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Thursday, December 3, 2009
What to watch for in Big 12 championship game

By Tim Griffin

Here are five trends that merit watching in Saturday’s Big 12 championship game:

Can the North Division make this a game, for a change? The South Division has dominated this game, much like all aspects of cross-division play in recent seasons. Since Kansas State’s stunning upset victory over Oklahoma in 2003, the South Division teams have won the games by a combined margin of 233-51. During those five games, the North team has led for a total of 3 minutes and 22 seconds in the 300 minutes of game action. Nebraska’s defense should give it a puncher’s chance to be successful in the game. But Texas looks like the prototypical bully from the South Division that looks like it will be ready to jump on an opponent at the slightest sign of weakness.

Colt McCoy’s Heisman hopes: With the Alabama-Florida game being played earlier in the afternoon. McCoy should have a good idea who will be his prime Heisman opponent emerging from the SEC championship game. It won’t be easy as McCoy will be facing one of his biggest challenges of the season in terms of the rival defense. Nebraska ranks among the top 15 teams in the major team defensive statistical categories of rushing defense, pass efficiency defense, total defense and scoring defense. The Cornhuskers have allowed more than 21 points in a game only once this season and have averaged three sacks a game over their last five contests. McCoy will need a big statistical game to sway Heisman voters one last time.

The center of Nebraska’s defense: Ndamukong Suh and Jared Crick are the finest pair of defensive tackles in the conference. Suh likely is the best defensive player in the country. They will be backed up behind the line by starting middle linebacker Will Compton, a redshirt freshman. These players will need to dominate the game inside in their contest with Texas starting center Chris Hall and starting guards Charlie Tanner and Michael Huey. If the Nebraska defensive tackles and Compton can impose their will in the trenches, it will make life much more difficult for McCoy and the Longhorns.

Nebraska’s special teams need to be special: The Cornhuskers have dictated field position all season long thanks to punter Alex Henery and kickoff specialist Adi Kunalic. Henery is the most accomplished situational punter in the conference with 26 of his 65 punts pinning opponents inside their own 20-yard line. Eight of those kicks have landed inside the opponent’s 3-yard line. Kunalic leads the Big 12 with 40 percent of his kickoffs going through the end zone for touchbacks. If the Cornhuskers can dictate the special teams, they will be able to neutralize Texas kickoff return specialist Marquise Goodwin (24.1 average, one TD) and punt return specialist Jordan Shipley (13.3 yard per return average, two TDs). As difficult as it will be for the Cornhuskers to stick with Texas on offense and defense, they can’t allow any cheap touchdowns or wild changes in field position and expect to win.

Can Texas’ defense rebound? The Longhorns struggled through their worst performance of the season in their narrow victory over Texas A&M, allowing their most rushing yards, total yards and points of the season. Texas players said those memories have been blotted away as they prepare for the Cornhuskers. Nebraska’s offensive strategy should play more into Texas’ strengths that Texas A&M’s varied run-pass option attack. But it will be imperative for the Longhorns to forget about their recent defensive difficulties and bounce back with a big effort in the championship game.