Expect both the Texas Longhorns and the Oklahoma Sooners to enter the 2016 Red River Shootout in Dallas, Texas, plenty fired up, given what they've been through so far this season, and what's at stake for the remainder of the season.
Oklahoma will undoubtedly come to AT&T stadium with revenge on their mind, after the colossal upset they were on the wrong end of last year. Ranked #10 in the country, the Sooners came to Dallas as the heavy favorites. The Longhorns had a 1-4 record, which included a couple of losses stemming from self-inflicted wounds, mixed in with a couple of blowout losses. The chatter about Texas head coach Charlie Strong's job security was growing louder and more prevalent. Meanwhile, Oklahoma was flying high behind their high-octane Air Raid offense, led by quarterback Baker Mayfield.
But as the saying goes: when two rivals play each other, throw out their records entering the game, because anything can happen. The Longhorns' running game gashed the Sooner defense with 313 rushing yards, while holding Oklahoma's offense to less than 300 combined yards, en route to the 24-17 upset that ended up redefining Strong's tenure in Austin.
One of the biggest takeaways from last year's victory against Oklahoma was the installation of "The 18 Wheeler package," where Texas' senior quarterback Tyrone Swoopes checks in for red zone/goal line plays. The team has borrowed a page from then-University of Florida head coach Urban Meyer's playbook, when he used to unveil similar looks with former Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow. Swoopes enters the game -- he wears #18, which is why the "18 wheeler" package is named as such -- and presents defenses with the challenge of determining whether he's going to throw the football to a receiver, or use his massive six-foot-four and 249lb frame to "truck" in the football himself. Swoopes scored a touchdown in the first quarter of last year's shootout in such fashion, and then scored three more against Notre Dame in the 2016 season opener. Strong informed Swoopes before the Notre Dame game that freshman quarterback Shane Buechele would start the season as the Longhorns starting quarterback, but Swoopes would still very much be a part of the game, especially when it's time to make the call for the 18 "Wheeler."
After starting off the 2016 season going 2-0 and climbing as high as #11 in the national rankings, Texas' loss to the unranked University of California Golden Bears dropped them 10 spots, down to #21 in the country. With either Buechele and Swoopes under center, it's not the Longhorns offense that's the problem. The team has scored 134 points in three games -- they're ranked 11th in the nation in points per game -- and ranks 26th in the nation in total offense (including 20th in rushing yards per game). It's more so about the other side of the football. It looks to be tough going for Texas to contain Oklahoma's offense the same way they did last year. The Longhorns passing defense is ranked 79th in the nation, allowing over 235 yards per game. However, their nine passing touchdowns allowed -- including the five thrown by Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer in Week 1, and the four thrown by California quarterback Davis Webb in last week's loss -- puts them tied at 117th in the nation.
Oklahoma entered the season as the favorite to win the Big 12 conference title, but after a 1-2 start to the season, their status as the favorite has certainly taken a hit. In fairness to the Sooners, they might've had the most difficult slate of opponents in September of any team in the nation. They lost to the red-hot University of Houston Cougars -- who are currently ranked 15th in the nation -- in week one, and were defeated by the #3 Ohio State Buckeyes last weekend. So, before we make too much out of a Bob Stoops defense being ranked 113th in the nation so far, the path that the Sooners have had to take so far should be noted.
Still, the Big 12 apparently might not have any truly "great" team this season, considering only three teams -- Baylor, Texas, and Oklahoma -- are ranked right now, and none of them are in the top 15 in the nation. But, in an interesting way, that actually makes the race that much more exciting. Those three teams, and along with TCU or perhaps Oklahoma State, could very much be in the race for the conference title. There's even the possibility that a darkhorse team -- perhaps West Virginia or Texas Tech -- even emerges and makes things interesting.
It all comes down to what happens when the teams start playing each other. Texas and Oklahoma open Big 12 conference play in this weekend in September, with the Longhorns traveling up to Stillwater to take on the Oklahoma State Cowboys, and the Sooners travelling to Dallas Metroplex -- their first of two trips in back-to-back weekends -- to take on the TCU Horned Frogs. If either the Longhorns or the Sooners lose one of those games and enter the shootout with an 0-1 record in the conference, the Red River Shootout will become a must-win game for either team (or both of them, if they both lose this weekend).
One interesting note about the game is that it will no longer be featured on the ABC/ESPN national broadcast. It'll still be broadcast in front of the entire country, instead on Fox Sports One. ABC and ESPN chose to air the Notre Dame-Texas game on a national level, instead of the Red River shootout. So, while this game won't get the national spotlight we're accustomed to seeing, the Longhorns did get to start off the college football season in primetime, when they defeated the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in thrilling fashion.
The kickoff time for the Red River shootout is still to be determined. In true rivalry fashion, the series is split five wins apiece over the last 10 times these two teams have played each other.
One thing to note, for those in attendance, will be a new "face" on the Texas sideline at AT&T Stadium this year. Longhorn fans nationwide who throw up the school's hand symbol and saying: "Hook 'em Horns" will be doing so in homage to Bevo XV, my Spirit Animal, who is the university's mascot. Bevo XV was introduced to Texas football fans on September 4, 2016, after Bevo XIV died of cancer on October 16, 2015. The newest Bevo will undoubtedly represent the same spirit animal for the burnt orange faithful as his predecessors did.