Coming this Saturday: The next edition of college football’s best rivalry

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Why is college football so special, so passion-driven, and held so dearly by millions of people around the country? Why is it unique to the United States? Why, in spite of any differences people may have individually, does it bring so many together year after year, season after season, week after week, game after game?

Your answer is in Dallas this Saturday.

Almost 100,000 people, half wearing burnt orange and the other half wearing crimson and cream, will trek to the Cotton Bowl to watch Oklahoma and Texas play for the 115th time.

“This week speaks for itself,” Texas head coach Tom Herman said Monday.

The annual match-up between Texas and Oklahoma truly is the pinnacle of the sport of college football. Even coaches who have competed in other intense, heated rivalries have noted the grandness of the Red River Shootout. Sure, there are other important and historic rivalry games like the Iron Bowl between Auburn and Alabama, or even USC and Notre Dame’s cross-country rivalry.

There are also other neutral site rivalry games like the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party between Georgia and Florida, but even that doesn’t compare.

There is nothing like Texas and Oklahoma. Two national powerhouses whose criteria for a successful season depend strongly on this game. 96,000 people packed into a stadium whose sole purpose seems to be this contest no matter what third-tier bowl game also calls it home.

In a stadium split about as close to 50/50 as you can get, the energy and noise created by those in the stands and on the sideline is unable to be replicated elsewhere in the regular season. 48,000 or so Longhorn fans ad lib their fight song to denigrate the opponent across from them. 48,000 or so Sooner fans do the same, inverting their rivals’ sacred symbol.

All because the two schools sit on opposite sides of a river and want a painted hat.

It’s the pinnacle of the sport for those reasons above, in addition to hundreds of others. Some favorites include the most creative use of batter and frying oil in North America, Big Tex, the Old Mill Inn, and the “centuries old” alligators that somehow remain alive in order to be showcased at the State Fair of Texas every year.

It also is the grandest example of football as a unifying force. The University of Texas brings together people from all over the world with all different beliefs. Often, those beliefs clash on either the West Mall or the South Mall. On the second Saturday of October, there is no division among those in burnt orange. Only burnt orange. I’m sure the same rings true for those in Norman.

Between the lines, the game often has national implications. I’m not going to pretend to know what those implications were when Texas was in the Southwest Conference and Oklahoma was in the Big 8. I know what the current implications are in the era of the Big 12.

Whoever wins this game takes control of the conference race.

The two schools have shared membership in the Big 12 since 1996. From that point until 2010, whoever won this game was likely to represent the Big 12 South in the conference championship. Whoever lost was likely left behind.

Now, whoever wins puts themselves in the best position to return to Arlington in December and play for the Big 12 Championship.

“I think there was some public opinion that having the championship game being in Dallas as well, and then when we are fortunate enough to be in that (Big 12 Championship) game against Oklahoma, that it would diminish the mystique, if you will, of the Red River Showdown and it hasn’t in my opinion at all,” Herman said.

Herman and OU’s Lincoln Riley have split their two matchups in the Cotton Bowl, both in exciting fashion. Oklahoma won in 2017 on the back of Baker Mayfield. Texas took back the hat in 2018 on the leg of Cameron Dicker.

Herman has been a part of several heated rivalries, from Michigan-Ohio State to the Battle of the Piney Woods between Sam Houston State and Stephen F. Austin State.

When asked on Monday, he made it clear; nothing compares.

“It’s been pretty cool to be a part of all of those, but this one takes the cake just because of it being interstate rivals,” Herman said. “The two states in general don’t get along very well, and to have it at such a historic venue during the Texas State Fair, I think it’s cool that it’s always on our soil. Everything that surrounds the game makes it one of the, if not the best, games in college football.”