Remember about a year ago, when there was all that talk about head coach Charlie Strong floundering in the build up to Texas’ annual date in the Cotton Bowl with Oklahoma? The Longhorns came out of their grudge match against the boys from north of the Red River with a 24-17 win that looked like it might springboard the program back into relevance in the Big 12 and on the national stage.
It proved to be a mirage, of course, as the ‘Horns dropped three of their last six games to finish 5-7. Not surprisingly, Strong’s grip on his job has only gotten looser a year later as he prepares his team for the Red River Showdown (or Rivalry or Shootout or Classic if you prefer). This time, he has the added responsibility of overseeing UT’s atrocious defense after demoting coordinator Vance Bedford.
However, last season proved that Texas’ embattled coach knows how to circle his own wagons before facing off against the Sooner Schooner. And it’s not like OU head coach Bob Stoops hasn’t heard plenty of chatter about his team’s rough start. Sooner fans won’t take kindly to another debacle like the 2015 game.
All in all, this is a game that neither coach can afford to lose.
Texas vs. Oklahoma (Dallas)
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 8 at 12 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FS1
Spread: Oklahoma -10
Three Things to Watch
To say that these two teams have had trouble bringing down ball carriers would be an understatement. Coordinators can’t scheme around those kinds of problems.
If one side figures out a way to somehow clean up its tackling this week, it will gain an advantage in its ability to limit big plays and cheap yards.
2. Texas’ 18-Wheeler Package
How Texas offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert chooses to deploy Tyrone Swoopes this week bears watching. OU had a hard time last season containing the burly quarterback in the Longhorns’ power-running packages, which is a problem that carried over for the Sooners when facing big, mobile quarterbacks such as Clemson’s Deshaun Watson and J.T. Barrett of Ohio State. Consequently, Gilbert might decide to ride the 18-Wheeler a little more than usual on Saturday.
3. OU’s Concerns at Cornerback
Stoops has yet to find a reliable option at the cornerback position opposite star cover man Jordan Thomas. After watching receivers burn the rotation of Parrish Cobb, Michiah Quick and Dakota Austin to a crisp, OU would probably settle for a CB who could simply limit deep completions. UT quarterback Shane Buechele and the Longhorns’ cadre of speed and size at wideout could have a field day.
Texas’ win last season was predicated on physically manhandling OU’s offensive line - to the point that the Sooners made wholesale personnel changes a week later. QB Baker Mayfield found himself under fire from rushers the entire game, and offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley never really adjusted with quicker throws and screens to counter the Longhorns’ aggressiveness.
OU’s offensive line may not be great this year, but it is superior to the unit that OU fielded last season. That should boost the productivity of the running game and give Mayfield a little more time to distribute the ball to receivers.
If Texas does have a shot at winning this game, it’s because OU’s cornerback play has been so poor that it raises the possibility of a loss to any team that can exploit favorable one-on-one matchups by spreading the field on offense. The absence of nickel back Will Johnson in the secondary magnifies those concerns for OU, as it makes the defensive backs more prone to miscommunications and busted assignments.
When the final gun sounds at the Cotton Bowl on Saturday, chances are that OU will be ahead. Defensively, the Sooners are a little less bad than the ‘Horns. A wild, high-scoring affair means things could get weird, though.
Prediction: Oklahoma 45, Texas 40
— Written by Allen Kenney, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Kenney is founder and editor of BlatantHomerism.com and host of the Blatant Homerism Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @BlatantHomerism.