In essence, October launches an eight-week BCS playoff for both the Horns and Sooners. A Texas win puts it back in the mix for another national championship. It's an elimination game, if you lose.
A Texas win would tell us something about the program in the Year One of the post-Vince Young era. It would tell us that last season's 45-13 thumping was not an aberration, and that this team can win a big game without Superman riding shotgun. It tells us that the defense, now that it's relatively healthy, is as good as billed.
A Texas loss obviously ends all hope of a national championship and places the destiny of the Big 12 race in Oklahoma's hands. A Texas loss leaves us scratching our heads about the team's identity, quality, leadership, as well as the collective competence of the staff.
Specifically, can Co-Defensive Gene Chizik scheme to stop a healthy Adrian Peterson? Has Co-Defensive Coordinator/DB coach Duane Akina remedied the lapses we have seen in the secondary? Will Offensive Coordinator Greg Davis' approach depart much from what has been (by his own admission) a "conservative" game plan in this series? Can Colt McCoy count himself among the recent cast of Longhorn QBs (Major Applewhite, James Brown, Peter Gardere) who orchestrated a 'W' as a starting freshman? Is there anyone wearing Burnt Orange this season who can literally will his team to win by both his presence and productivity?
Yes, Virginia, there is a storyline other than whether this game means as much as it did a few years ago when both programs entered as Top Five teams. At the very least, there is no shortage of electricity among supporters on both sides of the Red River. More so than Texas' in-state rivalry with A&M, and more so than OU's rivalry with Oklahoma State or even it's on-again, off-again rivalry with Nebraska, the Red River Rivalry is predicated on anger.
And that's because these two schools annually affect each other's destiny more so than any other teams they face. That's because this border war is not waged just once a year, but every week in the living rooms of Four- and Five-Star recruits. That's because the way fans ultimately feel about the season, and even the way they feel about themselves, depends on what happens Saturday afternoon in the Cotton Bowl. That's because the game is waged in a split-down-the-middle neutral site, and half the stadium is in full-throated delirium following any given play. That's because these two programs are among the Top Four nationally in all-time victories (second only to Michigan and Notre Dame) and are not used to losing, yet the series has been a dead-heat these past three decades at 14-14-2. That's because the series is a vicious cycle in which each program takes turns whuppin' up on the other for successive seasons until the tide is temporarily turned.
"I think Coach (Darrell) Royal said it best," Texas coach Mack Brown observed. "Coach Royal said the team that wins this game is usually the one that's mad enough and talented enough to do something about it."
Sure, there are ample amounts of (occasionally) genuine coach-speak, heaping praises on the opponent. Many, many of the players on both sides of the field have been friends since high school and will remain friends long after they hang up their cleats. Even so, if you could somehow bottle the hate that spews from the bleachers, you could sell it to terrorists.
Case-in-point: I asked SLB Robert Killebrew about his most vivid memory of the bus ride through the fair grounds before kickoff.
"It never fails," Killebrew said. "Every year when we drive in, we see this old lady shooting the finger. She's always there. She's always helping her grandson to give us the finger as well."
The second century of hate begins 2:30 p.m. (CDT) Saturday.
It takes a village to tackle Adrian Peterson.
At least, that's the consensus of Longhorn players and coaches this week. To a man, Texas defenders have spoke of the need for a disciplined, aggressive, gang-tackling approach to corralling the one Sooner who is a go-the-distance threat with every touch, and who can break the game open if its close in the fourth quarter.
"He's one of the best running backs to ever play the game," Brown said. "He's a guy that starts really good and gets better as the game goes on."
The last time they faced a healthy AP, he ran for 225 yards as a true freshman in 2004. Obviously, this is a different Texas defense. It will be fortified by the return of DE Brian Robison, not to mention WLB Drew Kelson and SLB Sergio Kindle getting the reps that fans expected before both were sidelined by ankle injuries. There is no need, here, to list all of Peterson's superlatives ("You know all the adjectives," OU coach Bob Stoops told reporters last month, "and he's all of those").
Peterson accounts for 89 percent of his team's rushing attack (160.8 ypg), but Chizik sees evidence that the Sooners are trying to get him the ball by any means necessary.
"They're doing a good job of getting him the ball in the air and on the ground," he said. "Against UAB, he broke the game open with a little flair pass that went down the sideline for a touchdown."
This year, Oklahoma has shown multiple sets early in ballgames, including five-wides with Peterson as a receiver. Ultimately, the Sooners dance with the one that brung 'em by relying primarily on its power running game.
