More At Stake In Texas-OU Than Bragging Rights

Winner Should Have Shot At BCS Championship Game

The Big 12’s primary color is a primary color.

Lincoln boasts the Red Sea, Nebraska’s faithful flock who were doing monochrome stadium fashion long before the “-out” era.

Lubbock has the Red Raiders, Texas Tech’s mascot name.

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And next Saturday in Dallas, a metropolis in a decidedly red state, will welcome the Big 12’s biggest rivalry, the Red River Shootout. Top-ranked Oklahoma (5-0) meets No. 5 Texas in what is definitely the conference’s, if not the country’s, Game of the Year ... until, depending on the winner, next week (more on that later).

“It’s two top-five teams that are playing really well,” said Texas coach Mack Red—um, Brown—after the Longhorns (5-0) cruised past Colorado, 38-14. “We’ll have everybody in America talking about the game next week, and that’s what we want.”

Of course, no object is more closely associated with the color red than blood. And that, figuratively, is what the Sooners and Longhorns are out for each October when they meet. Blood. What would any Western epic be without it?

The Big 12 is neither short on color — reds, Brown — nor colorfully nicknamed rivalries: the Battle of the Brazos (Baylor-Texas A&M) and the Border War (Kansas-Missouri) come to mind. And while each of those is older, extending across three centuries, no rivalry in this conference, if in any conference, showcases more talent, tradition, and pageantry (pipe down, Ann Arbor and Columbus).

If OU-Texas (or, to be non-partisan, Texas-OU) is not the essence of college football, we don’t know what is. Each year since 1929 the Longhorns and Sooners have met at the Cotton Bowl (the series began in 1900) during the State Fair of Texas. Here are two schools, located approximately 375 miles apart, meeting midway just yards from the Midway.

Atmosphere? As the Texas Star, the largest ferris wheel in North America (70.6 yards high) spins in the background, fans of both schools bisect the Cotton Bowl’s 79,000 seats into two sections, burnt orange and crimson, that meet at the 50-yard line. Bevo, the Longhorn mascot whose signature horns are so menacing that he was kicked out of last year’s Holiday Bowl, owns one corner. The Sooner Schooner, a pony-pulled covered wagon that was flagged for unsportsman-like conduct in the 1985 Orange Bowl (the less said the better, except to note that wagon wheels are susceptible to muddy turf), patrols another.

Little of which would matter if so much were not at stake. And this season is no different.

Four of the last eight Red River Shootouts featured a team that would later appear in that season’s BCS national championship game. In 2000, 2003 and 2004, Oklahoma played for the national title, beating Florida State in the ’01 Orange Bowl. In 2005 Texas, behind quarterback Vince Young, beat USC in one of the most memorable championship games ever, the ’06 Rose Bowl.

Next weekend’s winner could well produce the fifth BCS championship contender of the past nine years. Only twice in the past forty years has neither team been ranked in the A.P. poll. Saturday’s game will mark the fourth time in the past eight games that both OU and Texas have been ranked in the top five when they met.

And while Big Ten cynics may note that the Sooners and Longhorns are never as battle-tested after five games as the Buckeyes and Wolverines are after 10 — or 11 — it remains a remarkable testament to their dominance.

Saturday’s meeting, the 103rd (Texas leads 57-40-5, though OU has won six of the last eight), will be focused around a pair of gunslingers with gunslinger names: Sam and Colt. Fitting, then, that they will meet at high noon for east coast fans.

Sam is Oklahoma red-shirt sophomore quarterback Sam Bradford, the most potent force of nature Oklahoma skies have seen since the twister. Last year the Oklahoma City native set an NCAA record for touchdown passes by a freshman (36) and led the nation in passing efficiency (175.6 rating). Through five games this season Bradford is second in the nation in passing efficiency to Tulsa’s David Johnson, albeit with a higher rating (205.4) while already halfway to last season’s TD pass mark, with 18. He has thrown just three picks in 146 attempts.

If Bradford is not already considered the greatest Sooner quarterback of all time, it is only a matter of time. He will break every passing record of 2003 Heisman Trophy Jason White, and Sooner rather than later. That Bradford is part Cherokee only lends another dose of venom to what is already gridiron’s classic Western.

At the other end of Main Street stands Longhorn quarterback Colt McCoy, who in his third year as a starter has blossomed into the most prolific passer in Texas history. McCoy, from Tuscola, Texas, has already surpassed the Texas career TD passes mark (60; McCoy has 67) set by Major Applewhite (the Longhorn running backs coach, curiously enough) and by season’s end will be the career passing yards record-holder in Austin, as well. For good measure, McCoy also leads the Longhorns in rushing.

Both McCoy and Bradford have led their teams to victory in this rivalry the past two years. And while each will tell you that a victory — and an unblemished record — is all that matters to them, allow us to add that of the six Heisman Trophy winners who have come out of Texas or OU, only one (Steve Owens, Sooners, ’69), lost the Red River Rivalry game during his Heisman season.

Which brings us to one caveat. As brilliant as both Bradford and McCoy have been this season, both trail — statistically, and Heismatically — to fellow Big 12 passer Chase Daniel of Missouri. Daniel’s Tigers are also 5-0. Should they get past yet another 5-0 Big 12 team, Oklahoma State, next weekend (It's clear that the Big 12 is really, really, really solid in ’08), then a Texas victory would set up a second top-five showdown in the Lone Star State in as many Saturdays.

Which is to say that this season in the Big 12 the pass is prologue.

Talent abounds beyond the quarterback position, of course. The Sooner offensive line is brimming with All-American candidates such as tight end Jermaine Gresham and guard Duke Robinson, while defensive linemen Auston English and DeMarcus Granger put the OU in “ouch!”

The Longhorn strength is its passing attack. Senior wideouts Quan Cosby and Jordan Shipley are veterans of three Red River gunfights as well as that historic ’06 Rose Bowl. And a defense that is the nation’s 3rd-best against the run will test the mettle of Sooner sophomore tailback DeMarco Murray.

Are these Red River renegades ready?

Oklahoma, which has outscored its first five opponents by 35.8 points per game, led 35-7 at Baylor midway through the second quarter on Saturday. Texas, which has outscored its five foes by 35.8 points per game, led 35-7 at Colorado after three quarters.

They’re ready. And they’re both seeing red.

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