Surging offenses from Oklahoma and Texas set up most compelling Red River Showdown in years
Lincoln Riley and Tom Herman are the type of fresh offensive minds this rivalry deserves
You don't have to go back far to remember the highest-scoring game in the history of the Red River Showdown. Just a year ago, Texas held off a furious comeback from Oklahoma to win 48-45. While there are no guarantees this year's game in the Cotton Bowl at the Texas State Fair will surpass that, it has all the necessary ingredients. In fact, Saturday's edition of the rivalry is the closest competitor to 2008's all-timer between then-No. 1 Oklahoma and No. 5 Texas, a thrilling 45-35 win for the Longhorns.
High stakes? It's possible No. 6 Oklahoma and No. 11 Texas play again in the Big 12 Championship Game, so there's no divisional title on the line like there was in '08. However, both of these teams are in the College Football Playoff discussion. Check.
Potent offenses? The Sooners and Longhorns rank second and 11th nationally, respectively, in points per game and are the top-scoring offenses in the Big 12. Oklahoma specifically is averaging more points per game through five games than it did in the same span in 2008. Check.
Heisman Trophy contenders? It was Sam Bradford and Colt McCoy in 2008. This year, Oklahoma's Jalen Hurts has to at least be on every Heisman voter's short list as the third consecutive transfer quarterback to start in Norman. He's second nationally in total yards per game (404.4) and ranks in the top five nationally with 21 total touchdowns. His counterpart, Sam Ehlinger, has 20. Check.
Coach of the Year candidates? The '08 battle was at the height of the Bob Stoops-Mack Brown era. This time, Oklahoma's Lincoln Riley and Texas' Tom Herman were two of the most coveted coaching commodities prior to being hired. In two-and-a-half years, they have met, if not surpassed, expectations. You could easily argue no active coach has done more in less time than Riley with back-to-back playoff appearances and Heisman winners. Herman already has a New Year's Six Bowl win at Texas and two overall as a head coach dating back to his days at Houston. He's been slightly ahead of schedule in getting the Longhorns back on track by handling his business against other Big 12 teams that took advantage of the program's mediocrity for the better part of the last decade.
So, yes. Check. Those are the whys. Here are the hows.
For Oklahoma, it obviously starts with Hurts. Riley has molded the most quarterback-friendly offense in college football -- and maybe the most QB-friendly offense at any high level of football. Baker Mayfield was the gunslinger, Kyler Murray was the freak athlete and Hurts is the ball distributor. Each year, the Sooners have finished or are currently in the top three in scoring offense. Similarly, they've finished or are currently No. 1 in total offense.
From a production standpoint, though, Hurts is already outperforming his Heisman-winning predecessors.
|QB||Yards passing||Yards per attempt||Passing TDs||Passer rating||Yards rushing||Rushing TDs|
Jalen Hurts ('19)
Kyler Murray ('18)
Baker Mayfield ('17)
|Sam Bradford ('08)||1,665||11.4||18||209.1||-26||2|
Hurts, in particular, gives the Sooners another designed weapon in the ground attack. Oklahoma isn't running it more this year; if anything, it's running it fewer times per game (36.8) than it did with Mayfield in 2017 (39) and Murray in 2018 (37.6). However, it is on pace to best both of those offenses in yards per rush (7.84) -- all with a new-look offensive line, mind you. The key, according to Herman, is Hurts acting as RB1 along with the three-headed monster of Trey Sermon, Kennedy Brooks and Rhamondre Stevenson. Hurts leads the team with 499 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground through five games.
"Obviously, Kyler was -- and is -- such a dynamic runner. But Jalen is a great runner in his own right, just in a different way," Herman said. "They have a few more quarterback designed runs with Jalen because he's so big and strong. Just the fact that they're running the football and he's running it for 100 yards a game. Kyler and Baker could do it, but it was not what they hung their hat on. Jalen is just playing so well throwing and running."
As Texas Tech coach Matt Wells puts it, that gives Oklahoma an unblocked advantage, as if it needed one.
"It gives them a plus-one in the running attack out of multiple formations," said Wells, whose team lost 55-16 to Oklahoma in September. "He's a force when he's running. He's hard to bring down and he has a strong lower body. It makes them harder to defend."
Knowing that Hurts needs eyes on him constantly is what puts stress on the defense. If you commit someone to spying him, that's one less defender in coverage. If you don't, it can be a numbers advantage for the Sooners. And if you bite on the run, Oklahoma has the speed with its pass-catchers to make you pay. Charleston Rambo and CeeDee Lamb, Oklahoma's top two wideouts, are fourth and sixth nationally in yards per catch. They average 27.4 YPC and 24.4 YPC, respectively.
