributed to two things: the cohesion and growth of the offensive line and the maturation of quarterback Landry Jones.
Jones enters Saturday's game as one of the top passers in the country. Jones has thrown for 3,947 yards and 34 touchdowns and only 10 interceptions. More importantly, his completion percentage in up to 66 percent after being below 60 percent at the end of 2009. Jones had a terrible game in Lincoln last year, so you can believe that he is excited about going out and proving himself on the championship stage.
Running back DeMarco Murray became the latest OU running back to go over 1,000 yards in a season. Murray now has rushed for 1,053 yards on the year and has 14 touchdowns. However, he has also continued to prove himself to be a very dangerous receiver, catching 64 passes out of the backfield, which is second on the team behind...
Ryan Broyles. The man can play some football and make some incredible plays with his hands and feet. Broyles is tops in the country with 115 catches on the year for 1,391 yards and 13 touchdowns. He holds virtually every OU receiving record and will more than likely hold all of them should he stay for his senior year.
The Sooners also have a great cast supporting "Big Three." Running back Roy Finch has been electric, and receivers Kenny Stills and Cameron Kenney have been fantastic. Tight end James Hanna has also proven to be a very reliable target for Jones this year.
Oklahoma Sooners Defense
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The Oklahoma defense has been far from stellar this season after a dominating 2009 campaign. Nothing statistically stands out for this unit, as they rank in the mid-60s in yards allowed, rushing and passing, 36th in scoring and 13th in pass efficiency defense.
However, this defense is very opportunistic and full of talent. Big 12 Defensive Lineman of the Year Jeremy Beal leads the Sooners up front, while Travis Lewis leads the defense as a whole from his linebacker position. Beal leads the team with 8.5 sacks and 18 tackles for loss. Lewis leads the team in tackles with 93.
Safeties Jonathan Nelson and Quinton Carter have been outstanding for the Sooners this season with Carter being named an All-American by AFCA. The secondary as a whole has grown up in a big way since the beginning of the season when they were torched by Utah State and Cincinnati. Cornerbacks Jamell Fleming and Demontre Hurst have stepped up their game and have done a fantastic job down the second half of the year.
Overall, this unit isn't a dominant force, but they can get the job done, no questions asked.
Oklahoma Sooners Special Teams
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For much of last year and the first half of this year, the big problem for Oklahoma was finding a consistent placekicker. However, now at the end of the season, that problem seems to have been solved with the reemergence of Jimmy Stevens. Stevens has connected on 14 of 17 field goals this year, including his last seven. The knock on Stevens is that his long is only 42 yards and that beyond that, he's not very consistent. However, as long as the Sooners offense doesn't put themselves in those positions, things should be fine.
Tress Way has regressed slightly from his outstanding freshman season, but remains one of the top punters in the country, averaging 44.1 yards a boot on his 62 punts on the season.
The Sooners don't have a consistent kickoff return man with seven players having returned a kickoff this year, all with moderate success. Broyles is the Sooners punt returner and averages a paltry 6.4 yards per return.
Oklahoma Sooners Coaching
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There isn't a lot to say about head coach Bob Stoops that hasn't already been said. Stoops is one of the best coaches in the country because he is consistent and he is a winner. The Sooners are in their eighth Big 12 Championship game in his tenure and if they win, it will be Stoops' seventh championship.
Let's put that in perspective for a second. This is the 15th Championship game and a Sooners victory means that Oklahoma will have won just under half of them. In a 12-team conference, that's ridiculous. That they will have won all seven in 12 years is even more remarkable.
This season has had its ups and downs, but Stoops has been calm throughout, pushing the right buttons and doing the things that need to be done to put his team in the best possible position. Sure, he's been questioned for playing so many freshmen, but he has constantly said they are his best group ever and it shows on the field. His decision to punt on 4th down against Missouri, only down nine, drew tons of criticism, but in the end, it may have preserved the Sooners opportunity to be playing on Saturday.
Coordinators Kevin Wilson and Brent Venables have once again done a great job with their respective units. Wilson, the scapegoat for all the Sooners' offensive problems, has opened up the playbook a lot more in the last three weeks, and the Sooners have responded with some of their best performances of the year.
Defensively, Venables continues to expect nothing but the best from his defense, and they've responded by playing extremely well in key times down the stretch of the season. It doesn't look like it in the stat sheet, but the defense has been extremely dominant at key times the past few weeks.
Summary and Prediction
On paper, these teams are pretty equal. Add in that they have two of the more passionate fanbases in the country that will be out in force in Arlington this weekend, and you've got yourself one dandy of a matchup.
Nebraska has the edge defensively, but if Oklahoma can establish a running game, it could open up things for Jones and the passing game. On the flip side, if Martinez is able to play for Nebraska as well as Niles Paul, the Oklahoma defense is going to have their hands full. Historically, the Sooners have had problems dealing with dual-threat quarterbacks.
However, if Martinez does not play, things get a lot easier for the Sooners defense. By no means does the Nebraska offense center solely around Martinez, but one would be stupid to say that he doesn't add a whole new level to the Huskers offense when he plays and is healthy.
Both teams have been here before. The Sooners many times, and the Huskers just a year ago. This will be a game for the ages. Two historic rivals playing for the final time for a conference championship and the right to go to the Fiesta Bowl.
Both teams come in playing well, but the Sooners have been on a tear lately and that will carry over on Saturday to their seventh Big 12 Championship.
Prediction: Oklahoma 31, Nebraska 24