DALLAS (AP)—Unlike the folks throwing softballs at weighted-down milk bottles or those shooting basketballs at narrow rims, Mack Brown and his No. 11 Longhorns are guaranteed to have something meaningful to take home from their trip to the State Fair of Texas this weekend.
Yet, even if the Longhorns lose Saturday at the Cotton Bowl, Brown and his staff will find out a lot more about their squad by seeing them play the best team in their conference, and one of the best in the country.
Brown will learn whether his 4-0 club is really as good as the scoreboard indicated after the last two games—lopsided road victories over UCLA and Iowa State—or whether they’re closer to the team that opened the season with a slow start against Rice and needed a late rally to beat BYU by a point at home.
“I want to see us respond,” Brown said.
Coming off a year that began with big hopes and wound up being his first losing season at Texas, Brown saw turnover at both coordinator positions, then changed quarterback early this season. That much change could leave a guy queasy, but it’s quite the opposite. The stomach-churning came during the collapse, leaving Brown pretty relaxed now that things are starting to fall in place.
His calm approach to this game is especially noteworthy considering its importance. Here’s how season-defining it can be: Back when the Big 12 was big enough to have divisions (1996-2010), Oklahoma or Texas won the South all but twice, including the last 11 years.
“There’s no doubt the pressure’s also on them more than us,” Brown said. “I mean, they’re supposed to win and we’re getting better. That’s fact, whether you like it or not.”
Given those options, Sooners coach Bob Stoops likes it.
“If there’s pressure on us, I welcome it,” Stoops said. “We look forward to playing it. You’re more than capable of analyzing their pressure. I’m sure after all they’ve been through there’s pressure on them, too. You can discard it all you want, but the pressure is there. Coming into this game, that’s what you want. We want to be in this position, going after it.”
Held at the Cotton Bowl—about 190 miles from each campus—the Texas-OU/OU-Texas game remains one of college football’s greatest pageants. Ask anyone who’s played or coached in the game and they talk about charging out of the tunnel and into a scene that Brown described as “a bowl game in midseason.”
The stadium is split 50-50, burnt orange on one side, crimson and cream on the other. There’s the carnival atmosphere for everyone to enjoy on the way in and out, mostly out this year as kickoff is at 11 a.m. And there are the smells. Depending on which way the wind is blowing, fans will inhale the aroma of corny dogs and delicacies such as fried praline sweet potato poppers, or the stench of a livestock arena that’s a short punt away.
“It sort of gets the hair up on the back of your neck,” Stoops said. “It’s exhilarating, I guess is the best way to say it. It’s exciting and something you want to feel.”
This spectacle is so unique and has meant so much to so many generations (it’s been this way since 1932) that officials from both schools resisted movements to drag the games back to their campuses or to Cowboys Stadium in Arlington. Each of those settings might be more profitable, but, in this case, tradition trumped dollars.
It could even be argued that this game helped keep the Big 12 together. The bond between these schools turned out to be stronger than that between Texas and its other big rival, Texas A&M, as the Aggies fled to the SEC, likely ending their historic series. Their departure set off a realignment frenzy nationwide and threatened to dissolve this conference. But after looking around, UT and OU decided to stay put, helping keep the league intact.
“It’s fair to say that we both complement each other really well,” Stoops said. “Maybe one and one doesn’t equal two with the two of us together. It may equal more like four.”
This is the kind of series commentators like to hype by saying “you can throw the records out when those teams meet.” Except, lately, the rankings have been a good indicator of which team is going to win.
The higher-ranked team is 9-2 since 2000, with the upper hand swinging back and forth. The Sooners won every meeting from ’00-04, and by a combined score of 189-54. Back then, the pressure was mounting on Brown, and Vince Young changed everything by beating Oklahoma on the way to a national championship in ’05, starting a run of four Texas victories in five years.
The Sooners won again last year, 28-20, with Landry Jones at quarterback. He got into the game as a freshman the previous year, when Sam Bradford got hurt. Now, he’s returning for his third appearance in this series carrying the title of leading passer in school history. He’s also fourth in the nation with 361.8 yards per game passing and fresh off throwing five touchdowns, albeit against Ball State.
Favorite target Ryan Broyles comes in 13 catches shy of the NCAA career record, but the Longhorns can’t blanket him because they still have to deal with Kenny Stills. In the fourth quarter against Florida State, he kept the winning drive alive with a third-and-long catch, then made a terrific catch for a touchdown.
Dominique Whaley has emerged at running back, chugging behind an offensive line that’s allowed only two sacks, while linebacker Travis Lewis leads an Oklahoma defense that’s racked up 11 sacks and seven interceptions.
The Longhorns are led by a quarterback tandem of sophomore Case McCoy and freshman David Ash, and a freshman running back, Malcolm Brown. Coach Brown famously held Cedric Benson out of the lineup when he was a freshman, letting him play only a single play against Oklahoma and even that only because someone had lost a shoe and needed a replacement.
Texas is amazingly balanced on offense—214.8 yards per game passing, 206 rushing—and the defense is keeping foes to 289 yards per game. Of course, they haven’t faced an offense like this.
Even if the Longhorns don’t match last year’s win total in this game, and maybe not next weekend, when they face Oklahoma State, they seem poised for a quick return. Already being ranked No. 11 indicates they already have bounced back, even if they’ve yet to face a stiff test.
“I’m liking this team,” Brown said. “They are giving us everything they’ve got and I do think they’ll keep improving.”