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December 5, 2008

Oklahoma hopes to avoid Big 12 upset

Oklahoma is cruising.

The Sooners have scored at least 58 points in five consecutive games and at least 60 in four in a row. They won a tiebreaker to represent the South Division over Texas and Texas Tech in the Big 12 Championship Game, where a victory would allow them to play for the national title. And they face Missouri, which has lost to two South Division opponents, fell to rival Kansas in the regular-season finale and is a decided underdog against the Sooners.

"There are good offenses in this league," Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. "But [the Sooners] are playing as good of football as anybody in the nation."

That's why Oklahoma should be concerned.

The championship game is the iceberg that often has sunk the hopes of Big 12 teams that appeared to be cruising to the national title game.

Exhibit A: In the inaugural Big 12 Championship Game, in 1996, No. 3 Nebraska was upset 37-27 by unranked Texas.

Exhibit B: Two years later, No. 2 Kansas State was upset 36-33 in double overtime by No. 10 Texas A&M.

Exhibit C: In 2001, No. 3 Texas was upset 39-37 by Colorado, which it had beaten soundly earlier in the season.

Exhibit D: In 2003, No. 1 Oklahoma was blown out 35-7 by Kansas State. The Sooners still went to the national title game, but an air of invincibility had been removed and OU fell to LSU 21-14.

Oklahoma has a similar air of invincibility. Since losing 45-35 to Texas on Oct. 11, the Sooners have been on a roll in which they've trampled opponents by an average of 28.8 points. The Sooners average 53.3 points to lead the nation in scoring offense and 556.7 yards to rank third in total offense.

Quarterback Sam Bradford has passed for 4,080 yards and leads the nation with 46 touchdown passes. Running back DeMarco Murray has exceeded 1,000 rushing yards, and backup Chris Brown is closing in on that mark. Tight end Jermaine Gresham is the nation's best at his position. Three wide receivers have more than 30 receptions and 500 yards. The offensive line might be the best in the country.

That all adds up to what must be the best offensive unit in the 10-year tenure of OU coach Bob Stoops.

"I don't think there is any question," Stoops said. "I wouldn't have said that early in the year because I'd wait to see how it goes through the rest of the season. But I don't think there is any question. We've had 60 points in four games. Heck, we had 55 at halftime against Kansas State."

Missouri also has an explosive offense, averaging 45 points. Quarterback Chase Daniel has passed for 3,880 yards and 34 touchdowns, running back Derrick Washington is close to 1,000 yards rushing and receiver/return man Jeremy Maclin is among the country's greatest big-play threats.

"I love playing in our offense. It's a machine when we get going," Daniel said. "At times, we've stopped ourselves and haven't played as well as we wanted to. We feel the only people that can stop us are ourselves."

The Tigers have been stopped too often. They entered this season with national championship hopes and were ranked as high as No. 3. But they dropped after consecutive losses to Oklahoma State and Texas. Still, they won the Big 12 North, and a victory would clinch Missouri's first conference championship since 1969 and put the Tigers in the Fiesta Bowl.

"It's a one-game season," Daniel said. "They're playing for a national championship. We're playing for a BCS bowl. There's a lot on the line."

No doubt about that. A Missouri victory also would send Texas to the national championship game and drop Oklahoma into the Cotton Bowl.

Hey, stranger things have happened. In fact, history shows strange things often happen in this game.

Who gets the edge?

Oklahoma run offense vs. Missouri run defense
Oklahoma's DeMarco Murray has rushed for more than 100 yards in two of the past three games and has exceeded 1,000 for the season. Chris Brown needs 12 more to reach four digits. With that duo, the Sooners average 202.4 rushing yards per game and rank 21st in the nation in rushing offense. Missouri is solid against the run, allowing 119.4 yards to rank 24th in the nation. Oklahoma State's Kendall Hunter is the only individual to gain 100 yards against the Tigers this season. Tackle Ziggy Hood is a run stuffer and linebacker Sean Weatherspoon is among the best in the country at his position.
Edge: Oklahoma.

