Texas is off to a great start this season. The Longhorns are 4-0, rapidly climbing the rankings, and have improved with each game this season.
Their reward? Unbeaten No. 1 Oklahoma.
The fact that these teams have not lost yet and are ranked among the top 10 teams in the most recent polls is not surprising. That’s the case nearly every year. The Sooners were the consensus preseason top-ranked team and fully expected to have an unblemished record coming into the Red River Rivalry. Texas, on the other hand, was coming off a dreadful 5-7 campaign and was even unranked in the Associated Press preseason poll. Now they’re on a roll and preparing to take on one of the nation’s best teams in one of college football’s fiercest rivalries.
“Both of us don’t like each other,” said senior guard David Snow. “It’s a big rivalry between the two teams. It’s very special. Two programs like ours going head-to-head at a neutral location — it just doesn’t get much better than that.”
With the Longhorns making such huge strides, the Cotton Bowl, like it usually does every October, will host two of college football’s finest teams.
“This rivalry is bigger than any of us,” said senior tight end Blaine Irby. “Walking down the tunnel and seeing the crowd split in half is a special feeling. It’s a great tradition. There’s a lot of passion. This week we’ve been really focused and anxious to get out there and really show the nation what we can do.”
The Longhorns will have their hands full this weekend. Junior quarterback Landry Jones and his favorite target, senior wide receiver Ryan Broyles are legitimate Heisman Trophy candidates. They’re part of a potent offense while the Sooners are not short on defensive talent either.
Oklahoma showed just how strong it is on both sides of the ball in last week’s game against Ball State. The Sooners routed the Cardinals, 62-6, scoring 52 unanswered points, 49 of them coming during a stretch between the second and third quarters that covered less than 12 minutes of playing time.
“Nothing we’re trying to do this week is anything that we weren’t trying to do last week,” said defensive coordinator Manny Diaz. “The opponent, in theory, doesn’t matter. What makes a team good is they punish you for your mistakes. That’s usually what good teams do. Instead of focusing on how good they are, focus on not making mistakes and you’ll give yourself a chance.”
Regardless of the outcome, Texas and Oklahoma will provide thousands of avid fans in Dallas and millions of television viewers nationwide with one of the oldest and greatest rivalries in college football. With Dallas being almost exactly halfway between Austin and Norman, Longhorns and Sooners fans are fittingly on either side of the 50-yard line as the State Fair provides an appropriate backdrop.
“Anytime you get up there and play OU, everybody’s pumped,” Snow said. “There’s so many emotions that are running through you at that time, especially when you’re playing at a neutral site. It’s crowded. It’s packed. It’s a great atmosphere.”
Texas knew it would have to rely on its younger players more than usual this season. But no one expected for the underclassmen to play as well as they have so far. David Ash has established himself as a reliable option behind center, Malcolm Brown has quickly become the team’s starting running back and Jaxon Shipley, the Longhorns’ offensive MVP three times this year, is picking up right where his big brother left off.
The Texas defense is not without its share of impressive youngsters, especially in a secondary that includes two sophomores and a freshman at cornerback. But now the Longhorns bring their inexperienced contributors to a unique atmosphere they haven’t seen before.
“Once those guys realize that it’s just another football game and don’t get caught up in all the State Fair, the big rivalry, and it being on national TV, I think they’ll be fine,” said senior safety Blake Gideon.
For some of the upperclassmen guiding their younger teammates, this will be their last crack at Oklahoma. This year’s seniors triumphed over the Sooners in 2008 and 2009 but fell to them in a 28-20 heartbreaker a year ago.
“It’s my last one,” said senior linebacker Emmanuel Acho. “It’s going to be emotional but I’m just ready for the game. This is how you dream it up. Both teams are 4-0. Both teams are ranked in the top 15. It’s going to be wild.”
Wild is the norm for the Red River Rivalry contests. Lead changes, ties and thrilling comebacks have characterized the most recent Cotton Bowl showdowns. And despite Oklahoma opening the week as nine-point favorites, this year should be no different.