"They're so balanced because so many of their big games in throwing come off of play-action because you have to commit to yourself to stopping the run," Herman said. "We're still trying to figure out how to even stop it. But we know like any game you're going to have to limit the run game or you're not going to get on the field.
"They're avg. 9.9 yards per play -- that's effectively a first down per play."
In some regards, this Oklahoma offense closely mirrors what Texas does with running the ball. If there's a big, strong, physical runner out of the quarterback position, it's Ehlinger. At 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds, he's playing bully ball. And when he decides to take off and run, you're not bringing him down at first contact. He remains, easily, the Longhorns' best third-down and short-yardage option, leading the team in red zone rushing attempts and third-down attempts. In a 42-31 win at West Virginia, Ehlinger rushed nine times for 45 yards and two touchdowns. The scores? One in the red zone and one on third down.
"That's where they put you in a bind," said Mountaineers coach Neal Brown. "He's a physical runner."
But Ehlinger's greatest growth has been as a passer. Riley was quick to praise Ehlinger's natural growth in that area over the course of his career. "The experience he's had, he looks like he has a better overall command," Riley said. "He's getting all their skill guys involved."
To that point, Ehlinger is on pace for career bests in passing yards per game, yards per attempt, touchdowns and passer rating. He is, at the very least, about where McCoy was in 2008 at this point in the season.
|QB||Yards passing||Yards per attempt||Passing TDs||Passer rating||Yards rushing||Rushing TDs|
Sam Ehlinger ('19)
Colt McCoy ('08)
Without the security blanket that was Lil'Jordan Humphrey catching 50-50 balls downfield, Ehlinger has turned to Swiss army weapon Devin Duvernay. The senior has a team-best 45 grabs for 463 yards. However, sophomore Brennan Eagles and freshman Jake Smith tie Duvernay with four touchdowns. Eagles is fifth nationally -- between Rambo and Lamb -- in yards per catch.
"They're good enough at wideout where you can't single em up. They do a good job of moving Duvernay around, especially on third downs," Brown said.
Offensively, Oklahoma and Texas are very similar in both production and its means. The difference, it would seem, is on defense. Oklahoma has been much-improved on that side of the ball under first-year defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, ranking in the top half of the Big 12 in scoring defense, but the Longhorns pose the toughest challenge yet.
Texas, on the other hand, has already seen a prolific offense with No. 5 LSU. Texas allowed 471 yards passing and gave up a number of key third downs through the air in a 45-38 loss to the Tigers. The passing defense was thoroughly outmatched by LSU's wideouts -- and that was before the secondary started to lose multiple starters to injury. As a result, Texas is last in the Big 12 in yards per play allowed.
Perhaps that's where the surprising 10.5-point line in favor of Oklahoma comes from. The glaring mismatch on paper would be Hurts' downfield passing against Texas' defense. The success of the Sooners' ground game and the speed of wideouts makes for a tough defensive assignment for the Horns. Herman knows Oklahoma is going to take its shots. There's a good chance Texas won't be able to contain all of them. But it has to have enough success in the trenches to make those shots more predictable.
Still, recent history in this series says it's far less likely that one team will run away with this game. That's not even taking into account Herman's reputation as a strong underdog. As Zach Barnett of Football Scoop notes, Oklahoma-Texas has been as tight as any series under Riley and Herman.
So when the pageantry of the Cotton Bowl gives way to Oklahoma and Texas battling for Big 12 regular-season supremacy, expect to see a little bit of everything: great coaching, high-level quarterback play, tons of speed and more than a few momentum swings.
That's good, interesting football. And this rivalry deserves it.
CBS Sports HQ Daily Newsletter
Get the best highlights and stories - yeah, just the good stuff handpicked by our team to start your day.
Thanks for signing up!
Keep an eye on your inbox for the latest sports news.
There was an error processing your subscription.
Join our Pick'em Challenge and compete for $1,000 each week.
Bell dropped what would have been the game-tying touchdown in the fourth quarter
The team's head coach denies knowing of any suspension
The sophomore has missed the last three games with a fractured foot
UConn announced its impending departure from the conference in June
Frost added that the decision is not based on Washington's ongoing revenge porn case
Michigan also opened as a short home favorite over Notre Dame in the Big House
NCAA football scores for the nation's top 25 teams, plus live updates, rankings and highlights...
Penn State moved to 6-0 on Saturday by surviving a road trip to Kinnick Stadium in prime time
Live scores, highlights and updates from the Illinois vs. Eastern Michigan football game