LINCOLN, Neb. — It's a peculiar rivalry in that, for one team, it's barely a rivalry at all.
Oklahoma, in things football and financial, mostly competes with Texas. The final accounting each autumn is regarded so important by the constituency of the neighboring states, in fact, that no fewer than three books have been written about that famous football series in the last few years.
No books have been written about this rivalry. Not that Oklahoma-Nebraska is just another game. Every year--40 of the last 42 anyway--the winner gains or shares a conference championship.
Many years, the winner gains the national championship, as well. As in 1971, when the teams were last ranked Nos. 1 and 2--the first Game of the Century, as it is still called here--Saturday's game between the two top-ranked teams is also expected to be preliminary to a Jan. 1 national championship game in the Orange Bowl.
Still, it is clear that this game means more to Nebraska than to Oklahoma, and maybe always has.
Nebraska, so remote that it has no real geographical antagonists, has made this one the game over the years and has invested it with all kinds of sociological importance. If you know that Nebraska has lost the game the last three years, and 11 of the last 15 under Coach Tom Osborne, you may be able to understand the level of desperation that has developed here.
--A Chicago man was transferred to Kuwait but refused to go unless he could be furloughed for the Nebraska-Oklahoma game.
--A woman gave birth this week and inquired of the athletic department whether the new-born would need his own ticket.
--A man who says he's dying of lung cancer wrote to the Omaha World-Herald to describe his initial emptiness. "One of my first thoughts was that I might not be around for the '86 'Husker season," he wrote. "I was very thankful to live through the year."
Conditions at Norman, Okla., where the school president once vowed to "build a university of which the football team can be proud" and where the current president said at a National Collegiate Athletic Assn. convention, "Football is important because it increases attendance at the university museums on Saturdays," are outrageous, of course. But compared with those here, the undertaking of football in Oklahoma seems a relatively nonchalant enterprise.
The players here, who normally copy the button-down reserve of Dr. Osborne, can be heard making wild statements these days, responding to the pressing hysteria of the event.
For instance, the Sooners have prominent on their bulletin board the comments of Nebraska quarterback Steve Taylor. Asked about Oklahoma, he said, "The flat-out truth is, Oklahoma can't play with us. They are not good enough. Let me tell you, it might not even be close, and I mean that."
Asked to compare himself to injured Oklahoma quarterback Jamelle Holieway, the normally soft-spoken Taylor seems to have lost it. "I don't think there's any comparison," he barked. "I'm faster. I'm quicker. I throw better."
Wednesday, Taylor told the press that Dr. Tom had since sat him down and asked him to kindly refrain from such inflammatory remarks. Still, he admitted making the comments and further bristled, "I don't like being No. 2 to anyone."
The same day, I-back Keith (End Zone) Jones, yet more soft-spoken than Taylor, was asked to comment on the Oklahoma defense.
"My impression of the OU defense, with all due respect, is that every team they played has moved the ball on them," he said.
Oklahoma opponents average 7.5 points a game, apparently moving the ball back and forth just short of the end zones.
Defensive end Broderick Thomas has been enriching the lexicon ever since he got here. Before last year's Sugar Bowl game, Thomas decided that LSU needed to be hit and that he was "bringing the wood." He's the guy who tabbed the Nebraska season the 1987 Hellraising Tour.
Anyway, when someone asked him for a useful comparison, he despaired.
"There is no comparison," he said. "And I'm being honest."
Thomas, who advocates speaking out whenever possible--"I don't sit around with rocks in my jaw"--also said that the Nebraska scout team "is giving us a better picture than we might see Saturday."
This kind of talk is considered remarkable for Nebraska players. Nobody can recall the like of it. But understand that this generation of players has yet to beat an Oklahoma team, and the frustration has become palpable.
Taylor said: "Broderick and I were talking about why we came to Nebraska, and the answer is to beat Oklahoma four years. That hasn't happened, of course."
Failure to do so, all agree, has been nothing short of embarrassing.
"My heart still hurts," Thomas said.