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7 times Oklahoma-Texas proved it’s one of the country’s wildest rivalries

I ranked 23 major rivalries by how unpredictable they’ve been over the last 30 years. The Red River game nearly topped them all.

NCAA Football: Oklahoma at Texas Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

No. 20 Oklahoma is a 10-point favorite in a game Charlie Strong really needs, with his career record at UT now 13-16. S&P+ favors the Sooners by about a touchdown in Dallas’ Cotton Bowl Stadium.

In normal circumstances, Charlie’s position would be unsustainable and he would be preparing his abdication speech. (Here’s one example of how to do that.)

However, this is a series in which the inferior team has won on a routine basis.

In fact, only Florida-Georgia — one of the only other major rivalry games played at a neutral site — has produced more anomalous results over the past three decades. Seven times over the last 30 years, a team that was at least three points per game worse on the year, according to Bill Connelly’s Estimated S&P+, won the Red River game. Five of the seven upsets were won by Texas.

This history should be encouraging to Strong headed into the biggest game of his tenure in Austin, especially since he’s already contributed to it.

(Numbers in parentheses are Estimated S&P+ ratings for each team as of the end of the season, indicating each team’s full-season quality. The higher, the better, and the difference between the two numbers indicates the score that would’ve been anticipated if they’d played after bowl season.)

Texas (2.9) 28
Oklahoma (6.8) 24

Gary Gibbs versus David McWilliams on Prime Sports, feel the excitement!

Neither of these teams were memorable. Oklahoma was on probation and would go 7-4. Texas went 5-6, missing a bowl for the second straight year. And yet they played a classic, which the Horns won on a late touchdown pass to Johnny Walker. Look at the numbers from this season, and it was eminently forgettable for both teams; look at a video clip of Texas fans storming the Cotton Bowl field, and you remember rivalry games are wonderful.

Texas (6.6) 10
Oklahoma (14.8) 7

Getty Images

After McWilliams’ one good season at Texas in 1990 (the one that ended with a 46-3 loss to Miami), the Horns returned to mediocrity, going 5-6. Oklahoma was sneaky good in 1991, winning nine games by double digits, losing only to defending national champion Colorado by 17 and two close games to its arch-rivals Nebraska and Texas.

The Horns won 10-7 on a 30-yard fumble return in the fourth quarter. The game was so forgettable that no evidence of it exists on YouTube. Some nuggets from the box score that reflect a bygone era when teams in the Heartland played defense:

  • Neither team managed 300 yards of offense.
  • The quarterbacks combined to complete 16 passes in 41 attempts for a healthy 4.4 yards per attempt.
  • The punt returners did not alleviate the boredom, as they combined for 35 yards returning 15 punts.
  • Oklahoma freshman kicker Scott Blanton missed all three of his attempts as part of a season in which he went 4 of 12. He would go 37 of 50 for the rest of his career.

Oklahoma (-4.9) 30
Texas (12.8) 27

Say hello to the fourth-biggest upset in a major rivalry game in the last three decades, according to Estimated S&P+ numbers. (No. 1 is coming up soon.)

Texas, coming off a season in which it won the final Southwest Conference, would win the first Big 12 title in an upset over Nebraska. Oklahoma would go 3-8, but one of the three wins was in overtime over the Horns in the first conference game between the two. In overtime, James Allen got both of OU’s first downs and the winning touchdown.

Oklahoma (12.8) 14
Texas (16.2) 3

The beginning of the “Mack can’t beat Oklahoma” story. Defending national champion Oklahoma, struggling to replace Josh Heupel, did not have a threatening offense, but one touchdown from Quentin Griffin was enough to beat a Texas that would go 11-2, with the losses coming in close fashion.

Future Heisman winner Jason White played as a backup to Nate Hybl and gave a brief glimpse of the talent he would show for the 2003 and 2004 Sooners, which would play in national title games.

Roy Williams sealed the win with a ludicrously athletic play, flying into Chris Simms to deflect a pass to Teddy Lehman. This is one of those games whose memory is inextricably tied to one play.

Texas (12.8) 28
Oklahoma (18.2) 10

And now for the reverse of the 2001 game.

In 2006, Texas was the defending national champion, but was struggling to replace Vince Young. Having lost by 17 at home to Ohio State in Week 2, the Horns would go 10-3. After losing to Oregon on one of the worst calls in recorded history (note that Oregon graduate Dan Fouts is exclaiming it’s a “horrible call”), Oklahoma would end up winning the Big 12 before losing to Boise State in that Fiesta Bowl.

As in 2001, a future star — Colt McCoy — would give a glimpse of his potential. And as in 2001, turnovers would play a key role. In a game played at a snail’s pace (113 plays total, or what we’d expect in a half in Texas Tech-West Virginia this year), Texas gained only 232 yards, but forced five turnovers. Like 2001, the final score was a defensive one, although this one a smidge more prosaic.

Texas (27.9) 45
Oklahoma (30.8) 35

The most famous Oklahoma-Texas game in recent memory? Top five? 2008 Oklahoma was an exceptional team, setting offensive records by the bushel. According to Estimated S&P+, this was the best team since 1945 Army, despite losing a game. Prior to the BCS Championship, Oklahoma never scored fewer than 35 points. The Sooners broke 50 four times in the first eight games and then scored 60-plus in each of the next five.

And yet, Texas shut this offense down for a half. Oklahoma scored a touchdown with 11:45 remaining in the third quarter to take a 28-20 lead. It would score only once more. Although future Heisman winner Sam Bradford slightly outplayed McCoy, Texas throttled the Sooners’ running game, holding DeMarco Murray to six yards on seven carries.

Texas’ win would become one of the major talking points in the debate as to which of the two teams would win the Big 12 South tiebreaker. The division was resolved in Oklahoma’s favor by the BCS, because head-to-head did not do the trick in a three-way tie between these two and Texas Tech.

Texas (-0.6) 24
Oklahoma (22.6) 17

Say hello to the biggest upset in a major rivalry game in the past three decades.

Texas was 1-4, having just lost 50-7 to TCU. Oklahoma was unbeaten, having just beaten a ranked West Virginia team by 20.

And in one of the truly WTF? games of the decade, Texas ran all over the Sooners en route to a seven-point win, rendering Chris Spielman apoplectic at times. (“Last time I checked, you’re allowed to tackle with the shoulder pads instead of two-hand touch. Awful!”) Texas handed Oklahoma its only pre-Playoff loss despite throwing for only 55 yards.

The concerning factor for Strong should be that even if history repeats itself and he adds another upset to the string of crazy results, it might not mean much.

Last year, Texas won and then got shut out by Iowa State two games later. John Blake won this game and went 3-8. McWilliams won the game twice en route to losing seasons.

The good news is that this rivalry is friendly to underdogs. The bad news is that upset wins often prove to be more of a chimera than evidence of actual improvement.