Big 12 Football: Red River Rivalry Carries Playoff Implications

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If the Big 12 is going to keep pace or move up in college football’s pecking order, Saturday’s game at the Cotton Bowl is a glimpse of the pathway.

The best and biggest game of Week Six is the Red River Rivalry – No. 7 Oklahoma vs. No. 19 Texas. It’s a contest of such significance that the sports’ two Big Networks will set up their pre-game shows on site. ESPN’s College GameDay is making its weekly road trip while FOX, which is televising the game, is shipping its pregame crew from the Los Angeles studio.

After two prime-time blockbusters last week, the Sooners and the Longhorns game is the only one that provides the sizzle and the sexy. After five seasons of being the underdog lightweight, UT finally is showing promise. This is the first time since 2012 that both teams have been ranked.

The previous 10 seasons, starting in 2000, both teams were ranked nine times and on eight of those matchups at least one team was ranked in the top five and four times both were ranked in the top five. In this century’s first decade, Texas or Oklahoma played in the Bowl Championship title game six times with the Sooners winning in 2000 and the Longhorns in 2005.

Starting in 2010, Texas has regressed to mediocrity and Oklahoma has lorded over the Big 12 as it contracted to 10 teams during the last round of realignment. The Sooners are trying to win their fourth consecutive Big 12 title and have won its last 10 league games and 27 of its last 28.

Clearly, the Big 12 needs its two Big Brands, not just the one located in Norman. Both programs are under coaches in their second seasons. Lincoln Riley guided the Sooners to the College Football Playoff while Tom Herman and the Longhorns limped into a bowl game last season. Texas, though, is showing signs of progress. UT has won four in a row after the season-opening pratfall at Maryland. Last Saturday, the Longhorns won at Kansas State for the first time since 2002 and won a game they would have frittered away each of the last four seasons.
“We didn’t always play our best, but we played our best when it mattered,” Herman said.

To extend a four-game winning streak, Texas will need to contain OU’s offensive onslaught. Since Riley arrived as offensive coordinator in 2015, the Sooners lead the nation in scoring and total offense during that 45-game span. Oklahoma has scored at least 30 points in 27 of its last 29 games (29 and 28 in the other two). Since 2015, the Longhorns have scored 30 or more 11 times.

Riley and the Sooners have replaced Baker Mayfield, last season’s Heisman Trophy winner, with a Heisman candidate. Through five games, Kyler Murray has better statistics than Mayfield had through five games last season. He has completed 70.6 percent of his passes and leads the nation in passing yards per attempt and per completion. He’s third with 17 passing touchdowns.

“The names have changed. I don’t know that the results have at all,” he said. “Maybe the difference is how elite of a runner (Murray) is … Not a whole lot has changed. They’re still one of, in not the best, offenses in the country.”

Oklahoma has won six of the last eight RRRs, but the last three victories have come by a total of 15 points. Ironically, if Texas pulls the upset it will put the Sooners’ chances of another CFP bid in jeopardy. OU was able to overcome a loss to Iowa State (in the game before Texas) last season but those type of daredevil stunts are low percentage.

“We have to play our best in order to have a chance against elite teams in the country like Oklahoma,” Herman said. “If we roll in there with anything less than our A-plus game for four quarters, it’s not going to be good,” he added. “It’s not going to be fun. But I think we’ve proven to ourselves that our best is good enough.”

Watch the run games

Two weeks ago, Army’s ground-control running game nearly posted an upset of historic proportions. Oklahoma escaped with a 28-21 overtime victory despite having the ball for just 15 minutes and allowing the Black Knights to gain 339 yards on the ground.

Texas will not – repeat, will not – revert to the Wishbone for Saturday’s game. However, a great way to help control the Sooners’ quick-strike, big-play attack is to control time of possession. The best way to do that is with a running game preferably staffed by a workhorse back.

Freshman Keaontay Ingram appears to be the best candidate for the Longhorns to generate yards on the ground. Through five games, Ingram is averaging 6.1 yards per carry on just 34 attempts. He suffered a bruised knee against Tulsa in the second game and is close to be 100 percent recovered.

Oklahoma lost top running back Rodney Anderson to a knee injury in Week Two and has been rotating three backs – Trey Sermon, the Sooners’ leading rusher, along with freshmen T.J. Pledger and Kennedy Brooks.

More about the run games

Over the last five seasons, one way to underline the difference in success Oklahoma and Texas have had in the won-loss column is to compare the teams’ running games and top rushers.

During that span, Oklahoma has finished averaging at last 217 yards on the ground each season while Texas has averaged over 200 yards rushing just twice. The Longhorns have had just one 1,000-yard rusher (D’Onta Foreman bulldozed for 2,028 yards in 2016) while the Sooners have had a 1,000-yard rusher each of the last four seasons (and in 2013 their leading rusher gained 957 yards). Plus, in two of the last three seasons, UT’s top rusher has been a quarterback.

Comparing the rushing numbers for the two teams the last five seasons:

Year OU yds/game UT yds/game OU top rusher UT top rusher
2017 217 140 1,161 381
2016 236 240 1,060 2,028
2015 221 224 1,349 561
2014 261 137 1,713 708
2013 223 196 957 904

Coupled with Oklahoma’s potent passing attack, especially in the last three seasons under Lincoln Riley, the ability to run the ball has made the Sooners’ offense far superior than the Longhorns’.

Short yardage

  • Texas junior running back Kyle Porter didn’t make the trip to Kansas State for the Longhorns’ fifth game. He’s considering taking advantage of the new NCAA rule that would allow him to red shirt and preserve this season of eligibility before transferring. In UT’s first four games he had one carry for two yards.
  • Oklahoma’s defense continues to be questioned and maligned, but numbers can be misleading. The bad: opponents are 16-for-16 in red zone opportunities. The good: Oklahoma is allowing 3.22 yards per rushing attempt; top-ranked Alabama is allowing 3.96. The tiring: in victories over Army and Baylor, those teams have had the ball 68 percent of the time, running twice as many plays (188-94) as the Sooners.
  • When Texas Tech plays at TCU next Thursday, neither team is sure who will start at quarterback. The Frogs’ Shawn Robinson suffered a shoulder injury late in Saturday’s victory over Iowa State. Red Raiders freshman Alan Bowman was released from the hospital Wednesday after suffering a collapsed lung in the loss to West Virginia.
  • If Bowman is unavailable, Texas Tech might have its third different starter in six games. McLane Carter started the opener and Jett Duffey played well replacing Bowman Saturday and would likely start against TCU. This season, these teams have had the same starting QB as the season nears its halfway mark: Baylor, Oklahoma State, TCU, Texas and West Virginia. Oklahoma would be included by Kyler Murray missed the start last week because he overslept and missed the start of practice.
  • And, here’s a follow up on this week’s earlier report on prank callers asking questions of Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy on the Big 12 teleconference. The statement from the Big 12: In regards to the issues with Monday’s teleconference, we originally thought our media number had been leaked to the public. After researching the fake callers, we learned it was actual media members using fake names and affiliations. Therefore, we will keep the media number we have been using, barring any additional issues.