College Football Needs the Red River Shootout to Shine Again

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I have no prior affinity for the Texas Longhorns–on the contrary. My dad grew up in San Antonio, went to Southwest (now Texas State) and cheered for A&M. He derisively calls Texas “the Teasips.”

As a product of Pac-12 Country, I never quite reconciled my annoyance with Mack Brown for what I perceived then as shameful campaigning in 2004 to take a Rose Bowl berth away from Cal, which hadn’t (and still hasn’t) played in the Granddaddy of ‘Em All since 1959.

And yet, I’m rooting for Charlie Strong to return the Longhorns to national prominence in short order. This weekend’s Red River Shootout is why.

The annual tilt between the Longhorns and Oklahoma Sooners is one of those rivalries spoken of in the same breath as Yankees-Red Sox and Duke-North Carolina. To retread a tired cliche, it’s good for the sport but best when it’s meaningful.

The Red River Shootout has everything one could want from a traditional rivalry. There’s genuine acrimony between the fan bases, there’s a rich history defined by legends of the game, it’s a consistent date on the college football calendar (the second Saturday of October) and the backdrop of the Texas State Fair and Cotton Bowl gives it an authentic atmosphere.

And yet, because of Texas’ struggles, this year’s installment is an afterthought. A Top 25 showdown between Oregon and UCLA overshadows the Red River Shootout; so too does another Big 12 contest pitting Baylor against TCU.

The SEC has a pair of matchups with national championship implications, a trait that once defined Texas vs. Oklahoma. One is Auburn’s trip to Mississippi State. The other, to the chagrin of Texas fans, is Ole Miss’ trek into Kyle Field to face Texas A&M.

Without the championship element, the Red River Shootout is a bowling ball without a liquid center.

The Red River Shootout might be the biggest game Texas plays all year, but for much different reasons than in the mid-2000s when the winner was virtually assured the Big 12 title and a seat at the national title discussion. For the Longhorns, the 2014 rivalry game is about playing spoiler.

Oklahoma comes in as a 14.5-point favorite–about the same line handicappers put on last year’s contest, which Texas won by two touchdowns. Indeed, precedent says expectations can be set aside when these teams meet.

An upset of the Sooners would also go a long way in silencing some of the criticism–much of it absurd–heaped on Strong since his arrival in January.

Oklahoma has plenty to play before beyond pride, though. A loss effectively ends the Sooners’ bid for the College Football Playoff.

There are indeed high stakes for both teams, but it’s just not the same as when these programs invade the Cotton Bowl, both sporting Top 10 records and harboring championship dreams.

And frankly, college football isn’t quite the same, either.

The Texas defense is already showing some much-needed chutzpah behind brilliant defensive minds Strong and Vance Bedford. The offense has a long way to go, but Strong’s staff resurrected a hapless Louisville O in their time together with the Cardinals.

Given some patience and time, I have faith they’ll do the same at Texas. Then, the Red River Shootout can return to being one of the preeminent games on the college football docket every year, and I can go back to grumbling about the 2005 Rose Bowl.