"Any time you face a running game like the kind they've got, you've got to make sure you have eight in the box which creates more of an umbrella coverage," Akina said.
The game plan is always to try to stop the running game and then head 'em off at the pass. And that brings us to Sooner QB Paul Thompson, pressed into action the just before August Camps when incumbent Rhett Bomar was dismissed for NCAA rules violations.
Brown recruited the Leander, Texas product, but as a WR.
"We only took one quarterback that year (2001), and it was Vince," Brown said. "Paul was really good and we liked him. He was one of the most wonderful young men we've recruited since we've been here. But we told Vince he would be the only quarterback."
Just like Stoops told Thompson that Bomar would be the QB following the Sooners' season-opening loss to TCU in 2004. Thompson had 106 yards on 11 receptions as a WR last season, but unselfishly moved back to QB two months ago (even though most pigskin pundits are convinced his NFL career is at WR). Some speculated that Thompson might emerge as a dual-threat QB, but most of his damage has been done through the air. Thompson is an efficient 61-of-98 passing (62.2 percent) for 232.5 yards per game. He has thrown eight TDs against three INTs.
If recent trends hold, the Sooners will go deep four or five times Saturday.
"They'll take more if your defense gives them the avenue to do that," Chizik added.
Sophomore (6-4, 217) WR Malcolm Kelly is emerging as one of college football's top receivers with a team-leading 17 catches for 379 yards and four TDs this season. The Longview,Tex. product set a Sooner quarter-record with 134 yards (three catches) in the opening frame against Middle Tennessee on September 23.
"He is their Limas Sweed," Brown said. "He's a mismatch with height and speed on smaller cornerbacks. They do a good job of matching him up."
Much has been made of OU's offensive line, a group that returns only LT Chris Messner from last year suspect bunch and was further thinned when RG J.Q. Quinn as booted along with Bomar. Messner played C against Middle Tennessee when Jon Cooper missed the game due to injury. The offensive front includes four sophomore starters, none of whom redshirted. Stoops has played nine O-linemen this season, and all but one have at least two years of eligibility remaining. The O-line has given up just five sacks in five games, in part, because the unit is running the ball effectively with Peterson.
Just three years ago, the Sooner defense (personified by DT Tommie Harris) was Sports Illustrated cover boys because it was 'so good it's scary.' But there is some question if this year's Sooner D is considerably less frightful than in seasons past. Where are the Roy Williams' and Derrick Straits? Where are the Selmon brothers? Where is Brian Bosworth? And Teddy Lehman and Rocky Calmus?
Currently, it's a Sooner defense that's ranked No. 56 nationally (321 ypg) and No. 66 (129.75 ypg) against the run. The group bases out of the 4-3 and blitzes approximately 32 percent of the time.
This we know: WLB Rufus Alexander is the real deal. The preseason Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year tops OU with 29 tackles and has forced fumbles in each of the past two ballgames. Alexander also leads the time with 5.5 TFL. He is the anchor of a unit that many (if not most) of the preseason pigskin publications picked OU's defensive line as tops in the Big 12. The front seven is "the most athletic" Texas will face all year, according to OL coach Mac McWhorter,
DE C.J. Ah You was the consensus Big 12 Newcomer of the Year in 2005 and the Defensive MVP of the Holiday Bowl. DE Larry Birdine missed 11 games in 2005 (torn left bicep muscle) but played in Holiday Bowl. he has 3.5 TFL and produced the first sack Oregon allowed this season.
But that leaves a Sooner secondary that is giving up 191.25 (No. 60) yards through the air. "They have given up a couple of long plays," was Greg Davis' diplomatic assessment, "but it was not schematic breakdowns. When you see a number that says a team rushed for a certain amount of yards, you can't wait to turn the tape on. But then you see they got half of those yards on one play and, the rest of the game, they got 75 more (yards)."
DB Lendy Holmes switched from WR to CB during the spring and logged his first start at Oregon. After the Ducks riddled Oklahoma DBs to the tune of 343 yards, moved sophomore Reggie Smith from CB back to SS, where he started 10 games as a true freshman last year. Smith reportedly missed practice on Monday and Tuesday this week with a turn burn injury to his left shin. (The multi-faceted Smith is averaging 27.5 yards on kickoffs and 15.9 yards on punt returns).
"They have an excellent dime package where they get a bunch of DBs on the field and create different looks for you," Davis added. "That usually comes up on third-and-long, and you're going to have seven or eight of those a game."
Nic Harris checks-in when the Sooners are in nickle or dime. The sophomore leads the team with three INTs.