Oklahoma football: 2020 Red River game different, but no less important

It has been 15 years since an Oklahoma football team came into its annual rivalry game with Texas unranked in either major poll.

It is also the first time, maybe in forever, that as few as 12,000 Sooner fans were in attendance at the game.

The threat of COVID-19 exposure has dramatically changed the traditional festive atmosphere and emotional fan involvement that has been a part of this game for the over 90 years the game has been in Dallas, approximately halfway between the two campuses.

For the first time since World War II, the State Fair of Texas will not be going on as part of OU-Texas game day. Fair Park will be empty, absent the nearly 250,000 fair patrons that were in attendance on game day a year ago at this time. Moreover, the historic Cotton Bowl, which has been the venue for this game since 1932, will be three-quarters empty.

A few years back, amid the deafening cacophony of 95,000 screaming, fiercely loyal fans packed into the sun-drenched Cotton Bowl, I was informed by a fan wearing Sooner crimson and sitting in the row in front of me at the game that there was no reason to get overly excited or bent out of shape over any one play or officiating call.

“It’s just a game,” he said. “We’re (Oklahoma) gonna make plays and they’re gonna make plays, and it’ll all get sorted out in the end. Nothing to get worked up over on every single play.”

While  I understood what he was trying to say, it struck me that the annual battle royal between Oklahoma and Texas in football every October is not just any game. In theory or on paper perhaps, but in reality, the much-anticipated border war between these two longtime national powers in college football is as physically and emotionally charged as it gets. This game means a great deal — and not just to the players and coaches but to the fans of both programs, as well.

Pick any Oklahoma football season you want, OU-Texas isn’t just any game

Unlike most seasons, particularly over the past 20 years, only one of the two teams is ranked entering Saturday’s game.

Also, unlike few years in the recent past, both Oklahoma and Texas are coming off losses last weekend. That has happened only three times in the past two decades. The last time both teams lost the week before this game was in 2014. Texas finished with a losing record that season, and Bob Stoops’ Oklahoma team tied for fourth in the Big 12 standings with a 5-4 record and 8-5 overall.

Texas is ranked No. 22 in both major national polls this week. Oklahoma dropped out of the rankings after last week’s loss at Iowa State. It is the first time the Sooners have not been ranked since September 2016, when they coincidentally lost two of their first three games to start the season.

The higher-ranked team has won 18 of the last 28 meetings between these two longtime rivals. Since 2000, Oklahoma has been the higher ranked team 18 times and is 13-4 in those games. The Sooners have been the lower-ranked team or not ranked in three of the previous 20 regular-season Red River Showdown contests. OU is 0-3 as the lower-ranked team.

The 2020 regular-season matchup between OU and Texas is different on multiple levels, but the one thing that is the same, and has been for four years now, is Sam Ehlinger. The Longhorn senior captain will be at quarterback for Texas for a fourth consecutive year. By comparison, Lincoln Riley has served up four different starting quarterbacks in this game for the Sooners over that same time frame.

Oklahoma is 2-1 in the three previous regular-season games against Texas, with Baker Mayfield and Jalen Hurts leading the Sooners to wins. Kyler Murray was on the losing end of a 48-45 score in 2018, a game that was decided on a Longhorn field goal in the closing seconds. Murray, however, acquitted himself, leading OU to a win in a rematch with the Longhorns in the Big 12 Championship game that season.

So, who’s going to win this game. Check this space on Friday, and I’ll share with you what I think. The one thing I can tell you now is this is a century-old rivalry game between two schools and fan bases that unilaterally hate each other. Records and past performances mean very little in this heated rivalry. Anything can, and often does, happen.

Here are a few nuggets for Sooner fans to rally around over the next couple of days leading up to the game:

  • The last time Oklahoma started the season 1-2 (in 2016), the Sooners won their remaining nine games, won the Big 12 championship and defeated Auburn, the second best team in the SEC that season, in the Sugar Bowl.
  • Oklahoma is the designated home team in this year’s game. The Sooners have won the last six games against Texas when they were the assigned home team.
  • Since the 2000 season, Oklahoma has lost the game prior to the Red River rivalry game three times. On all three occasions (2007, 2014 and 2017), the Sooners rebounded with a win over Texas in the October game in Dallas.