As the scent of deep-fried everything seeps into the Cotton Bowl and kickoff approaches, one scene seemingly captures the magnitude of the Red River Rivalry perfectly: the bus ride to the entrance of the Cotton Bowl.
Hours before kickoff, Texas players and coaches will hop on a charter bus before receiving a police escort to the stadium. Despite the escort, buses struggle to inch forward as Texas and Sooner fans alike display completely contradicting gestures.
“You look out the window of your bus and you’ve got an 8-year-old kid going double bird at you,” head coach Tom Herman said. “And right next to him is an 88-year-old woman going double bird the same way.”
But this isn’t the worst heckling Texas players will be forced to endure on Saturday.
Moments before kickoff, the Longhorns will pile into the tunnel located on the southeast end of the stadium. While Texas fans fill half the stadium in burnt orange, the Cotton Bowl, which was built in 1930, only features one entrance for teams to take the field and it’s in the heart of Oklahoma’s crimson-filled half of the stadium.
“Every year, you run out through the OU fans into the Texas fans, which is a cool feeling in of in itself but they don’t always have nice things to say coming out of the tunnel, as shocking as it sounds,” senior tight end Andrew Beck said. “It’s what makes that game a lot of fun to watch and a ton of fun to play in.”
It’s the same tunnel then-freshman quarterback Sam Ehlinger walked down following Texas’ 29-24 loss to Baker Mayfield and the Sooners in the 2017 matchup. While the burnt orange half of the stadium cleared out after the clock hit triple zeros, Oklahoma fans stuck around to chant, “Texas Sucks,” as Ehlinger and his teammates headed down the tunnel.
Ehlinger nearly overcame a 20-point deficit, but it was his final play which drew the most attention. Facing a 4th and 13 and a five-point deficit in the later stages of the fourth quarter, Ehlinger evaded Sooner defenders in an attempt to extend the play. Then, he decided to throw the ball away to turn the ball over on downs, virtually ending Texas’ best shot at taking down Oklahoma for the first time since 2013.
“I’m a completely different player from last year,” Ehlinger said. “I understand pretty much what everything in college football looks like as a quarterback. A year ago I thought I understood and I thought I was really well prepared because I did everything I could, but that year of experience and understanding what it actually entails is invaluable.”
Nearly one year later, Ehlinger isn’t in the midst of a quarterback battle with Shane Buechele like he was last year. The sophomore grew up going to the Cotton Bowl in October. Now, he’s preparing to play in front of nearly 100,000 fans in burnt orange and crimson in a game that presents Big 12 and national implications for the first time since 2012.
Texas has already added two signature wins this season over then-No. 22 USC and then-No. 17 TCU, but the team from Norman now presents what should be the toughest test of the season for the Longhorns. Once Texas gets through the horde of fans and runs out of the tunnel, only one question has to be answered: Is Texas back?