I decided that I would smoke that stogey only in sweet celebration the next time Texas beats Oklahoma. It's been sealed in airtight container for the past 730 days. I didn't even bother to bring it to Dallas last season because, deep in my heart, I knew. Today, that cigar is riding shotgun as I head north on IH-35.
Just two years ago, many speculated that Oklahoma was fielding the finest collegiate team of all time. Now, the Sooners have fallen out of the Top 25 for the first time this millennium while Texas is taking its highest ranking into this game since 1984. The Horns are 11-0 since last year's OU game, the school's best stretch since 1983 and trailing only two-time national champ USC for college football's longest active winning streak. The Sooners are one loss away from dropping to 2-3 for the first time since 1997. The Horns have entered the OU game ranked second nationally five times in school history and have won all five of those contests. Texas is the only team in D-I football that ranks among the nation's Top 10 in both total offense (510.3 ypg, No. 8) and total defense (258 ypg, No. 10).
Then there is the intangible that cannot be quantified: Vince Young wants this game.
We all know that this cool customer has a vibrant flame that fuels his engine, but this week it's burning several degrees hotter. VY simply does not want to be the latest Longhorn to go 0-for-Oklahoma as did Cedric Benson, Roy Williams and Derrick Johnson. Thanks largely to Young's affectuous spirit, Texas now thrives in games like this rather than puckering up. VY hasn't come close to having a bad game since last year's win over Missouri, head coach Mack Brown noted.
"He's had some plays he'd like to have back but he's made many more good plays than he's made poor plays," Brown said. "He doesn't put himself in a position where he allows a bad play to lead to another bad play to lead to another bad play. That's a difficult thing for a young quarterback."
In RS-freshman Rhett Bomar, OU has a highly competitive QB but one whose emotions run about as wildly as some of his down field scrambles. The prediction here is he'll tuck-and-run just once in the Cotton Bowl, or until he meets Aaron Harris or Michael Griffin for the first time. You can see Sooner coaches scheming to keep Bomar playing within himself until he matures as a QB, or at least until he's old enough to shave.
Oklahoma's run defense is rated No. 3 nationally (65.2 ypg) but that also means the likes of TCU has been passing them silly. The Sooners are being torched through the air at a clip of 253 ypg (NCAA No. 8). Texas DC Gene Chizik expects Bomar to take at least five shots down field, and that's against the nation's No. 7 pass defense (150). If OC Greg Davis doesn't take at least five shots against this porous Sooner secondary, he should donate a week's pay to charity.
It was about this time last year that Jamaal Charles, then a Port Arthur prep star, told Inside Texas "I'm going to make Texas fans forget about Adrian Peterson." Peterson should play Saturday but if he lasts four quarters with that high ankle sprain (and behind that offensive line), he'll deserve a medal. Meanwhile, JC is off to the fastest start in school history and is on pace to match Peterson's breakout performance (1,925) during his freshman campaign.
"(Charles has) got the ability to go from here-to-there real fast," Brown said. "He can catch and he's doing a good job with protection. We really didn't have any of that in this game last year, along with Vince's improved confidence and maturity."
Charles is running behind the most seasoned O-line during Brown's Texas tenure. Meanwhile, the Sooners' offensive front is so thinned by injuries and defections that Stoops is all but requiring the newbies to wear name tags to the huddle. It's an exaggeration, of course, but Rod Wright and Frank Okam should be in the Sooner back field so often Saturday that their mail could be forwarded there.
Darrell Royal once said something to the effect about not letting a dog bite you while it's still a pup. Some members of the 2005 Oklahoma team are barely weaned but they'll be big dogs more Sooner than later. Or, as Brown predicted, "Oklahoma will be ranked by the end of the season."
For now, Saturday's game is starting to feel like that edifying rout of Houston in 1990, when the 'Shock the Nation' tour ended three years of bleeding. ("Would someone get that idiot off the goalpost?!") It could be like that and it should be like that. I don't know that Greg Davis will open up the playbook enough to allow Texas to roll to the rout that so many Orangebloods would relish.
But I do know that I intend to enjoy that cigar come sundown Saturday. Texas 34, OU 16.
Pearle -- As if the game wasn't big enough already, all of the talk I've heard this week about the Texas-OU game moving from the Cotton Bowl to a home-and-home deal has, for me at least, added even more intensity to Saturday's showdown.
Without getting into what a tragedy I think it will be for college football if the game moves, and from what I have heard, it is virtually a done deal, the fact that Saturday's game will most likely be one of the last played in the famous old stadium makes it even more imperative that the Horns finally win. Before the game moves from neutral Dallas and becomes just another conference game, while the national spotlight is still shining brightly on this rivalry, Texas must rely of its clear superiority in talent, experience and depth to end the 5-year skid that has done so much damage to the program's reputation, and do it while the game is still a "classic."
Can you imagine if the game moves from the Cotton Bowl after 2007 and OU has taken 8-straight from Texas? The mere thought makes me shudder. But in order to keep that from happening, Texas must win this Saturday and start to get on a roll of its own, Next year, OU figures to be much better than they are right now, and Texas may or may not have Vince Young.
But never mind the future -- this is the year the Longhorns can reach all of their goals if they can put the memories of Fair Park Failures Past behind them and execute, eliminate turnovers and stupid penalties, and play great football like they have since, well, about this time last season. Every indication is that they will.
