LINCOLN, Neb. — Time flies when you're having fun, but this is ridiculous. Nebraskans have waited just 16 years before promoting yet another Game of the Century. These folks can have some fun with a calender, can't they?
Yet, you must forgive their hyperbole. They had no way of knowing, back in 1971, that events would ever again conspire to produce another Nebraska-Oklahoma matchup of that magnitude. But here they come again, ranked Nos. 1 and 2, so dominating through their seasons yet so evenly matched that any extravagance of anticipation just has to be endured.
The immediate consequence of today's game here is the Big Eight championship. It always is. The two teams, both undefeated this season, have won or shared that title 40 times in the previous 42 post-World War II seasons. But of far more, and only slightly less immediate significance, is the national championship. The winner is expected to play for it in the Orange Bowl. Just as in 1971.
The teams sometimes seem not to exist outside this rivalry. They have evolved, in style and size, for just this game, this game only. It is not true to say that the rest of their schedules are preseason play, but this year, as in 1971, they have so outdistanced the competition that only the prospect of their eventual collision allowed the season tension.
Oklahoma Coach Barry Switzer recognized this condition early on. "Back in August, we set a goal to be 10-0 on Nov. 21 in Lincoln," he said. "How we got there was irrelevant."
Oklahoma, which last won a national title in the 1985 season, was always headed in that direction. It was ranked No. 1 from the beginning. And until last week, when the Sooners (10-0) played without quarterback Jamelle Holieway and fullback Lydell Carr, they justified the ranking with a string of lopsided victories. Even including last week's 17-13 defeat of Missouri, during which Oklahoma broke in a new offensive backfield, the team has won by an average score of 46-8.
Nebraska (9-0) did not always win so spectacularly, but then the Cornhuskers played tougher opponents. UCLA, Arizona State and South Carolina dotted Nebraska's schedule. Margin of victory, at least in those games, kept the 'Huskers No. 2.
Until this week.
The mystery surrounding red-shirt freshman Charles Thompson, standing in replacement of Holieway, has allowed Nebraska a sniff of air at the top. However, if Thompson remains only as mysterious as Holieway did as a freshman in 1985 (subbing for the injured starter, leading his team to the second of its three straight wins in this series), it may only be a sniff.
As when Holieway took over for Troy Aikman, it is possible that the position has even been upgraded. Thompson, who becomes the key in the Sooners' option attack that is averaging a nation-leading 430 yards a game, is faster than Holieway and can throw the ball farther. But decision-making is crucial in this offense, and Thompson did not have benefit of seven starts, as freshman Holieway did in 1985. And the fact that he fumbled twice in his debut last week has further cheered Nebraska defenders.
"He's at a total disadvantage," boasted outspoken defensive end Broderick Thomas, the self-proclaimed Sandman. "He hasn't seen a defense nowhere as fast as ours. It might scare him, I don't know."
Thomas is allowed some confidence, as his team is second nationally in rushing defense. But Thompson has directed 883 yards of that offense in backup duty. A man who wears a "Clear the Way" headband, and who was truly baffled when he was told earlier this year that Holieway had retained his starting position, might not scare that easily.
"There are a couple of players I'll have to talk to tonight," Switzer said Friday. "He's not one of them."
Nebraska, which last won a national championship in 1971 (after a victory in Game of the Century I), has the more entrenched quarterback, certainly.
"Nebraska has the edge there," Switzer insisted.
Steve Taylor, who has been Oklahoma bulletin board material after a cocksure quote, has been averaging more than seven yards a play. And he has the wonderful option of giving the ball to Keith (End Zone) Jones, who has gained 890 yards.
Yet for all the offensive statistics--Oklahoma and Nebraska are in the top two in all but passing offense--defense figures to be all-important. Keep in mind that in conference games, Nebraska has allowed just one touchdown. The Sooners lead the nation in least yardage allowed, as well as points.
For many, though, the drama of this game remains on the sidelines, where rivals Tom Osborne of Nebraska and Switzer continue their parallel careers. Both took control of their teams after that first game of the century and both have enjoyed nearly identical records while trying to match it. Switzer's is the slightly grander at 147-25-4, while Osborne's is 146-32-2.