Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

An Early-Season Game Against Oklahoma Could Be Nebraska HC Scott Frost’s Toughest Test Yet

July 13, 2021

Nebraska is only weeks away from opening fall camp for the new year, and as the clock ticks closer to the 2021 season, we’re giving brief looks at each opponent on the schedule for the Huskers. Illinois went first because they’ll play the Huskers first and Buffalo went second. Next is Oklahoma.

The Boring Info

Time: This one is set for an 11:00 a.m. CT kickoff on Sept. 18. It’ll be FOX’s Big Noon game that day, with the FOX crew and pregame show set up in Norman, Oklahoma. 

Line: The early opening line for this game has the Sooners as an 19.5-point favorite. ESPN’s FPI gives Nebraska just a 5.6% chance to win. Bill Connelly’s SP+ projections for the preseason would have Nebraska as a 14-point underdog on a neutral field. 

Records: Oklahoma went 9-2 last season. Two one-score losses to Kansas State and Iowa State early in the year kept the Sooners out of the College Football Playoff, but eight straight wins to close out the year culminated with a Big 12 Championship and a 55-20 Cotton Bowl drubbing of Florida. 

Series history: Boy do these two programs have a ton of history. The two programs either won outright or shared 44 of the 48 Big Seven/Big Eight titles before the league’s expansion in the mid-90s. Then in the era of the Big 12, the two combined for nine league championships before Nebraska’s departure in 2011. The last time they met: the 2010 Big 12 Championship, when Oklahoma walked away with a 23-20 win. The Sooners lead the series all-time, 45-38-3.

What This One Means

A lot of things to a lot of people. 

When this Oklahoma native goes home, he’s inundated with questions from longtime Sooner fans asking about the Nebraska program, more longing for the days that were and lamenting that they’re gone than bad-mouthing the program that Nebraska has become now. There’s still a tremendous amount of respect between the fanbases. 

This game commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Game of the Century, a meeting of the two programs that saw the No. 1-ranked Huskers edge the No. 2-ranked Sooners 35-31 on Nov. 25, 1971. That Thanksgiving Day game in Norman attracted a then-record 55-million-plus television viewers and featured 17 of the 22 first-team All-Big Eight selections that season.

Regardless of the scoreline, to many, this game serves as a celebration of not just that game 50 years ago, but of the tremendous rivalry Oklahoma and Nebraska shared. As someone who played in it as a member of the Huskers and has called it his favorite rivalry, Husker head coach Scott Frost certainly knows the extra weight this one will carry off the field. 

But as he and Nebraska prepare for it, he probably won’t dedicate much energy to worrying about the emotional meaning of the meeting. He’s got enough to worry about on the field. 

As has been the case for years now, any discussion about Oklahoma starts with the quarterback. 

Spencer Rattler is the Vegas favorite to win the Heisman this year. Playing for Lincoln Riley, who helped Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray to Heismans and No. 1 overall draft selections in back-to-back seasons, must be nice. After a redshirt year in 2019, the Arizona native took over the full-time starting job in 2020 and finished with 3,031 yards and 28 touchdowns. 

He was voted Big 12 Newcomer of the Year, named the National Freshman of the Year by CBS Sports, placed on the FWAA Freshman All-American team and the AP All-Big 12 First Team, and selected as a semifinalist for the Davey O’Brien Award. 

Rattler looked shaky to begin the year, with a three-interception stinker in the Sooners’ early-season loss to Kansas State, but over his last eight games he threw 18 touchdowns against just three picks and completed 65% of his throws. After throwing at least 35 times in each of his team’s first three league games (two losses), Rattler was under 30 attempts in five of his final seven games. 

That’s probably the sweet spot, because while the prolific quarterback gets the attention in this offense, it’s not because of an Air Raid, Landry Jones/throw the ball all over the yard-style offensive attack. It’s the ground game upon which Oklahoma’s success has been built. OU was 20th nationally last season in rushing success rate. The year before that (2019) it was sixth, and fourth the year before that, and ninth the year before that. 

In 2019, Oklahoma had two 1,000-yard rushers—its quarterback and Kennedy Brooks. In 2018, Oklahoma had two 1,000-yard rushers—it’s quarterback and Kennedy Brooks. Trey Sermon was 53 yards shy of being the third. In 2017, Oklahoma had a 1,000-yard rusher in running back Rodney Anderson and a pair of backup running backs each top 500 yards. 

Last season, Brooks opted out. This season, he’s back in the picture, along with Tennessee transfer Eric Gray. That backfield looks dangerous. With Rattler at the helm, Oklahoma was 12th nationally in explosive play percentage a season ago despite a dip in rushing effectiveness. If that two-headed tailback monster is as such, it’s hard to find holes to attack. 

Riley is also one of the country’s best and brightest coaches and offensive minds. 

This could very well be the toughest test Frost has yet faced as a head coach. 

Surely it’ll provide some insight into what kinds of heights this Nebraska defense can reach in 2021. By SP+, Nebraska projects as a top-20 defense nationally, aided by the fact it returns more defensive production than all but eight other FBS programs. It has playmakers at corner and outside linebacker in Cam Taylor-Britt and JoJo Domann. Is the defense looked at fondly, though, because it will face Big Ten offenses week in and week out or because it legitimately is one of the country’s better groups? 

Nebraska appears to have the goods to stop what it needs to in the Big Ten. How about a truly elite offense like Oklahoma’s? While it’s hard to really, truly stop the Sooners, great defenses can make them uncomfortable enough to force mistakes. What’s it going to be from Nebraska? 

Beyond that, though, is just the mental component of this game. Because Oklahoma is a preseason darling and because Oklahoma has that prolific offense and because people expect this game to get lopsided, what will be the approach of the Huskers? More of a “let’s remain competitive” variety? Or will they walk into Norman, possibly at 3-0, believing they can silence the doubters who say they have no shot? Frost has said for three seasons now his group just needs to find some confidence because of all the good that extra bit of belief can do for a football team. 

Nebraska has made up ground from a strength and conditioning standpoint. But Oklahoma’s blue-chip ratio is 66% and it’ll have designs on a national championship run. This isn’t Iowa or Wisconsin; this is an Ohio State-level foe and Nebraska has gotten its teeth kicked in by those guys in recent years. 

This game could and should be one of the most important on the Huskers’ 2021 schedule.

The Guy to Know

Linebacker Nik Bonitto is the guy to know on the defensive side of the ball. Alex Grinch, Oklahoma’s defensive coordinator, has the Sooners slowly changing the perception of their defensive identity and Bonitto is a big part of that. He’s big and he’s nasty and he’s played a ton of football for the Sooners, last year exploding onto the national scene and earning a second-team AP All-American nod.  Bonitto led the nation in pressure rate last year, according to PFF, and totaled 10.5 tackles for loss and eight sacks coming off the edge. He’ll be a key matchup to monitor against Nebraska’s young tackles.

The Number(s) to Know

Part of Oklahoma’s brilliance is they get you chasing. On passing downs last season, opponents had a success rate of just 20.7%, which was the second-lowest in the country. And Oklahoma got teams into passing downs 35.4% of the time, the 15th-highest rate in the country. 

If you’re chasing on the scoreboard and not able to run your stuff as designed, you’re in trouble. Teams didn’t run on the Sooners last year. And on third-down, they converted only 27.9% of their chances, which was the fourth-lowest mark in the country. 

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