Nebraska and Texas both find themselves in unfamiliar positions, no doubt the stories of the first half of the Big 12 season. Bo Pelini declared after the Holiday Bowl win to cap last season that Nebraska was back, and the Huskers' ascent into the top 5 for the first time since 2001 has proved him right.
Meanwhile, Texas is nowhere to be found in the top 25 for the first time since the 2000 season.
On Saturday, the teams' paths will cross in Lincoln, Neb. This is no longer the national championship elimination game it could have been. Instead, the Longhorns are relegated to the role of spoiler, heading to Huskerland with an intent to upset, derailing Nebraska's run at a title.
The stakes are gone.
The emotion remains.
"Ever since that last game in the Big 12 championship, the whole state of Nebraska has been leading up to this game," said quarterback Taylor Martinez.
So no matter where Texas is or isn't in the polls, it'd be remiss to think Nebraska has forgotten who denied it a BCS bowl berth and the program's first Big 12 championship since 1999. Now, the road to another run at a title meets Texas. And just because the Longhorns more closely resemble a speed bump than a road block, the Huskers don't want to beat them any less badly.
And of course, there was that whole thing this summer.
Nebraska didn't leave because it was mad at Texas. It didn't leave solely because of championship game or league office locations. But give Texas this, Nebraska: Had the Big 8 not reached out to Texas & Co. in the mid-1990s after the Southwest Conference disbanded, Nebraska almost surely would not be preparing to become the 12th member of the Big Ten. Whatever that means, it's still probably a fact.
And Nebraska would like nothing more than to improve its 1-7 record against the Longhorns and take control of the bragging rights upon exiting the league, further setting up what might end up being a heavyweight fight in the Big 12 title game with an old Big 8 rival and current fellow undefeated, No. 6 Oklahoma.
Beating Texas is the next step to reaching that game. Saturday might just mean a move to 2-0 in Big 12 play for Bo Pelini and his players. But for the state of Nebraska and its beloved program, it means much, much more.
Now for some midseason awards:
Offensive MVP: Taylor Martinez, QB, Nebraska. Who would have seen this coming? Martinez broke a 46-yard touchdown on his first career carry, and he hasn't stopped running. He's the Big 12's leading rusher with 737 yards, and looks like he's only getting better. His 241 yards and four touchdowns against Kansas State were career highs, and through five games he's been the Big 12's most exciting player, with 12 touchdown runs, most in college football.
Defensive MVP: Jeremy Beal, DE, Oklahoma. He's looked the part of the Big 12's best pure pass-rusher through five games this season, leading the Big 12 with six sacks, fourth most nationally, and he's forced three fumbles. Consider also that those six sacks in five games include a game against Air Force, whose option attack has given up three sacks all year and has just 69 pass attempts. Beal also has 8.5 tackles for loss.
Biggest surprise: Oklahoma State. The Cowboys were picked by the media to finish fifth in the Big 12 South. Through five games, they've looked like the third-best team in the Big 12. They've risen on the legs of one of the nation's best offenses and a crazy-good combination of skill-position talent in receiver Justin Blackmon, running back Kendall Hunter and quarterback Brandon Weeden. The Cowboys lead the Big 12 in total offense and scoring offense, and rank fourth and second nationally in both stats, respectively.
Biggest disappointment: Texas. No arguments here. The Longhorns offered a little foreshadowing for their fall out of the polls with underwhelming wins against Rice and Wyoming early in the season, before suffering a shocking 34-12 loss to unranked UCLA, which now sits at 3-3 and 1-2 in the Pac-10. The Texas offense has sputtered, the defense has been inconsistent, and the Longhorns look likely to fall to 3-3 with a game at Nebraska on Saturday. The schedule softens up later in the season, and my guess is the Longhorns rebound to finish in the top 25, but any team who starts the season in the top 5 and ends up unranked by Week 6 is going to be slapped with the "disappointment" label.
Best game: Oklahoma State 38, Texas A&M 35. The excitement of the game's numerous twists and momentum swings were surpassed only by Dan Bailey's game-winning field goal. Oklahoma State rebounded from a 21-7 halftime deficit to take a 35-21 lead midway through the fourth quarter on a crazy fumble return. Then Jerrod Johnson led two scoring drives to tie it at 35 in the game's final minutes. Then, after a clutch defensive stop by the Aggies, Johnson handed the game back to Oklahoma State on an ill-advised interception -- his fourth of the night -- setting up Bailey's kick.
Best coach: Mike Gundy, Oklahoma State. Gundy admitted that running his offense took too much of a physical toll on him to continue doing it. After a pair of poor offensive performances to close the 2009 season, Gundy went shopping and found Dana Holgorsen at Houston, who coordinated the most productive offense in college football a year ago. Gundy's move has paid off. Hunter has returned to form and Oklahoma State has found two new stars in Weeden and Blackmon, helping the Cowboys race to a 5-0 start and a top-20 ranking in what was supposed to be a rebuilding year after the losses of four offensive linemen, quarterback Zac Robinson and receiver Dez Bryant.