Thanks to Oklahoma, the Big 12 avoided a crippling blow from Nebraska. But the victory may be short-lived in wake of an uncertain future.
The Sign was displayed with the conference’s logo and black bold lettering underneath it outside Jerry Jones’ famous toy known as Cowboy Stadium: 2010 Big 12 Championship: Nebraska vs. Oklahoma. The words, however, gave a disservice and were misleading to the real magnitude and true nature of the matchup.
It may have been hidden as well as the two shades of red in the stadium from the long shots of the stands by conference officials, but it was no secret the real battle was Nebraska vs. the Big 12 Conference. Sure, across Big 12 country there were people in Austin and Stillwater battling mixed emotions and apathetic ones in Boulder, but the general consensus was still crimson over scarlet, mostly as a lesser of two evils.
Tonight, more was on the line than a Fiesta Bowl and a conference title. The dignity of the conference hung in the balance.
It’s been six months since Nebraska announced its intentions to head to the Big Ten Conference—a conference that everyone loves to hate, but, outside Notre Dame, would also love inclusion to. In turn, a fire between Nebraska and the Big 12 had been burning. Many feel that with their Big Ten membership has come with a certain degree of arrogance to belittle their suddenly sub-standard current conference brethren.
Nebraska administration pointed fingers at Texas and conference leadership. They also pointed out Missouri and, in some terms, called the rest of the conference rubes for staying with Texas and an unhealthy and unsustainable conference.
Animosity had only been further advanced by a conspiracy theory being claimed over the suspension for a hard hit, Bo Pelini’s behavior, threats of violence to the Big Commissioner’s office and crying over nobody being in attendance from the conference to present the Cornhuskers with their North Division Championship Trophy.
A game that should’ve been about the last conference matchup in a storied rivalry was instead, non-admittedly, garnished as an odd and ugly parting grudge match. The longtime rivalry had existed for 71 straight seasons going back to when they were members of the Big Six and as national powerhouses in the Big Eight before being split up into separate divisions in the Big 12.
That divide had been one source of anxiety between the Big 12 and Nebraska.
The start did not look promising for the Big 12 or Oklahoma. Down 17-0 in the second quarter and the offense sputtering, it wasn’t until Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones hit Kenny Stills down the middle for a 49-yard touchdown pass did the Sooner offense find a drive and hit their stride offensively. In turn this was the spark and start to a run of 17 unanswered points.
The Cornhuskers would gain their composure to the end the second half with a field goal right after a fumble gave Oklahoma the opportunity to sneak in the game-tying score. It was, however, the last points they would score all game as they were shut out in the second half for the first time all season.
Turnovers and a stagnant second-half offense plagued the Huskers as the Sooners grabbed hold of after-intermission momentum. The biggest of turnovers was an interception that hobbled Nebraska freshman quarterback Taylor Martinez threw in the end zone with seven minutes left in the second quarter when a throwaway could have resulted in a game-difference making field goal.
From that point on the game teetered on field position, grinding offense, and, of course, key turnovers. When Nebraska was pushing forward and moving on the ground through the wildcat offense directed by running back Rex Burkhead, they again suffered a botched handoff after a poor long snap from center in the second half.
Even as the Nebraska defense proved stingy, all that was needed were the resulting field goals from the Sooners. Jimmy Stevens delivered the game-winner, a 27-yard field goal, with 8:28 to play.
Nebraska failed to move the ball through the air when they needed to and the game ended with a failed final drive that gave more heartbreak to the Huskers who have lost the last two Big 12 Championships by a combined four points.
Nebraska hung their heads and the rest of the conference clutched their fists as Oklahoma celebrated their seventh Big 12 Conference title, more than double that of any other Big 12 institution.
It is strange that perhaps as little as two years ago the Big 12 would have killed for a North division victory as the inequitable distribution between the North and South became something of a national mockery for the conference. Not since 2003, when Kansas State upended then-No. 1 Oklahoma, had a North school brought home the conference trophy.
But even as Nebraska attempted to hold back tears, they know they will quickly dry as they head to the Big Ten’s bigger bucks and healthier conference. The Big 12’s sighs will quickly turn to concerns about the future.
Keep in mind the conference saved itself by creating a bigger divide between its well-positioned institutions and lesser partners after nearly being pillaged by the Pac-10. Not only that, but they lost Nebraska who was the only school who really stood up to the grumbles of Texas-centrism and gave vast historical power to the northern football programs.
The future may hold in excess of $30 million for the conference’s heavyweights and as little—in comparison—of $10 to 15 million for the lighter ones, a compromise that was reached at the price of nearly being orphaned.
So even as Big 12 country held its collective breathe and watched the Cornhuskers buckle under their own mistakes, they had to quickly face what they were up against as far as the future.
A botched snapped here, a fumble there and the Big 12 is still thriving…or is it? And for how long?