Selecting a featured game this weekend in the Big 12 Conference is a no-brainer. It also happens to be the game of the week nationally, and perhaps of the entire college football season.
Twelve ranked teams have big road tests this weekend, including the nation's top-ranked team, the Oklahoma Sooners, who take on fifth-ranked Florida State in Tallahassee in a game that has been circled on the calendars of both schools for a solid year now, ever since the 47-17 thrashing the Sooners put on the Seminoles last September in Norman.
All the college football experts are saying that Florida State has gotten considerably better since that embarrassing afternoon in Norman, and FSU coach Jimbo Fisher looks back on last year's game as a lesson to his team on what it takes to win big games. "Hopefully our team has grown and we've gotten better," said Fisher, who is in his second year as the Seminoles' head coach after succeeding the legendary Bobby Bowden.
The experts also are saying that if anyone is going to get the job done against the top-ranked Sooners this season, the best chance, by a long shot, is when OU coach Bob Stoops takes his troops on the road. So the stage is set for the Saturday night showdown on national TV between the Seminoles and the Sooners.
Florida State is off to a flying start to open the season with consecutive-week home victories over Louisiana-Monroe and Division II-A Charleston Southern. In those two contests, the Seminoles scored a combined 96 points while giving up only 10, including a season-opening shutout of Louisiana-Monroe (34-0). The Sooners opened their season two weeks ago with a 47-14 win over in-state rival Tulsa.
Looking ahead to the top-five matchup with the Sooners on Saturday, Fisher sounded cautiously optimistic after watching the Seminoles easily dispose of FCS opponent Charleston Southern: "It's a very important game," he said. "It can set the tone and do a lot of things, but at the same time, it's one ballgame. It's the third football game of the year. We have a thing, ‘Live in the here and now.' Our now, right now until Saturday night, is Oklahoma."
Last year it was Florida State senior quarterback Christian Ponder (now with the Minnesota Vikings in the NFL) that OU defensive coordinator Brent Venables had to worry about. This year, the man under center is 6-foot-5 junior, E.J. Manuel, who came in for a struggling Ponder in the second half of last year's game at Oklahoma. Through two games this season, Manuel has completed 67 percent of his passes (46-69), six for touchdowns, and thrown two interceptions. He's been sacked three times.
"You see a lot of good, strong pocket passing from E.J. Manuel, which was similar to Christian Ponder, as well, but what you see is a bigger guy with more dimensions that can see the field and make something happen, and the added dimension of the quarterback running game" Stoops said.
The Seminoles have been slicing up their opponents through the air, averaging almost 380 yards passing vs. 130 yards a game on the ground. A key for Oklahoma in this game is what kind of a pass rush they can put on Manuel to take some of the pressure off the Sooner linebackers and secondary, which gave up several long strikes against Tulsa. Establishing their run game will also be a key for the Sooners in order to free up their explosive corps of talented receivers, led by All-American Ryan Broyles. Behind Landry Jones, OU rolled up large passing numbers last season (394 yards, four touchdowns) against the Seminoles, and it will be interesting to see what Bob Stoops' brother, Mark, the defensive coordinator at Florida State, does to try to take this aspect of the game away from his big brother this time around.
Speaking about what it was like last year to go up against his brother in a big game, big brother Bob said: "I felt the entire week that it would be a miserable experience, but after the game I was sure of it. I've never been so conflicted and miserable about winning a game," he said. "Your brothers are always on your team. You are helping each other out and sticking up for each other. Beating each other is not what you want. It's just not natural."
There's no question this is a game with enormous implications for both teams. Playing in big games is nothing new for Bob Stoops & Co. The Sooners are 40-16 against ranked opponents in the Stoops era and have defeated two No. 1's, two No. 2's and two No. 3's, not to mention having competed in four national championship games.
This time is a little different, though. Florida State is Oklahoma's first nonconference opponent ranked in the top five since 1993 (when the Sooners played Texas A&M, then in the Southwest Conference). And the last time OU beat a top-five nonconference opponent was back in 1973, when Uwe Von Schamann kicked a game-winning field goal against Ohio State.
Florida State no doubt is out to exert some revenge and equal the score against the Sooners, who as of today are still members of the Big 12. But will the Seminoles be able to go a full 15 rounds against the deeper Oklahoma roster. As much trouble as OU has been perceived to have away from Norman in recent seasons, they've proved they can win the Big Games on the road (e.g., last year's 47-41 victory over bitter rival and higher-ranked Oklahoma State in Stillwater).
OKLAHOMA 27 @ Florida State 21
Five Things You Should Know About This Game
- The last time Oklahoma was ranked No. 1 in the country and went on the road to defend its top ranking was last October, when the Sooners traveled to Columbia, Mo., for a homecoming date with also undefeated Missouri. The Tigers throttled the high-flying Sooners that damp and chilly autumn evening. OU will face an even more hostile environment in Tallahassee.
- Florida State's defense appears to be vastly improved since these two teams met last year. Will the Seminoles be improved enough to stop an Oklahoma offense that is being compared to the record-setting Sam Bradford-led team of 2008?
- When Oklahoma ran its hurry-up, no-huddle offense a year ago against FSU, it disrupted and confused the Seminoles, even when they knew it was coming. Against Louisiana-Monroe in Game 1 FSU held ULM, which also runs a hurry-up offense, to under 100 yards both passing and running the ball (191 yards total).
- Walk-on running back Dominique Whaley of Oklahoma was the most outstanding performer on the field against Tulsa with 131 yards rushing and four touchdowns. Will he be able to turn in an equally surprising performance against Florida State?
- Oklahoma leads the all-time series between these two teams, 5-1. The Seminoles won the first game, in 1964, 36-19. Since then, the Sooners have won all five meetings, including the National Championship game in the 2000 season.