Texas and Nebraska are two programs inexorably linked in the Big 12’s young history.
Saturday’s championship game in Arlington, Texas, will represent the third time the two traditional superpowers have played for the Big 12 title. Those rivals have played against each other for the title more than any other two teams in Big 12 history with each team winning one of the championship games.
Texas is a heavy favorite this year after a 12-0 regular season that has placed it on the cusp of a second national championship game berth in five seasons. Nebraska claimed the North title this season, but is a huge early underdog against the Longhorns.
It’s a complete role reversal from the first championship game in the conference’s history. The Cornhuskers were ranked No. 3 and seemingly on their way to a national championship during that first Big 12 title game in St. Louis in 1996. Texas had come along late to earn the Big 12 South title, but was presumed by most prognosticators to have little chance with the mighty Cornhuskers.
“It kind of struck me a little unusual because of the matchup and how it’s playing out,” former Texas wide receiver Wane McGarity said. “It’s almost the exact opposite of what happened that first time around.”
That game became even more storied after Texas quarterback James Brown predicted a huge victory for the Longhorns and then backed it up with a stunning 37-27 upset that knocked the Cornhuskers out of the national title hunt.
The first Big 12 championship represented much more than merely a football game that would decide the conference’s first representative into the old Bowl Coalition.
Nebraska was the dominant power in the old Big Eight Conference. Texas was considered to be one of the strongest among the four teams that joined the reconstituted Big 12 from the Southwest Conference.
The two schools battled on practically every item in the formative stages of the Big 12. Nebraska wanted the conference offices to remain in Kansas City. Texas wanted them moved to Dallas. Texas won that argument.
Nebraska wanted each team in the conference to be able to keep a certain number of partial qualifiers on the roster. Texas was against that. Texas won that argument.
Nebraska wanted former Kansas athletic director Bob Frederick as the conference’s first commissioner. Texas wanted Southwest Conference commissioner Steve Hatchell. Texas won that argument.
Those off-the-field skirmishes made the first actual game between the two schools in the conference seem that much bigger.
Nebraska came into the game the two-time defending national champion. After losing early in the season at Arizona State, the Cornhuskers reeled off nine straight victories. Coming into the championship game, Nebraska had won 46 of its last 48 games.
Texas struggled with nonconference losses to Notre Dame and Virginia early in the season. John Mackovic’s team fell into an early hole in the conference race after back-to-back losses to Oklahoma and Colorado left it at 3-4.
But Texas rebounded to win its final four regular-season games to finish strongly, including a 51-15 beatdown of Texas A&M. Still, most observers didn’t give it much hope.
Nebraska was a three-touchdown favorite coming into the game. That status galled Brown, who predicted several days before the game that the Longhorns would win the game by three touchdowns.
“We weren’t intimidated by them,” McGarity said. “James made the comment we might win by 21 points. It just started it off and we all rallied behind him.”
Like Nebraska heading into Saturday’s game, that Texas team was hot after playing well down the stretch.
“We were the underdogs and people didn’t think we had a chance,” McGarity said. “But we weren’t intimidated in the least by them. We thought we had a good chance to win once the game started. And we played like it.”
That game is remembered by the stunning fourth-and-inches gamble made by Mackovic late in the game with his team nursing a slim 30-27 lead. Brown faked a handoff and then hit reserve tight end Derek Lewis on a 61-yard pass to the Nebraska 11. Priest Holmes scored his third touchdown on the next play to wrap up the victory and account for the only rushing touchdowns scored on Nebraska’s first-team defense all season.
It’s gone down in history as one of the biggest upsets in recent college football history.
Most observers aren’t giving Nebraska much hope against Texas in this year's conference championship.
But if the Cornhuskers can duplicate the Longhorns’ stunning triumph on Saturday, it will be every bit as large as the earlier Texas victory in the first conference championship game.