Football

The 2020 Red River Existential Crisis

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In the last decade the Red River Shootout has featured two teams either looking to establish itself as the top dog in the conference, or a Texas team trying to make up for early-season struggles and serve as spoiler to Oklahoma’s quest to remain in the national title conversation.

It is different this year. The first meeting between the two schools of this decade finds both teams at crossroads. Texas is 2-1 following yet another loss to TCU. The Longhorn defensive performances have been wildly inconsistent, and the offense loses its way for extended stretches.

“We’ve got a lot of issues,” Texas head coach Tom Herman said on the Big 12 Coaches Teleconference. “If we had punched that ball across and won the game against TCU, every single one of those issues would still exist. Our food might have tasted a little better. We might have gotten a little bit better sleep Saturday night, but all of those same issues would still be present.”

Oklahoma is 1-2 with its lone victory over Missouri State. The Sooner defense remains an issue, and the normally explosive Lincoln Riley offense is experiencing growing pains with freshman quarterback Spencer Rattler and his offensive line.

“I think there’s a lot of things we just have to improve on as a team,” Riley said on the teleconference. “Like I told our guys, for the issues that we’ve had, there’s no magic pill. There’s no magic drill. There’s no this or that. It’s just about work.”

The stakes are always high in this game, which Herman described as the “greatest rivalry in college football,” but rarely have both teams traveled to the Cotton Bowl in Dallas fearful of the existential dread on the other side of a loss.

A loss for Texas means no more playoff conversations and kneecaps the chances of UT’s first conference title since 2009. Similar things apply to OU, who is trying to win its sixth straight Big 12 championship.

There is more on the line than just a place in the standings, although that is all either head coach might acknowledge.

The result of this game is unlikely to be a low-scoring affair. Both teams have scored 30 points in each of their games and have been in tight matchups through two conference games following easy wins over non-conference opponents.

A Shootout loss by Oklahoma would leave Sooner fans wondering, if Alex Grinch is not the solution for the OU defense, does one exist for Riley’s program? The Longhorns losing in a high-scoring affair would leave Herman with just one win over Texas’ Red River rival and would add to the growing list of complaints facing the fourth-year head coach.

Winning games and playing for conference championships is the expectation of the head coach at Texas. Beating Oklahoma is another, no matter how strong the program in Norman is. A loss on Saturday would leave Herman without much evidence of progress toward meeting those expectations.

“We’re not going to panic after three games,” Herman said. “We’re not going to panic after a two-point conference lose. We know we’ve got a ton of improvement that we need to make.”

Conversely, a win would still have Texas in strong contention for the Big 12 and give Herman a .500 record in the Cotton Bowl. Winning against the Sooners entails a significant improvement in the areas of the game that have cost Texas over the last two games.

Put simply, this game means a lot, and a loss probably leaves both Texas and Oklahoma unable to achieve its stated goals in 2020.

The existence of that risk just two games into the nine-game 2020 conference schedule has plenty within the Texas fan base already dissatisfied. The defensive no-show versus Texas Tech followed by another loss to TCU at the hands of Gary Patterson has Longhorn fans wondering if Herman can achieve those program goals.

Herman, however, insulates himself from some of that feedback. He said the extent of his online research in recent days was checking Yahoo, where he saw updates on the health of the president and caught up on celebrity gossip as opposed to seeking out fan reaction.

“When you come to a place like Texas, there’s going to be very high expectations and a lot of people that think they know how to do your job, and play your position, all of that,” Herman said. “Our job is to put our nose to the grindstone and continue to improve.”

Without improvement, defeating the Sooners will be much more difficult.

Herman spoke at length about the quality of Sooners’ quarterback Spencer Rattler. There have been some freshman struggles for Rattler, who has thrown four interceptions this season including one that sealed OU’s fate against Iowa State. There is evident promise in his game. He currently averages 10.4 yards per passing attempt, has thrown 10 touchdowns, and should eclipse 1000 passing yards in Saturday’s match-up.

Under Riley, Oklahoma always brings a talented quarterback to Dallas. Rattler is different from those of years past in that he is not a transfer, and lacks the college football experience Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray, and Jalen Hurts all brought into their first Red River Shootouts. Still, he was the nation’s top quarterback in the Class of 2019, and Riley’s system is set up to accentuate his talents.

“For a guy that is just taking over the starting role, he’s got great command of his offense,” Herman said. “Can make plays with his feet. Phenomenal thrower of the football. Very quick release. Very accurate. Strong arm. Can throw from multiple different arm angles. The total package if you will.”

Rattler will face Sam Ehlinger, a senior with four different appearances versus Oklahoma but just one win. Barring something unexpected, this should be Ehlinger’s final time wearing burnt orange and playing Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl. Herman said Monday he would likely pause at some point on the field Saturday and reflect on his time spent with No. 11.

“The guy exemplifies everything you want as a member of this program,” Herman said. “To be able to jog out there one more time with him, it’s going to be pretty special. It’s something I’ll make sure that I soak in.”

It will be part of a day usually filled with moments worth soaking in. Even in 2020, that remains the same. Those reflective moments would turn sour with a defeat, no matter who ends up on the short end of the affair Saturday at 11 a.m.