What must change for the Nebraska-Oklahoma rivalry to regain national relevance
For one weekend, at least, college football has some semblance of a soul.
The tumultuous 2021 offseason has been all about the money. Whether it’s been long overdue endorsement opportunities for the players or a new round of conference realignment spinning the money-go-round, dollars and cents have driven the entire conversation. And while that conversation is necessary, it certainly hasn’t been fun.
No one goes to a bar seeking to hang out with the accountants.
College football is a joy because it’s antiseptic. The level of play in the NFL is indisputably better, yet there are only a handful of pro stadiums that can approach a college atmosphere. That’s what happens when the money conversation is impossible to avoid.
Yet sometimes college athletic directors can still get it right.
We saw a prime example last week when Arkansas and Texas finally renewed acquaintances after a 7-year break. And this Saturday, we’ll witness another return to the heart of college football when Oklahoma and Nebraska get back together for the first time since 2010. It will be the first of 4 meetings between the schools in the next decade, and it’s something to celebrate.
Now we just have to hope they figure out how to keep it. That may be contingent on the Cornhuskers returning to national relevance.
The pageantry of the rivalry will be the primary focus this weekend, because the odds of this particular showdown being competitive are quite grim. Oklahoma is favored by 3 touchdowns, and oddsmakers might have made the margin wider if not for a Week 1 scare against Tulane.
Old rivals moving in different directions
You’d never know it now, but the programs were still on an even footing the last time they met at the then-sparkling new Jerry World for the 2010 Big 12 championship.
Unfortunately for Nebraska, the game served as a harbinger of things to come. The Cornhuskers blew a 17-0 lead thanks to 4 turnovers and 7 sacks, and they’ve mostly been moving backward ever since.
Since joining the Big Ten in the 2011 mass conference-shifting event, Nebraska has gone 68-55 (.552) without a single conference title, continuing a drought that dates to its 1999 Big 12 crown.
The Sooners have reaped the benefits of Nebraska’s considerable void. With only Texas standing in its way in terms of historic heft, Oklahoma has run wild, going 106-25 (.809) with 7 Big 12 titles.
In some sense, it seems twisted that the programs ended up in this condition. Nebraska moved to a better neighborhood — much like Oklahoma is about to — but it simply hasn’t panned out in the form of better players.
The promised B1G recruiting boost never materialized for the Huskers. Instead, the benefits to the program are purely financial — not exactly the type of thing that provides bragging rights at the local watering hole.
Unless you sit with the accountants. And we’ve already covered how fun that is.
What went wrong for Nebraska
When looking at what has gone right for the Sooners over the past decade and what has gone wrong for the Cornhuskers, you need only glance at one position.
Oklahoma’s had an embarrassment of quarterback riches, while Nebraska has primarily had embarrassing quarterback play.
Since 2015, 2 Sooners quarterbacks won the Heisman Trophy. Another finished second largely because LSU’s Joe Burrow had the best season in college history. All 3 — Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray and Jalen Hurts — are starting for NFL playoff hopefuls.
Nebraska has produced one pro at the position in that same timeframe — Tommy Armstrong Jr., who is No. 4 in your programs and No. 1 in your hearts for the Sioux Falls Storm of the Indoor Football League.
From 2011-2020, Oklahoma quarterbacks threw 315 touchdowns and 91 interceptions in 4,323 pass attempts. Nebraska quarterbacks threw 159 touchdowns and 111 interceptions in 3,681 pass attempts.
And that says it all.
Despite throwing the ball 642 fewer times than their Sooners’ counterparts, Cornhuskers QBs produced 20 more interceptions.
By percentage, that means 3% of all Nebraska passes have been picked off compared to 2.1% from Oklahoma quarterbacks — and the majority of those came in the Landry Jones and Trevor Knight years. Sooners quarterbacks threw 48 interceptions from 2011-14 and just 43 in the 6 seasons that followed.
Nebraska quarterbacks threw 66 interceptions in those 6 seasons.
Early in 2021, at least, that trend has reversed.
Oklahoma quarterback Spencer Rattler has been picked off twice, while Nebraska’s Adrian Martinez has yet to be intercepted. And if that’s still the case late Saturday afternoon, perhaps Nebraska will have a chance to pull the upset of the century on the 50th anniversary of the “Game of the Century.”
But given recent history, Huskers fans shouldn’t hold their breath for that outcome.
The road back to respectability
Fortunately for Nebraska fans, this is only the first of four scheduled meetings with Oklahoma this decade. Next year, the Sooners return to Lincoln for the first time since 2009. Then, another break before the teams do it again in 2029 and 2030.
Realistically, the latter two dates are the ones that Nebraska needs to circle.
Even if the Huskers score an upset this year or next, the playing field with Oklahoma will not have been leveled. It’s been a long time since anyone put Nebraska in a national championship conversation with a straight face. And that’s the discussion they need to be in to be considered Oklahoma’s equals.
With the right combination of coach and quarterback, perhaps the Cornhuskers can get back where they belong. Doing so may be crucial to assuring that the 2030 meeting won’t be the final scheduled version of Nebraska-Oklahoma, which is the last thing college football needs as it floats farther from its roots.