It’s going to be weird, isn’t it? Watching Texas helmets and Oklahoma helmets intermingling somewhere other than the Cotton Bowl? While AT&T Stadium in Arlington, home of Saturday’s Big 12 Championship, is only about 22 miles west, the last time the Sooners and Longhorns took each other on in a city other than Dallas was 95 years ago, in 1923. (Texas won, 26-14, in Austin.)
Try to take only a moment to get used to this, though, because we’ve got a pretty fascinating game to watch.
As things stand, Oklahoma theoretically only needs two favorites to win to reach the College Football Playoff for the third time in five years:
- No. 1 Alabama beats No. 4 Georgia
- No. 5 OU beats No. 14 Texas
Granted, things could get weird if No. 6 Ohio State destroys No. 21 Northwestern. Still, the to-do list is pretty simple as far as the Sooners are concerned.
Executing said to-do could be tricky, though, because football is a game of matchups, and Texas is built to give Oklahoma some specific troubles.
What happened the first time around?
It’s not hard to see why OU is favored. Vegas favors the Sooners by a healthy eight points or so, and S&P+ projects a 15.5-point Sooner win against a Texas it long ago grew to mistrust — S&P+ is not built to favor teams that play well against good opponents but constantly underachieve against lesser teams, and here’s your reminder that UT lost to Maryland and beat Tulsa, Kansas State, and Kansas by one-score margins.
OU has been the far more consistent and explosive team this year, and really, despite the result (a 48-45 Texas win), that was the case in the first Red River game, too.
Texas managed to squeeze out a victory despite the following in-game stats:
- Total yards: OU 532, UT 501
- Yards per play: OU 9.2, UT 6.7
- Success rate: OU 61 percent, UT 50 percent
- Points per scoring opportunity (first downs inside the opp’s 40): OU 6.4, UT 6.0
It’s almost impossible to overcome that statistical disadvantage; my S&P+ post-game win expectancy measure (which takes the key, predictive stats from a given game and says “With these stats, you could have expected to win this game X percent of the time”) had Texas at 9 percent. This combination of stats would have usually produced about a 13-point Sooner win. (That makes the 15-point OU projection this time around seem a little more understandable.)
How did the Longhorns close that gap, then?
Turnovers helped quite a bit. Not only did the Longhorns benefit from a plus-3 margin (plus-2 if you take out the desperate final play of the game), but the two primary turnovers both happened in OU territory.
- The Longhorns had to drive just 17 yards for a first-quarter field goal following a Brandon Jones interception.
- They had to drive just 23 yards for a third-quarter touchdown following a haphazard Kyler Murray fumble. (He just sort of laid the ball on the ground while dodging defenders in the backfield.)
It’s hard to average 9.2 yards per play and lose, but handing your opponent 10 points is a good place to start. And it resulted from a combination of both luck and self-control: OU was easily the more volatile team — the Sooners fumbled twice and had three passes defensed, while the Longhorns didn’t fumble and threw only one pass that could be broken up — even if Texas was still a little fortunate to recover both fumbles and pick off two passes to one breakup (the typical INT-to-PBU ratio is more like 1:4).
So yeah, the Horns maybe needed some good fortune the first time around. But they also showed advantages that they could exploit again.
For one thing, Texas is just bigger in key areas.
Receivers Collin Johnson (6’6, 220) and Lil’Jordan Humphrey (6’4, 225) combined for 15 catches, 214 yards, and two touchdown catches; Humphrey even completed two passes for good measure, one for a score.
The Horns were able to ride the running game with great effect, too. Freshman Keontay Ingram rushed 13 times for 86 yards (6.6 per carry), and quarterback Sam Ehlinger thrived in power situations and finished with touchdown runs of nine, five, and two yards.
Johnson and Humphrey dominated the Sooners in a way that makes you wonder why they don’t dominate everyone. They did finish the regular season with a combined 129 catches for 1,829 yards and 14 touchdowns, far from chump change, but Texas still ranks just 41st in Passing S&P+, and you wouldn’t have guessed that if you just watched Texas once.
Yeah, OU’s defense had something to do with that.
The Sooners rank just 89th in Passing S&P+, astoundingly bad for a legit CFP contender. They have no pass rush (101st in sack rate), which gives receivers time to get open, and despite decent ball-hawking ability — corners Parnell Motley and Tre Brown have combined for 23 passes defensed — OU ranks 127th in passing marginal efficiency and is allowing a 63 percent completion rate, 108th.
OU head coach Lincoln Riley fired coordinator Mike Stoops after the Texas game, replacing him with Ruffin McNeill, and while the Sooners saw a brief performance boost, regression quickly set in amid some injuries:
- OU defense, first two games with McNeill: 20.5 points per game, 50 percent completion rate allowed, 109.5 passer rating
- OU defense, last four games: 47.3 points per game, 67 percent completion rate, 165.8 passer rating
The run defense is a bit lacking as well, but the pass defense has just been staggeringly bad against the pass. OU has allowed at least 40 points in four straight games, and that puts stifling pressure on the Sooner offense to be great.
The Sooner offense is great, mind you, first in Off. S&P+ by a wide margin. But any mistake — a single turnover, a single dropped pass — is magnified when you’re not making stops.
And if your opponent is good at shrinking the game down and limiting your possessions, said mistake feels downright crippling.
Texas’ offense has its own set of issues. With a middle-of-the-road tempo, a skill for avoiding negative plays, and almost no big-play prowess, the Longhorns are built for ball control, for better or worse.
The Longhorns are 23rd in overall marginal efficiency but a ghastly 115th in marginal explosiveness. When they go deep, they’re mainly hoping to draw a pass interference penalty, as Johnson did on UT’s game-winning drive against OU. A gain of 10 or more yards on the ground almost feels like an accident.
(Ingram did have rushes of 14 and 31 yards against the Sooners. The 31-yarder was one of only five 25-yard gains all year for the freshman.)
Against OU, though, big plays are almost counterproductive. They only get you closer to giving the ball back to the Sooner offense. In Round 1, with Ehlinger smashing between the tackles for a few yards at a time (he had 18 non-sack carries for 84 yards and the three short scores) and Johnson and Humphrey around for third-down bailouts, Texas was able to snap the ball 75 times to OU’s 58, 48 to 24 in the second half.
OU’s offense was as absurd and explosive as ever. Again, the Sooners averaged 9.2 yards per play with a 61 percent success rate in a loss, and I just cannot emphasize how crazy that is.
Omitting end-of-half possessions, however, Texas’ ball control game allowed the Longhorns to shrink the game down to 12 possessions each. That made OU’s two turnovers and UT’s two easy scores even more valuable.
It will take a similar recipe for Texas to take its first conference title in nine years.
Even with the benefit of going against OU’s defense, the Longhorns can’t keep up with the Sooners from a big-play perspective.
But they can play keep-away, they can make OU uncomfortable, and they can poise themselves to pounce on Sooner offensive mistakes (if there are any). Sounds like a better plan than trying to win 70-66, anyway.