Updated: Aug 23
The Red River Rivalry is one of college football's fiercely contested traditional contests. Hosted annually at the historic Cotton Bowl in Dallas, close to equidistant between the campuses of the University of Texas in Austin and rival University of Oklahoma in Norman.
One of college football's fiercest rivalries
I wrote about the Red River Rivalry in an October 2020 article for Ninety-Nine Yards. The passion, emotion, colour and fervent support lends itself, annually, to a terrific game. Periods of dominance tend to swing between the two teams, Texas dominating until 1948, while Oklahoma owned the rivalry throughout the Fifties. Hallowed Longhorns coach Darrell Royal (the University of Texas home stadium bears his name) led Texas to three national championships in the Sixties, Sooners coach Barry Switzer led Oklahoma to a hat-trick of national championships in the Seventies.
Closely contested as many showdowns have been, there have been the odd hidings dealt out which have given the winning fan base the opportunity to crow about their victory for the following twelve months. Oklahoma famously thrashed Texas 63-14 en route to the national championship in 2000, and recorded the biggest win in the history of this classic rivalry, 65-13, in 2003. Texas, in turn, marked a remarkable run to their 2005 national championship with a 45-12 trouncing of their cross-state rivals.
Is the tide turning?
Much as control of the rivalry has veered between Texas and Oklahoma over the years, it feels as if a period of dominance may emerge south of the famous river. Both Texas and Oklahoma are heading for the SEC in 2024, a switch which has preceded the recent mass migration of college sporting programmes to rival conferences. More on that in the lead up to the season. The other big trend is the emergence of NIL (Name, Image, Likeness). This enables well-funded universities to throw money at the recruitment of the best high school talent or the best players from rival universities. No state has more wealth at its disposal to fund university football teams than the great state of Texas. Football is a religion there and rich, faithful alumni want to see their teams win.
Oklahoma were spoilt with Bob Stoops, mastermind of the Sooners' record-breaking rivalry win and then the emerging genius of Lincoln Riley at the helm. Stoops left for the studio and his replacement Riley, who had led Oklahoma to the College Football Playoff, was wooed by the sunshine and riches of Southern California.
Texas, buoyed by an obsessive fan base, NIL wealth and the recruitment of highly respected coach Steve Sarkisian, who had overseen Alabama's prolific, championship-winning offense, have the ingredients to return to the very top. Sarkisian's reign to date has been typified by inconsistency. Flashes of brilliance in performances against top teams, the close loss to Alabama I was fortunate enough to witness first-hand as an example, tempered by unexplainable collapses against inferior teams they should have put away by half-time.
October 8, 2022.
The one game, that illustrates the potential of the Texas football program to return to the pinnacle of college football, took place last October when they demolished their bitter rivals, 49-0.
Quinn Ewers, the highly-recruited redshirt freshman quarterback, was calm in the red-hot atmosphere at the Cotton Bowl. Ewers passed for 289 yards and four touchdowns, while Bijan Robinson, now at Atlanta after the Falcons selected him No.8 overall in this year's NFL Draft. added 130 yards on the ground and two scores, ensuring The Golden Hat returned to Austin in the first shutout win for Texas over the Sooners since 1965.
Texas ran up 585 total yards of offense, of which 354 came before half-time. As good as Texas were, Oklahoma were equally bad. admittedly missing starting quarterback Dillon Gabriel.
"It was as thorough a beatdown of a team representing a great program... as these eyes have seen." - Kirk Bohls, Austin-American Statesman
The future is bright...the future is orange?
The Sooners have a huge rebuild ahead, but will be buoyed by a promising recruitment drive, landing the fourth-best class of 2023 in the country. Texas secured the third best-class, including the prized five-star quarterback Arch Manning, the No.1 overall prospect, snatching him from the clutches of Alabama and Georgia.
The capture of Manning will see more blue-chip recruits lured to Austin and the long-term future for Texas looks brighter than the glow of their famous burnt orange jerseys. According to a report in USA Today, The University of Texas athletic department generated a reported $239.2 million in the 2021-22 fiscal year, the second highest of any university sports department in the country (Ohio State was the highest, with over $250million). The Longhorns also received a reported $77.9million in contributions, the highest amount ever received by the university. Their reported $23.7 million profit from media rights will likely double when they set foot in the SEC.
It's not just about the money. Returning starting quarterback Quinn Ewers was the No.1 overall recruit in the Class of 2021 and could be a high pick in next year's NFL Draft. Membership of the SEC, college football's most competitive and high-profile conference, wealthy benefactors and a coach building a solid team point to an optimistic future for the Longhorns.
A place in the College Football Playoff looks a step too far this year. However, an injury-free season for the mercurial Ewers, projected breakthrough for freshman back Cedric Baxter and an improving defense (six starters are back) should see them win their first Big 12 for fifteen years, and with their impending conference move, their last. Their path back to the top of college football continues.