Commentary

Sooners, Tigers take different paths to Big 12 championship game

Originally Published: December 4, 2008
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

Oklahoma and Missouri were supposed to battle for the Big 12 championship again.

The teams were overwhelming choices in the preseason to win their respective divisions, and both were considered national championship contenders.

[+] EnlargeSam Bradford
Aaron M. Sprecher/Icon SMIQuarterback Sam Bradford has led the Sooners on a scoring rampage.

The Sooners, with record-setting quarterback Sam Bradford and the rest of their high-octane offense coming back, received all but two first-place votes to win the Big 12 South in preseason voting by media.

The Tigers, with Heisman Trophy candidate Chase Daniel and dynamic kick returner Jeremy Maclin returning, were a unanimous choice to win the Big 12 North.

Of course, No. 2 Oklahoma and No. 20 Missouri took very different paths to Saturday night's Big 12 championship game in Kansas City's Arrowhead Stadium (ABC, 8 p.m. ET).

The Sooners took over the country's No. 1 ranking after four games, then lost to Texas 45-35 in the Red River Rivalry in Dallas two weeks later. Oklahoma has steamrolled its competition ever since, scoring 45 points or more in six consecutive victories. The Sooners have scored 60 points or more in each of their past four games, including routs of then-No. 2 Texas Tech and No. 12 Oklahoma State.

Coach Bob Stoops said this is the best offense he's had at Oklahoma. Better than the ones led by Heisman Trophy winner Jason White and record-setting tailback Adrian Peterson. "I don't think there's any question," Stoops said. "We've had 60-some points in the last four games, and 55 at the half against Kansas State. Sam Bradford, in all four of those games, didn't play in the fourth quarter. If he did, it was probably one series and out."

Oklahoma's impressive finish helped it survive the Big 12 South's beauty competition last week, as it edged Texas in the BCS standings to earn a trip to Saturday night's Big 12 championship game.

Oklahoma, Texas and Texas Tech finished in a three-way tie for first place in the Big 12 South, and the winner was determined by the highest-rated team in the BCS standings. Oklahoma was No. 2 and Texas was No. 3.

With a victory over Missouri, Oklahoma would win a record third consecutive Big 12 championship game and probably earn a trip to the Jan. 8 BCS Championship Game in South Florida. "I have empathy for Texas and Texas Tech," Stoops said. "For some reason, everyone wanted to make this a two-team situation. Texas Tech has an identical record as Texas and us. In head-to-head, they beat Texas. I have empathy for both of them. If you're going to take Texas Tech out of the mix, the only reason is because of what we did to them, not what Texas did to them. You can beat it around all you want, but that's the case."

Missouri started the season ranked No. 6 in the Associated Press Top 25 poll, but there were alarming signs from the start. The Tigers allowed 451 passing yards in their 52-42 victory over Illinois in the Aug. 30 opener, and their defense seemed to get worse as the season went along.

Missouri ranks 91st in the country in total defense, allowing 396.5 yards per game. Oklahoma leads the country with 53.3 points per game and averages more than 556 yards.

[+] EnlargeGary Pinkel
G. Newman Lowrance/Getty ImagesGary Pinkel knows his defense has its hands full trying to contain OU's offense.

"I think you start up front," Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. "When you look at that offensive line, with four seniors who have played at a high level, that allows the whole thing to work. They give Bradford time to throw the football, and their receivers are playing very well. Bradford is playing as well as anyone in the country. We've got a lot of great offenses in this league, but they're playing offense as good as anybody in the nation. That's why so many people have been struggling with them."

Missouri lost consecutive games in October to then-No. 17 Oklahoma State and then-No. 1 Texas, which knocked the Tigers out of the national championship race.

The Tigers rebounded to win four games in a row and claim the Big 12 North title, but then they were beaten by rival Kansas 40-37 at Arrowhead Stadium on Saturday.

"I don't necessarily think it's been a disappointment," Daniel said. "We just haven't played as well as we wanted in some games. You look at the Oklahoma State game; we threw that ballgame away. We had three or four turnovers. Texas beat us fair and square, and they're a great team. It was a rivalry game with Kansas. Did we want three losses on the season? No, we didn't."

But Missouri can erase much of its disappointment by upsetting the Sooners. A victory over Oklahoma would give the Tigers their first conference title since 1969 and earn them a trip to the Jan. 5 Fiesta Bowl.

A loss to the Sooners would leave the Tigers in one of the Big 12's lesser bowls, possibly the Alamo Bowl in San Antonio. "It's a one-game season right now," Daniel said. "It's our playoff. It's Oklahoma's playoff. Oklahoma's playing for the national title. We're playing for a BCS bowl. There's a lot on the line on Saturday night."

Oklahoma beat Missouri 38-17 in the Big 12 championship game last season, which cost the Tigers a chance to play for the national title. The Sooners are 5-1 in the Big 12 title game under Stoops. "We've got so much to gain," Tigers tight end Chase Coffman said. "They have a lot to lose and gain also. If they win, they'll be going to the national championship. They kind of knocked us out of that position last year."

At least the Tigers can draw inspiration from the history of the Big 12 championship game. Upsets are nothing new. In the inaugural game in 1996, unranked Texas upset No. 3 Nebraska 37-27. Two years later, Texas A&M beat top-ranked Kansas State 36-33 in double overtime, knocking the Wildcats out of the Fiesta Bowl, where they would have played for the national title.

I still think that we have to go out there and prove something to everyone, and prove to them that we do deserve to be at this game. I feel like that will give us some extra motivation this week.

-- Sam Bradford

Five years ago, Kansas State pulled off one of the biggest upsets in recent college football history, shocking No. 1 Oklahoma 35-7 in the Big 12 championship game. The Sooners had been ranked No. 1 in the country for 16 consecutive weeks. "That game was a long time ago, but it definitely shows anything is possible," Coffman said. "That's why you play the game every Saturday."

Bradford said the Sooners have plenty of motivation, too. A national championship is on the line, and the Sooners want to prove that they -- and not Texas -- belonged in the Big 12 championship game. "I think it's probably a little bit of motivation," Bradford said. "I still think that we have to go out there and prove something to everyone, and prove to them that we do deserve to be at this game. I feel like that will give us some extra motivation this week."

Just what the Sooners needed.

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.

Mark Schlabach | email

College Football and Basketball