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Big 12 pick of the week: Oklahoma-Texas loser will be out of conference title chase

It's Red River Rivalry week, which means Oklahoma vs. Texas at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. Usually this bitter slugfest goes a long way toward deciding the Big 12 championship. This year it will decide which team stays in the hunt and who drops out.

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The only thing predictable when the Oklahoma Sooners and Texas Longhorns meet in the annual Red River Rivalry game in Dallas is that half of the 80,000-plus capacity crowd - not counting the throngs of fair-goers outside the stadium at the Texas State Fairgrounds - will be decked out in crimson and the other half in the Texas school colors of burnt orange. OU vs. Texas, in any athletic sport or competitive event, but most especially in football - is one of the oldest and most heated rivalries in college athletics.

These two schools, plain and simple, do not like each other.

You can throw out all the records and past history because, as we all know, anything goes in a rivalry game. The Sooners are a three-point favorite in the 107th football renewal of Oklahoma vs. Texas at the Cotton Bowl on Saturday, but that is irrelevant except to the Las Vegas oddsmakers and those placing bets on the game.

As for the game itself, OU comes in at 3-1 on the season and Texas owns a record of 4-1 after a heartbreaking three-point home loss last Saturday to conference co-leader West Virginia. West Virginia shares the conference lead with Kansas State, which was responsible for Oklahoma's one loss. More than a pairing of two bitter rivals, both currently ranked among the top 20 teams in the country, the game also is a matchup of two of the best head coaches in the nation in Texas' Mack Brown and Bob Stoops of the Sooners.

The two coaches have met on 13 previous occasions in the storied series. Stoops owns an 8-5 advantage, including a 55-17 blowout in last year's game that gave Oklahoma back-to-back wins in the rivalry. Texas leads in the overall series with a record of 57-42-5.

The last two seasons have been highly disappointing for Longhorn fans, who are used to seeing their team win 10 or more games every season. After going 13-1 and 8-0 in the Big 12 in 2009, its only loss to Alabama in the BCS National Championship game, Texas fell to 5-7 overall and last place in the conference's South Division with a 2-6 league mark the following season, and just 4-5 in the Big 12 and 8-5 in all games last year.

The Longhorns have not beaten a top-25 ranked team in eight straight tries, and they are just 1-11 against ranked teams since the BCS Championship loss to Alabama. Mack Brown's team had a chance to snap that losing string last weekend vs. West Virginia but couldn't. They'll have anothe and possibly even a better chance on Saturday against hated rival Oklahoma.

"To be considered one of the best, you have to be able to beat the best," Texas sophomore quarterback David Ash told the Dallas Morning News last week.

There's no question this year's Texas team is better than it was the past two years, and a win over the Sooners certainly would validate that. The past two years, the Longhorns had to rely on their defense to keep them in games because of their underperforming offense, which couldn't seem to decide whether to go with a spread offense like what was in place with Vince Young and more recently Colt McCoy or with a more run-heavy power game.

This season the Horns bring a typically solid defense, featuring arguably the two best defensive ends in the country in junior Jackson Jeffcoat and senior edge-rusher Alex Okafor, but they also have their offensive game back and piling up lots of real estate.

Because the offense is better able to establish long, time-consuming drives, it allows the Texas defense to stay rested.

Although Oklahoma looked more like the Sooner teams of old in a big road win and a strong defensive performance at Texas Tech last weekend, there is good reason to believe this year's edition of the Sooners isn't as strong on offense, even fifth-year senior Landry Jones is still running the offense at quarterback. Jones is playing in his fourth Red River Rivalry, which gives him the experience edge over Texas' QB Ash, but defenses have been able to put more pressure on the OU quarterback because of key injuries on OU's starting offensive line.

Nevertheless, Jones is still highly capable of putting up big numbers (he holds all of the OU career passing records), and his young receiving corps is beginning to step up and make the big plays expected of them by the OU coaching staff. With one more victory, Jones will become the winningest quarterback in Oklahoma history. He is currently tied with Steve Davis, who was quarterback for the Sooners in the mid-1970s.

Offensively, the Sooners also are showing more balance in their offense so far this season, with a rushing attack, led by California junior-college transfer Damien Williams, hat ranks right behind the Longhorns at 191 yards a game.

Defensively, coordinator Mike Stoops charges are looking solid and are not giving up the home-run pass plays that have plagued the Sooners' secondary in the recent past.

Three keys to the game

  • Texas' running backs vs. the OU defensive front. The Longhorns speedy backfield trio of Joe Bergeron, Malcolm Brown and true freshman Jonathan Gray are averaging 209 yards a game on the ground. OU is giving up an average of 145 yards to its opponents and has had some difficulty in this area against good running teams.
  • This same key applies in reverse. OU is averaging 191 yards a game keeping the ball on the ground, which makes stopping Landry Jones and the Sooners' spread passing attack much more difficult to corral. Texas is yielding almost that many yards to its opponents this season. If the Sooners are able to successfully move the ball on the ground, Jones is likely to have a field day against the Longhorn secondary.
  • Special teams and field position will be a key factor in the ultimate outcome of this game. The Sooners are greatly improved in reaching the end zone on kickoffs and on field goal tries, two big problems the last three-to-four years. The Horns are only four of nine on field-goal tries this year. That could loom large in a close game. Texas had several long kickoff returns against West Virginia. That can't and won't happen against the OU kick coverage unit, largely because the Sooners' Patrick O'Hara has the leg to reach the end zone.

Game prediction: Oklahoma 33, Texas 28

Other Big 12 Games This Weekend (Week7)

(Projected winner in bold face)

Kansas State @ Iowa State

Oklahoma State @ Kansas

West Virginia @ Texas Tech

TCU @ Baylor

Last week: 3-1

For the season: 34-5 (.871)

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Kansas City.

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