AUSTIN — One of the most popular descriptors of the Big 12 Conference, for all the trouble it has had putting teams in the College Football Playoff, is that it is a quarterback league. Each team has a specific offensive identity, with the quarterback for each team being the engine that gets the offense going.
This week, Texas enters a matchup against Oklahoma in Dallas in which UT will (likely) march out a young, fiery quarterback in freshman Sam Ehlinger who plays with toughness and has playmaking ability, while also playing and acting in a way his head coach loves.
He will face an older, possibly even fierier quarterback in redshirt senior Baker Mayfield who plays with toughness and playmaking ability, while also leading his team and offense in a way his head coach loves.
Though Ehlinger set a record for passing yards by a true freshman in a double-overtime victory over Kansas State, head coach Tom Herman was not willing to name him as the starter going into the Red River Shootout.
“I don’t think we’re ready to make that decision until we see how healthy Shane (Buechele) is,” Herman said. “He was better yesterday, but still a little bit gimpy, so I think if Shane is not 100%, I think that statement is accurate. I think if Shane shows up to practice tomorrow and is running around and throwing balls and is balanced and on point, then we’ll evaluate it at that point.”
Even though the offense looked much better under Ehlinger than it did under Buechele, Herman still fielded questions about why he hadn’t made a decision yet. For some, the choice seems obvious; the freshman who can both pass and move around the pocket to save himself from the perils of a young offensive line working out a lot of problems.
For Herman, there’s strategy behind it.
“I mean, Sam made a lot of mistakes,” Herman said. “There is no doubt he also played really well and tough and physical. But I don’t know what good it does me to tell (Oklahoma defensive coordinator) Mike Stoops and (Oklahoma head coach) Lincoln Riley what I feel about my quarterback situation.”
While it may remain a “mystery” for Stoops and Riley, Texas defensive coordinator Todd Orlando knows who he will have to face.
Even though the Sooners are coming off of a loss, Mayfield is putting together another Heisman-caliber season. Through five games, Mayfield is 100-for-134 with 15 touchdowns and zero interceptions, averaging almost 330 yards per game through the air.
“The quarterback is a fun player to watch,” Herman said. “He’ll make you pull your hair out as an opposing coach. We know firsthand, having played him last year. If he’s not the front runner for the Heisman Trophy right now, I don’t know who is. He is electric and you have to contain him. I believe I read somewhere they’re leading the country in total offense right now at 550 yards a game, and a lot of that is because of him and his improvisation skills.”
His personality may put some opposing fans off, as Mayfield was quoted as saying that his likely opposing field general in Ehlinger never defeated Lake Travis, Mayfield’s alma Mater. Mayfield talks a big game but also plays a big one, especially when it comes to planting flags. However, he knows how important this game can be not only for Oklahoma’s season, but for his career.
“You talk about the OU-Texas game,” Mayfield said. “You can leave a legacy and really leave a mark in games like these. I think this one’s more important for us than the ones in the past in terms of where we are in the season right now and where we want to be towards the end.”
Leaving a legacy as part of a storied rivalry can be a huge part in how Mayfield, a veteran of the game, goes about playing the game. For a freshman, just making sure that the game doesn’t overwhelm on-field decision making is a huge factor.
For Herman, he has confidence in Ehlinger’s ability to win, just like Ehlinger likely has in himself.
“Non-factor,” Herman said when asked if the situation could be too big for Ehlinger. “He started in the Coliseum against the No. 4 team in the country. I just saw on Longhorn Network, what do they run, like Red River games all week? I walked by our new hallway downstairs, and we have a big TV that’s always on Longhorn Network. I think they flashed that James Brown got his first start in the Red River game. He turned out to be pretty good too.”