During one of the Longhorns’ early offseason workouts, strength and conditioning coach Yancy McKnight paused to speak to the team. He pointed to the southeast portion of the stadium, where Texas displays its three Big 12 Championships.
“Take a look at where it’s at,” freshman Caden Sterns said Tuesday of the message from McKnight. “He said we need to put more up there.”
The Longhorns have an opportunity to achieve that simple yet substantial challenge from McKnight when they take on Oklahoma at AT&T Stadium on Saturday for the Big 12 Championship.
Texas claims 28 conference championships, with a majority of those coming during the days as member of the Southwest Conference. Since the Big 12’s inception in 1996, Texas has won only three conference titles despite a decade of success in the 2000s.
Though the program was a win away from a conference championship in 2013, Texas has not been to a Big 12 Championship game since the Longhorns defeated Nebraska on a game-winning field goal in 2009.
None of the players currently on the team were at Floyd Casey Stadium in 2013 when Texas was billed as being one half away against Baylor from becoming conference champions. The seniors, members of the classes of 2014 and 2015, have been through some of the more turbulent times in the entire history of the Texas program.
A win Saturday would not only place more numbers on the stadium wall, but it would be a reward to the players who stuck through multiple seasons capped at six wins.
“We’re doing everything we can to send them off on a great ending note,” sophomore Sam Ehlinger said. “They’ve been through a ton, and the younger guys owe nothing more than to give their all and play their hearts out for those guys.”
Playing for a conference championship is a big deal for any program, but the Big 12 is one of the few conferences where a team can play its most-hated rival it might have already defeated for the conference crown.
Texas is in that scenario this weekend. The Longhorns defeated Oklahoma this season by a three-point margin in the Cotton Bowl in October. Though Texas won the Red River Showdown, this weekend’s matchup has more at stake than the traditional mid-season showdown.
Things have changed since that game. In the 24 hours following the defeat, Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley decided to fire defensive coordinator Mike Stoops, brother of former coach Bob Stoops. In his place, Riley called on Ruffin McNeill to lead the defense.
Texas hasn’t faced the same opponent twice in one season since 2005 when it defeated Colorado in Austin and in the conference championship game in Houston. For Texas head coach Tom Herman, playing a team twice presents a challenge most teams don’t have to face.
“Obviously if you hurt them with such and such formation or play, or blitz on defense, to expect that you’re going to do that again is probably wishful thinking,” Herman said Monday. “You would think that they would have that adjusted by the time we play them.”
Texas should be with linebacker Gary Johnson and safety Brandon Jones this weekend. Johnson was suspended for the Kansas game for a violation of team rules, while Jones was knocked out of the game on a punt return with a head injury.
Those two are leaders on the defensive side of the ball the Longhorns know they will need big performances from in order to win. That said, the Longhorns know that beating Oklahoma twice, especially with Kyler Murray at quarterback, is not an easy task.
In order to win Saturday, they know they need to execute. “Playing fundamental defense and not beating ourselves,” Sterns said on how to stop the Sooners.
Herman was effusive in his praise of the Sooner offense. He marveled at Oklahoma’s ability to average near a first down per play.
This is a game that took a lot of overachieving according to Herman to even get to. In year two of his program, Herman continually noted how important it was to have continuity in the coaching staff and that the players are reaping the benefits of that continuity.
All that has helped them get to the point where they are now, on the cusp of the Big 12 Championship. Before they get there, however, there’s still some work to be done.
“We’re not good enough right now to blow anybody out,” Herman said. “But we’re just good enough to beat anybody. That’s a testament to the development of these players, and I couldn’t be prouder of them.”