Thursday December 4th, 2008

"You could have two great teams, and all of a sudden, one is out of the national championship picture." -- Nebraska coach Tom Osborne discussing the inaugural Big 12 championship game in July 1996

Osborne had no idea when he made that statement during the first Big 12 media days that he had foretold his team's own future. Five months later, on the carpet of the TWA Dome in St. Louis, Texas quarterback James Brown rolled left, and the Cornhuskers' dreams of a third consecutive national title collapsed. Little did anyone know that Brown and the Longhorns didn't only pull of an upset. They also created a new tradition.

Since the conferences and bowls formed the Alliance -- the precursor to the BCS -- in 1996, no single event has wreaked more havoc on the national title picture than the Big 12 championship game. In eight of 12 previous Big 12 championship games, the higher ranked team had a chance to advance to the national title game. The higher ranked teams went 3-5 and four of those teams lost their chance to play for the crystal football (Oklahoma still went to the BCS title game in 2003 despite getting blown out by Kansas State).

"There have been some strange goings-on," BCS analyst Jerry Palm said.

All that history can't make Oklahoma players and coaches too comfortable as they prepare to face Missouri on Saturday at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Mo. If the Sooners win, they're a virtual lock for the BCS title game. That could be bad news given the history of the game.

Even worse, the most recent loser is Missouri, which entered the 2007 Big 12 game ranked No. 1 in the BCS. The Sooners beat the Tigers, 38-17, and Missouri wound up in the Cotton Bowl. Missouri quarterback Chase Daniel said the Tigers won't seek revenge Saturday -- only a berth in the Fiesta Bowl. "Don't worry about past games," Daniel said this week. "None of that means anything right now."

Still, Daniel, who grew up in Southlake, Texas, dreaming of wearing the burnt orange of Texas, could become a cult hero at his former favorite school if he leads the Tigers to an upset. A Missouri win, Palm said, probably would vault Texas into a BCS title game matchup against the SEC champ. The Longhorns beat the Sooners, 45-35, at the Cotton Bowl on Oct. 11, but the Big 12's three-way tiebreaking procedure sent Oklahoma to Kansas City instead of Texas or Texas Tech.

A Missouri win would make Daniel as popular in Austin as former Longhorns quarterback Brown -- nicknamed "The Godfather of Roll" -- is in Gainesville, Fla. Brown's heroics in 1996 against heavily favored Nebraska allowed Florida, which lost to Florida State in the 1996 regular-season finale, to face the Seminoles again for the national title in the Sugar Bowl. Up three with 2:40 remaining and unsure his defense could stop the Cornhuskers' option, Texas coach John Mackovic called "Roll Left" -- a goal-line play designed to allow Brown to run or throw -- on fourth-and-inches from the Texas 28-yard line.

"Before the game, Coach Mackovic said it would come down to one play," said Brown, now the quarterbacks coach for the nascent football program at Lamar University in his hometown of Beaumont, Texas.

Brown faked a handoff to Priest Holmes, and tailback Ricky Williams knocked down a Nebraska defender to open a running lane for Brown. But instead of running, Brown hit a wide-open Derek Lewis for a 61-yard gain. "I looked up and he was just so wide open," Brown said. "I just threw him a nice, easy pass."

The play set the tone for future Big 12 title game fireworks, proved an old Southwest Conference school could hang with an ex-Big 8 power and made Brown a hero in the Sunshine State. The following week, he read about Floridians' gratitude in the newspaper. Later, several Florida players were spotted sporting Texas hats while exiting the team plane in New Orleans.

If Daniel can pull the upset, he won't have to read about the gratitude of Texas fans in the paper. He can just go home for the holidays and bask in the adulation. But beating these Sooners, who have averaged 59.5 points since the loss to Texas, won't be easy. Of course, it's not the first time a heavily favored Oklahoma team has ridden a wave of lopsided victories into Arrowhead.

The 2003 Oklahoma team entered its Big 12 title game matchup with Kansas State hoping to join the 1999 Florida State team as the only wire-to-wire No. 1s in the modern era. Those Sooners had won their games by an average of 38.3 points, and they seemed poised to steamroll a Wildcats team that had dropped consecutive early-season games against Marshall, Texas and Oklahoma State.

"That's all that was talked about," former Kansas State linebacker Josh Buhl said this week, "how good they were, how they were one of the best teams ever."

Buhl said the Wildcats found a flaw in the Sooners' offense while watching film that week. If Kansas State committed to blitzing soon-to-be Heisman Trophy winner Jason White nearly every down, White would wilt. That seemed unlikely when Oklahoma's Kejuan Jones ripped off a 42-yard touchdown run less than three minutes into the game to give the Sooners a 7-0 lead. But the Wildcats stuffed the Sooners on their next possession. Then they did it again. With the defense stoning Oklahoma, Kansas State quarterback Ell Roberson led the Wildcats to the end zone on three of four possessions.

For Buhl, his lasting memory is sprinting down the field in the fourth quarter alongside fellow linebacker Ted Sims, whose interception return for a touchdown sealed a 35-7 win. "I was waving goodbye to the Oklahoma fans and the Oklahoma team," he said.

That lopsided loss was the only Big 12 title game upset that didn't cost a team a shot at a title, but it did force a change in the BCS formula. Oklahoma, by virtue of its lofty ranking and tough schedule, remained No. 1 in the BCS rankings. The Sooners went to New Orleans and were beaten by LSU, while USC -- No. 1 in both human polls -- beat Michigan in the Rose Bowl to force a split title. After that, BCS leaders removed the dedicated strength-of-schedule component from the BCS formula.

If Oklahoma doesn't hold serve Saturday, the Big 12 title game could work its black magic on the BCS again. Palm and other experts seem convinced 11-1 Texas would advance to the title game if Missouri pulls the upset, but what if human voters insist on a conference champ and elevate USC? Such weirdness would be par for the course in a game that seems to exist only to prove the absurdity of the BCS system year after year. Still, this year's combatants aren't worried about the cosmic significance of it all; they just want a title.

"It's a one-game season right now," Missouri's Daniel said. "It's our playoff. It's Oklahoma's playoff. They're playing for the national title game. We're playing for the BCS. There's a lot on the line Saturday night."

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