NCAA Football: Texas at Oklahoma
USATSI

In these uncertain Big 12 times, Gary Patterson summarized the current plight of his conference: The league's biggest game of the season suddenly isn't so big.

"It really bothers me," TCU's coach said. "We base everything whether our league is good or bad [on] whether Oklahoma or Texas is good."

That will always be the issue for the Big 12 and its two best programs. The Sooners and Longhorns take up most of the oxygen in the Power Five's smallest conference. But right now, as we head into the Red River Rivalry, neither Oklahoma nor Texas are very good.

The Sooners (1-2) and Longhorns (2-1) enter their Cotton Bowl showdown a combined 3-3. Following a loss at Iowa State, Oklahoma started 0-2 in Big 12 play for the first time since 1998. Texas just lost to TCU for the seventh time in their last nine meetings.

Orangebloods everywhere used to refer to the Fort Worth-based private school as "T-C-Who?" Patterson's program could only hope to lure the state's best recruiting prospects that Texas regularly landed. Meanwhile, Oklahoma just lost to Iowa State for the second time in four years.

"You just gotta hang in there and keep swinging -- in our league or the national scene," Sooners coach Lincoln Riley said.

The reality is the Big 12 is precariously close to dropping off the national radar in Week 6.

Oklahoma is unranked for the first time since 2014, ending a streak of 84 consecutive weeks in the AP Top 25. The last time OU went into the Texas game unranked was 2005. No. 21 Texas dropped eight spots in the latest rankings. That marks the lowest combined ranking going into one of the sport's most glorious rivalries since 1999.

It adds up to one of the least-hyped Red River Rivalry games in years.

Meanwhile, No. 10 Oklahoma State (3-0) has emerged as the Big 12's best team to this point. Kansas State (2-1) will be playing to remain in first place against TCU in what might qualify as the Big 12 game of the week.

The winner of Oklahoma-Texas usually has an advantage in the Big 12 race and beyond. Lately, that has been Oklahoma, which has won the last five conference titles. The Sooners have earned three consecutive berths in the College Football Playoff despite losing to Texas in what was supposed to be a breakthrough season for the Longhorns in 2018.

Texas, 10-6 since the end of that season, has not followed through. Instead, there is a loser-leaves-town feel aspect to this one.

"This is a different year," Patterson said.

Because of the league's typical defensive shortcomings, it's easy to jump on the Big 12. The league is still living down having been swept by the Sun Belt last month on opening day.

Texas is only above .500 because it rallied from 15 down in the final minutes to win at Texas tech in overtime. It's stunning to think the Sooners are still looking for their first FBS win.

"I think everybody overreacted Week 1," West Virginia coach Neal Brown said. "I think everybody is overreacting a little bit right now. I think, at the end of the year, nationally we'll be in a good spot."

Maybe. But it doesn't look good right now for the standard bearers. Riley's Sooners lost consecutive regular-season games for the first time since 1999. Something seems to be missing on both sides of the ball. Oklahoma gave up 24 consecutive points in the final 18 minutes of the Sept. 26 loss to Kansas State. Redshirt freshman Spencer Rattler leads the conference in both passing yards and interceptions.  

Texas coach Tom Herman's position is more precarious. He has yet to deliver a conference title, much less a College Football Playoff berth, as he works through his fourth season. Worse, he has left open the age-old question: Is Texas back?

"We've got a lot of issues," Herman said this week. "If we had punched the ball across and won the game against TCU, every single one of those issues would still exist. Our food might have tasted a little bit better. We might have gotten a little bit better sleep Saturday night. All of those same issues would still be present."

Herman was referencing the turning point against TCU. Running back Keontay Ingram fumbled at the goal line as he was going in for the go-ahead score with less than 3 minutes remaining.

How in the heck do these Big 12 underlings keep matching up with football royalty? They certainly don't in finances. Oklahoma on average produces $197,000 more in athletic revenue per day than Iowa State, according to USA Today's financial database.

Texas is No. 1 nationally in that category, producing $224 million in athletic department revenue annually. Being a private institution, TCU's revenue isn't publicly available, but suffice to say, it isn't close to $224 million.

That makes Patterson's 7-3 record against Texas even more amazing. That .700 winning percentage is the highest all-time of any coach against the 'Horns with a minimum of five games, according to the school.

"If we don't make the necessary improvement this week moving forward, the opponent doesn't really matter at that point," Herman said.

Red River is doubly important because the two programs mine the state of Texas for top talent. The game becomes both a showcase for that talent and a three-hour recruiting commercial for the next wave of players.

Texas senior quarterback Sam Ehlinger is one of those native sons. He grew up in Austin playing high school football 7 miles away from Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium. Ehlinger started the season as a Heisman Trophy candidate. He may still win the trophy to cap off a solid career, but he and the 'Horns were beaten Saturday by the pride of Council Bluffs, Iowa -- TCU sophomore quarterback Max Duggan. He scrambled for the eventual winning touchdown with 4 minutes left.

"That's an Aaron Rodgers play," Cyclones teammate Taye Barber said afterward.

Adding to the Red River depression, the 92,000-seat Cotton Bowl will be filled only to 25% capacity because of COVID-19. The Texas State Fair that surrounds the game has long been canceled. Usually, there would be 250,000-300,000 people in and around Fair Park between the two events.

On Saturday, the team busses will pull up to an empty landscape.

"It'll be different," Riley said. "It will still be awesome. It always is. Pulling in there without all the people and the atmosphere and all that being a little bit different, yeah, but it's still going to be a very high-quality football game.

"It's a different year, man."