The Cotton Bowl, the crimson-burnt orange split down the fifty yard line, the fried food of the State Fair, the golden hat—these are all classic symbols of the Red River Showdown. The annual gridiron face-off between the University of Texas Longhorns and the University of Oklahoma Sooners is one of the most exciting Saturdays of the year for fans of the programs. And in 2018, it’s happening twice (regrettably without fried smorgasbord the second go around). On Saturday, the Texas Longhorns will take on the Oklahoma Sooners in Arlington’s AT&T Stadium for the Big 12 championship—and for all the history in this storied rivalry, this could be the most important game yet.
The last time the Horns faced the Sooners in a rematch was in 1903, four years before Oklahoma was admitted to the Union. Back then—the second time the two teams played twice in a year—the stakes were similar. The game had been scheduled from the beginning of the year, but after an early season tie, the rematch ended up determining the conference champion. The excitement around the game, though, was tempered. The Daily Texan, UT’s student newspaper, previewed the showdown with only three sentences (the Longhorns were simply referred to as “Varsity”): “The territory boys are going to make a desperate effort to defeat the Varsity boys, because victory would give them the championship, while Texas is going to strain every nerve to exceed the score of Kansas against Oklahoma, which was 17 to 6.” Clearly, there was Big 12 scoring back then too. Texas was up to the task, taking home what the Daily Texan referred to as “the championship of the South” 11-5.
Over the years, there have been plenty of historical highlights in TX-OU games: a win in 1958 gave Darrell K. Royal an early signature win as head coach; Charlie Strong’s 2015 victory seemed like it would be the impetus for him to turn the Longhorns around (oops). And, of course, there’s the classic moments of gridiron glory. In 1977, the Longhorns’ first- and second-string quarterbacks were injured before the end of the first quarter. Third stringer Randy McEachern dutifully handed the ball off to Earl Campbell and the Longhorns won their first Red River Rivalry in six years. In 1905, the Sooners secured their first game ever against the Longhorns with a game-winning safety with a minute left. The final score of that one? 2-0. Sooner fans stormed the field.
But what makes this weekend’s matchup especially intriguing is the fact that everything is on the table. In early October there are no guarantees— there’s so much football left to play. There have been teams coming out of the game that have won titles (1963), and others who, after looking strong, faltered and fell short (Roy Williams and the 2001 Sooners). Teams have lost and still won the conference (most recently, 2015), but never in a century has it been so cut-and-dry: win, and you’re a champion.
For OU, a win would mean more than just a conference championship. It would put them squarely in the mix for a spot in the college football playoff, and with a strong performance, quarterback Kyler Murray could vault himself into serious Heisman contention. A win here gives them a shot at the National Championship—simple as that. The stakes have never been higher for the Sooners.
And that’s what makes this game so important for the Longhorns too. Much of Longhorns’ sense of pride is affirmed by a sense of superiority to the Sooners. (“Texas fight” chants inevitably end with one round of “OU sucks.”) Nothing is more satisfying to a Longhorn than the schadenfreude of watching a Sooner lose. To be the sole reason the Sooners spoil a chance for a National Championship? It’s irresistible.
In 1976, Longhorns coach Darrell K. Royal accused OU’s Barry Swtizer of spying on practices, and when Gerald Ford, still in the White House, performed the ceremonial coin flip, the coaches shook the president’s hand but refused to speak to one another. This year has the same contentiousness. After the team’s first meeting this year, Longhorns quarterback Sam Ehlinger and Sooners gunslinger Murray exchanged heated words after the game. This week, when asked if he respects Ehlinger’s game, Murray said, “I have no comment on that.”
Rivalries, at the end of the day, are about proving dominance for a year. You exchange words and, once a year, you play a game to back them up. A rematch gives Murray and the Sooners a chance to prove their early season loss was a fluke. The Longhorns have the chance to get double the pleasure. Michigan and Ohio State have never played each other twice in a season. Neither has Auburn or Alabama. In the entire history of college football, there aren’t many parallels to this Saturday’s game.
And it’s going to be big. More glitz and glamor than any Texas-OU game ever before. Jerryworld. Beer will be served in plastic rather than the waxed paper cups of the State Fair. Instead of being split down the 50-yard line, Longhorns and Sooners will be sprinkled throughout the stadium, sitting wherever they could score the best deal to watch history unfold on a giant screen that blocks their view of the field. Two star quarterbacks. Two young coaches trying to build a legacy. What more could you ask for?