Oklahoma football: OU is better in 2023, but so is Texas; so where does that leave us?

Both athletic directors from Texas and Oklahoma say their Red River Showdown rivalry football matchups will continue at the Cotton Bowl each season regardless of how the SEC is configured once they join.
Both athletic directors from Texas and Oklahoma say their Red River Showdown rivalry football matchups will continue at the Cotton Bowl each season regardless of how the SEC is configured once they join. /

You can be assured that the Oklahoma football team, as well as the fans thereof, have had the date October 7 circled on the calendar this entire year.

There are numerous reasons for that: the Texas game is generally always the biggest game on the Sooner football schedule, it doesn’t really matter what year it is. Throughout the 27-year history of the Big 12, the winner of this game put itself in the driver’s seat to win the conference championship.

This year, however, there is an even bigger reason for earmarking the date well in advance. One year ago, without the services of its starting quarterback and severely burdened by a defense that statistically was one of the worst at the FBS level of college football, the Longhorns put a good, old-fashioned whooping on the Sooners. The 49-0 beatdown was the worst an Oklahoma team had suffered in the 118-year-old rivalry series.

That loss still stings like an open wound in and around Sooner Nation, and Oklahoma heads to Dallas, Texas, this weekend seeking some redemption.

Unlike a year ago, when the Sooners were 3-2 and unranked entering the Red River Rivalry game, Oklahoma comes in this year with five consecutive wins by an average score of 54-10 and a No. 14 national ranking.

Texas also comes into this year’s game with a perfect 5-0 record and a No. 3 or 4 national ranking, depending on which weekly poll you follow. The big difference is the Longhorns five wins to open the season include a win over then-No. 3 Alabama in Tuscaloosa, and No. 24 Kansas this past weekend.

There is little question that Oklahoma is better than it was last season, both on offense and defense, but the Sooners haven’t really played anybody of consequence yet on the 2023 schedule, and clearly no one of the caliber of Texas. This Saturday will be the first real test of how much improved the Sooners are over last season.

The Sooners will definitely enter the game with a higher confidence level and better overall talent and depth than a year ago. The trouble is, Texas can make that same claim.

Both teams have returning starting quarterbacks. although OU’s Dillon Gabriel did not play in this game a year ago due to the concussion protocol.

In a comparison of Gabriel and Quinn Ewers of Texas, Gabriel has completed 75 percent of his pass attempts, which ranks fifth nationally, and has a passing efficiency rating of 189.37, sixth best among FBS quarterbacks. Ewers has completed 66 percent of his passes (36th nationally) and ranks 22nd in passing efficiency (164.67). Gabriel also leads Ewers in touchdown passes, 15 to 10.

Utilizing the transfer portal and a top four-ranked recruiting class, head coach Brent Venables increased the team’s depth and talent level at virtually every position and has said that competitive depth is one of the biggest differences over last season’s roster. The Sooners added 16 scholarship transfers to the roster along with a 25-member recruiting class that included two five-star defensive prospects (edge rusher P.J. Adebawore, and S Peyton Bowen).

Texas has big-play weapons all over the field offensively. The Longhorns have made 30 plays of 20-plus yards and averaged at least 35 yards on those plays, according to ESPN Information and Analytics. What’s troubling about that if you’re an Oklahoma fan is that the Sooners gave up several plays like that early in the game last week against Iowa State.

The Longhorns have length and speed at wide receiver and tight end Ja’Tavian Sanders may be the best at his position nationally next to Brock Bowers of Georgia. And sophomore running back Jonathan Brooks has nearly 600 yards rushing already and is averaging over six yards per carry.

Texas runs the ball more productively than the Sooners at this point in the season, but Oklahoma has thrown the ball better than the Longhorns averaging 352 passing yards per game to 287 for Texas.

The Longhorns returned four of five starters on the offensive line from last season and the size and strength they have on the defensive line is as good as it gets in college football this season.

The two teams are fairly comparable offensively, although I’d give Texas the edge defensively and on special teams. The outcome of Saturday’s game could well come down to the battle in the trenches and which team is able to better protect its quarterback, run the football and limit big plays.

Head coach Brent Venables summed it up nicely in his press conference this week, suggesting that Oklahoma’s biggest challenge this weekend may be overcoming the fact the Texas, like most great teams, tends to play at its best when it goes against good teams.

In summary, this may be the best Texas team since its 2005 national championship season. This is not Oklahoma’s best team over that span of time, but it is the best defensive unit the Sooners have put on the field in quite some time. Will that be enough to surprise the college football world and get by the Longhorns? We’ll have to wait till Saturday to see how it all plays out.

Interestingly, Texas has been established as a 6.0 favorite by the Las Vegas oddsmakers, but the ESPN computers give Oklahoma a 54-percent chance to win the game. Go figure.