Oklahoma pass offense vs. Missouri pass defense
The Sooners average more than 350 passing yards per game behind Sam Bradford, who has thrown 46 touchdown passes and is one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the country. He benefits from having outstanding receivers, especially game-breaking tight end Jermaine Gresham, who has 50 receptions with 12 going for touchdowns. But Bradford benefits most from playing behind a line that features four All-Big 12 selections and has allowed just 11 sacks. End Stryker Sulak leads a solid Missouri pass rush, and free safety William Moore has All-America credentials. But the Tigers have struggled against the pass this season (277.1 ypg, which is 117th in the nation) and have allowed 24 touchdown passes.
Edge: Oklahoma.

Missouri run offense vs. Oklahoma run defense
Sophomore Derrick Washington has had a solid first year as a starter with 963 yards and 17 rushing touchdowns. Versatile receiver Jeremy Maclin also is a running threat and has 248 yards on 34 attempts. But in losses to Texas and Oklahoma State, the Tigers' running game was almost non-existent. Oklahoma doesn't give up rushing yardage easily. The Sooners' rush defense ranks 18th in the nation, although four players reached 100 yards against them. Linebacker Travis Lewis has 123 tackles and tackle Gerald McCoy is a stalwart up front.
Edge: Oklahoma.

Missouri pass offense vs. Oklahoma pass defense
Although he hasn't gotten the attention he did a year ago, Missouri quarterback Chase Daniel is having another tremendous season. He has thrown for 3,880 yards, which is fourth-most in the nation, and 34 touchdowns. Four players have caught more than 30 passes, led by Maclin, who has 88 for 1,175 yards and 11 touchdowns. Tight end Chase Coffman also has 79 catches and nine touchdowns. They could present serious problems for the OU secondary. The Sooners are 99th in the nation in pass defense. But they can make up for any shortcomings in coverage with a strong pass rush that has produced 39 sacks, the third-most in the country.
Edge: Missouri.

Oklahoma special teams vs. Missouri special teams
Four opponents have returned kickoffs for touchdowns against Oklahoma. That's an alarming stat, especially considering Maclin is a dangerous kick returner who has a touchdown this season. Murray on kickoffs and Ryan Broyles on punts are exciting kick returners for OU. The Sooners' Jimmy Stevens has hit 6-of-9 field-goal attempts, with a long of 42 yards. Missouri kicker Jeff Wolfert is 17-of-22 and has converted from 51 yards. But he has had two attempts blocked.
Edge: Missouri.

Oklahoma coaches vs. Missouri coaches
OU's Bob Stoops is in the Big 12 Championship Game for the seventh time and seeking his sixth victory. Stoops is 108-23 in 10 seasons in Norman. Gary Pinkel has transformed Missouri from a perennial also-ran to a legitimate championship contender. The Tigers have won the North Division two consecutive years and are 58-40 under Pinkel. But Pinkel is 0-5 against Stoops.
Edge: Oklahoma.

X-factor: Oklahoma has much more big-game experience than Missouri, which was evident a year ago when the Sooners defeated the Tigers in the Big 12 Championship Game in San Antonio. Maybe last season's experience will benefit Missouri this time around. Plus, Bradford has torn ligaments in his left (non-throwing) hand. Bradford said it isn't an issue, but if the injury is aggravated, he could have problems taking snaps.

Oklahoma will win if: The Sooners just have to do what they've been doing during a five-game streak in which they've scored 58 points or more. Given adequate protection, Bradford likely will have another productive performance. If OU avoids turnovers, Missouri likely won't be able to match the Sooners offensively.

Missouri will win if: Daniel must have his best game and Maclin needs to make big plays on offense and on special teams. The Tigers' pass rush must pressure Bradford or OU will make another run at 60 points. If Missouri can stay in contention into the fourth quarter, the Tigers' kicking game could give them an advantage in a close game.

Expert picks

Olin Buchanan: Oklahoma 45, Missouri 31
Tom Dienhart: Oklahoma 55, Missouri 21
David Fox: Oklahoma 59, Missouri 31
Mike Huguenin: Oklahoma 52, Missouri 31
Steve Megargee: Oklahoma 49, Missouri 28

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.



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