In just about every category you can think of, Texas has the advantage in this game, but particularly where it counts most in football -- superiority in both lines and at quarterback. The one area that Oklahoma has the clear advantage, however, and which gives me the most pause, is in coaching.
Although Bob Stoops has gathered some tarnish since his team took a massive clobberin' at the hands of USC last January, and has started this season with losses to TCU and UCLA, he still knows how to prepare his teams to beat Texas. There are plenty of scribes around the country who are saying, "until Mack Brown's Horns actually go out and beat Stoops' Sooners, I ain't picking Texas." I understand, I basically feel that way myself.
In all the build-up this week, it has been easy to get on the Texas bandwagon since, as noted above, the Horns do have obvious edges in talent, depth and experience in this game. But the Stoops-owns-Brown factor puts a weird twist on things. Texas has had great talent in this game before under Brown, but Nathan Vasher, Marcus Tubbs, Cedric Benson, Roy Williams, Derrick Johnson, etc. all went 0-for-their-careers against OU. Stoops' aggressive attitude towards Texas, his scheming, his game-day decision-making, and his ability to get his team believing that they will beat Texas has been a powerful force in this contest for half a decade now. So I think Bob Stoops' coaching keeps Saturday's game closer than it might figure to be on paper.
But, as some have noticed nationally, Texas appears to be a different program than the one that has lost five straight to OU, they appear to have turned some corner. Since Brown and Greg Davis unleashed Vince Young after the Missouri win last season, Texas has gone undefeated, knocking off Texas Tech, A&M, Michigan and Ohio State in the process, to name a few victims. It is Texas and not Oklahoma, which has lost three of its last five including the blowout loss to USC, that now has the swagger.
The way I see it Saturday: Bob Stoops will find a way to keep the game close through about three quarters, but Texas' overwhelming offensive firepower will be too much for the young Sooner defense down the stretch. As the game wears on, Gene Chizik's Texas D will capitalize on the youth and inexperience of Rhett Bomar and the OU offensive line to create turnovers that lead to Texas points. Make it Texas 31, OU 13.
Ross -- Earlier this week, while I sat in on ESPN Radio in Austin for its afternoon show (dedicated, of course, almost exclusively to Texas-OU talk), we interviewed Daily Oklahoma columnist Berry Tramel. Asked for his game prediction, Tramel relayed that a couple of years ago, he had written that he would not pick Texas to win the Red River Shootout again until they had actually done it. Obviously, that would preclude him from picking the Horns to win it this year because they haven't "done it" since Tramel's statement. But Tramel said this year, being a man of his word means going against common sense. Tramel picked Oklahoma in Saturday's game, remaining a man of his word -- even though, in his words, his "heart isn't in it" -- which indeed is against common sense.
I feel for Tramel, though, because I've expressed similar sentiments over the past few years, although never as ironclad as Tramel's. I left myself some wiggle room, and I'm going to use it. Texas will win Saturday vs. the Sooners.
Forget the streak. Forget any supposed mental edge for the Sooners from the five previous games. Forget all this "We're back" talk from Norman following OU's win over a bad Kansas State team. Texas will win Saturday simply because it is the better football team. Period. And this year, by far the better football team. Sure, the better team doesn't always win, and the history of this series is sprinkled with examples of just that, but barring catastrophe (like, say, three turnovers for touchdowns) the better team will for the ninth straight year walk up the Cotton Bowl tunnel victorious. And that team will be wearing Burnt Orange.
I see this one much like the Ohio State game. Texas is the better team in the trenches, on both sides of the ball, and thus should control the game. Not dominate, control. Like up in Columbus, the only way the Sooners keep it close is through Longhorn turnovers and special teams breakdowns. I'd be lying if I said that I'm not worried about kickoff return disasters, although the coverage in Columbia last week looked far better than it had through the season's first three games. And, with Vince at QB, interceptions are always an issue, so I'd be lying if I said that doesn't concern me as well. But Gene Chizik's defense will not allow this Sooner team to control the game on the ground as Greg Robinson's bunch did last year, whether Adrian Peterson has been fitted with a bionic ankle or he's limited, as can reasonably be expected with a one-week old high ankle sprain. QB Rhett Bomar is a talented QB who can make plays with both his arm and his feet. But he's also a redshirt freshman who wasn't good enough to beat out Paul Thompson for the starting job a little over a month ago. And Thompson was so good at QB that he's now a wideout. Without pressure, Bomar might be a threat for a huge day, but the banged-up Sooner OL simply will not consistently give Bomar the time he needs (although I expect him to look for TE Joe Jon Finley a lot) to win the game with his arm.
Given Vince Young's propensity for INTs, the Sooners will almost certainly try to make the Texas QB win this one with his arm. But that's not necessarily a winning proposition, as the Buckeyes found out earlier this season. Add to that mix a Texas running game that, with slasher Jamaal Charles, is better suited to torch the aggressive Sooners than the slower-developing power running game of Cedric Benson, and the Horns appear to have an answer for whatever defensive strategy Stoops and Co. choose to employ.
Can the Sooners win? Sure, but if Texas plays its game (read: doesn't go into a shell on offense, making this a fourth quarter game, and doesn't turn it over liberally, for scores) and executes on both sides of the ball at a reasonable level, it'll take a Herculean effort from OU to overcome. But that goes against common sense. Texas 30, OU 16.