Early October usually means one thing to fans of the Texas Longhorns (5-0, 1-0 Big 12) and Oklahoma Sooners (5-0, 1-0): the Red River Rivalry in the Cotton Bowl. The stadium is split in half - at the 50-yard line - and the two bitter rivals rush onto the field out of the same tunnel. It's makes for interesting theater, with Bevo and the Sooner Schooner sprinting out...and that's before kickoff. In recent years, the winner of this game has protected the football and received the additional reward of pole position in the Big 12 South race.
The top-ranked Sooners have looked spectacular on both sides of the football in their first five games, led by sophomore QB Sam Bradford and a capable cast of skill players (wide receivers Manuel Johnson and Juaquin Iglesias, and back DeMarco Murray are three of the dangerous weapons) on offense. But their success wouldn't be as impressive without what many consider to be the best offensive line in college football. Four seniors and a junior lead the way for Bob Stoops' team, with left-side tandem Phil Loadholt (tackle) and Duke Robinson (guard) both being mentioned as the best lineman in America. But back to Bradford, who may be even better in 2008 than he was as a record-setting redshirt freshman last season.
In his weekly press conference, Coach Stoops touched on the reason why Bradford has gotten off to such a hot start (16 TDs, 3 INT; leads conference in pass efficiency), noting that Bradford is making quicker decisions due to the "experience and confidence he has in what he sees". Bradford already owns one win in the series, leading the Sooners to a 28-21 win last year. Can he get a second straight win over the hated Longhorns? Not if an improving Texas defense has anything to say about it.
Under first-year defensive coordinator Will Muschamp, the Longhorns are second in the Big 12 in total defense, giving up just 295.8 yards per game. The biggest improvement has taken place against the pass, an area in which Texas was one of the nation's worst the past couple of seasons. "They're playing very aggressive, [and] very physical and disciplined in their assignments," said Coach Stoops of the Texas defense. Defensive linemen Brian Orakpo and Roy Miller have been two of the main reasons for the improvement, leading a Texas front seven that has racked up a league-high nineteen sacks thus far.
As for the offense, it's been the Colt McCoy Show, with the junior quarterback ranking third in pass efficiency, fifth in total offense and tenth in rushing yards. Just like Bradford, he's got a wealth of weapons surrounding him as well, most notably wide receivers Quan Cosby and Jordan Shipley, and running backs Chris Ogbonnaya and Vondrell McGee. The key for head coach Mack Brown's offense will be taking care of the football (they rank seventh in the Big 12 in turnover margin) and getting consistent production from rushers other than McCoy. Oklahoma is loaded on all three levels of the defense and may regain the services of tackle DeMarcus Granger (knee) for Saturday's game.
Key Matchup: Oklahoma offensive line vs. Texas defensive line
When Texas struggled against the pass the previous two seasons, one of the reasons as to why was the lack of a consistent pass rush. Now they seem to have it thanks to the scheme employed by defensive coordinator Will Muschamp. But can they cause some chaos when the nation's best offensive line stands in their way? The answer to that question may decide this game.
Who wins the game?
Texas may lead the overall series 57-40-5, but recent history has been on the side of the Sooners. Of the last nine meetings (since Bob Stoops took over in Norman), Oklahoma has gone 6-3 against Mack Brown's Longhorns. Saturday's meeting is also the tenth time in series history that both teams have been ranked in the Top 5 heading into the game, with Oklahoma winning five of the previous nine battles. And in a last bit of important history regarding the Red River Rivalry, Oklahoma is 7-1 when playing as the nation's top-ranked team (the only loss came in 1963 when Texas was ranked #2).
But while this is a huge game in regards to both the Big 12 and BCS title hunt, it's must be remembered that it's only October 11th. While winning this game gives the winner a leg up in the Big 12 South race, it doesn't always guarantee a spot in the Big 12 Championship Game. "One of the difficult things for us is to play an important high-profile game like this at midseason and make sure [that] next Sunday you go back to work," said Coach Brown in his weekly press conference.
And he's right, which is why an Oklahoma win doesn't mean the end of the road for Texas given the strength of the Big 12. But with their next three games (Missouri, Oklahoma State and at Texas Tech), it would be in the Longhorns' best interest to win this one. But look for the Sooners to win this one by a touchdown.