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Bowden, Brown have everything to lose

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo Sports

One of them, the critics contend, can't win the big one. The other, who used to hear the exact same thing until his kickers stopped going wide right, has been told lately he'll never do it again.

Texas' Mack Brown and Florida State's Bobby Bowden don't have a lot in common. But Saturday they both face that most unique of college football traditions.

The big one. The red-letter, must win, contract-extending, career-making, critic-silencing clash with the archest of rivals on the schedule.

Texas gets No. 1 Oklahoma. Florida State gets No. 2 Miami.

And while Bowden and Brown may rank 1-2 in consecutive winning seasons, bowl appearances and victories since 1990, while both have their teams in the top 15 and still in contention for a national championship, both could really use a win in a really big way Saturday.

Bowden to prove he's still got it. Brown to prove he can ever get it.

"This is probably the best Oklahoma team I've seen during my time here," said Brown, who has famously lost three consecutive games to the Sooners.

"It's going to be tougher than most," said Bowden, who has also lost three consecutive to his chief rival.

This is how college football – and no other sport – works, seasons and careers boiling down to single, gut-check games that can separate legends from losers.

Rivalries in college sports are almost always bigger than the pros, where things generally burn white hot for half decade before fading as fortunes change and players leave.

Even something as intense as the Yankees-Red Sox struggles to match the 365-day-a-year, do-or-die feelings of a great college hate-fest, where every recruit is fought over, every victory toasted, every defeat cursed.

If you can't win the big one, then not much else matters and eventually the alums will John Cooper you out of town.

Increasing the pressure is college football's peculiar system of crowning a champion. With no playoff, no wild cards bids and (for the most part) no second chances, the season is basically a 12-game round robin elimination event. Lose once and it title dreams may be over.

Even if it is early October.

Bowden, of course, knows this all too well. His construction of a national juggernaut in Tallahassee during the 1980s and '90s was nothing short of remarkable. But until he could get by the Canes, he couldn't win his two national titles and escape the wrath of critics.

That is the current fate of Brown.

By nearly any definition, Brown has delivered remarkable success to Austin. He took over a failing program and has produced five nine-win seasons, including 11-2 campaigns the last two years. Only Bowden (143 to 121) has won more games since 1990. But few consider Brown one of the game's very best coaches.

That's because Longhorn fans have grown weary of losing dramatic clashes to OU. While Bob Stoops has become a living legend in the Sooner State, Brown deals with the dissatisfied on the other side of the Red River.

Bowden's plight is slightly different. He shed the can't-win-a-big-one moniker a long time ago. But over the past two seasons, as the Seminoles have slipped on the field and run into scandal off of it, Bowden has dealt with increased speculation that at age 73, the game had passed him by.

The 'Noles lost a stunning five times last year. Maryland broke its stranglehold on the ACC title in 2001, the year a streak of 14 consecutive top five seasons ended. In the preseason, some picked FSU to finish third in its league.

But here they are again, heading into Miami week with everything on the line. FSU looks like its old self again, unbeaten and in the top 5. Get by the Hurricanes and an easy path through the very winnable ACC opens up.

Not that Bowden is overconfident, even with Miami banged up and coming off a lackluster victory over West Virginia.

"The best thing that could happen to them," Bowden said. "[It] wakes them up."

Ditto for Brown, even if the Horns are riding high after some gutsy Stoop-esque play calling on fourth-and-the-game beat Kansas State.

"This is the best defense I've seen," Brown gushed about OU.

Win his game and Bowden could be playing for a third title come January.

Win his game and Brown's Longhorns are back in contention too.

Which makes for one big Saturday with two big opportunities in two ultra-big games.