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October 10, 2008

High stakes add to Red River Rivalry's intrigue

MORE: Preview video | Big 12 preview

From Wilkinson to Switzer to Stoops, or Royal to Akers to Brown.

From Mildren to White to Bradford, or Street to Young to McCoy.

From the 'I' to the Wishbone to the spread and no-huddle offenses, elements of the Red River Rivalry constantly change.

Coaches change. Quarterbacks change. Offenses change.

But the intensity and atmosphere at Fair Park on the second Saturday of October never changes. Texas and Oklahoma always will be a nasty grudge match. And it gets even nastier when the stakes are raised, as they are this season.

Oklahoma is unbeaten and ranked No. 1 in the nation. Texas is unbeaten and ranked No. 5. The victor has the inside track at winning the Big 12 South Division and perhaps even reaching the BCS Championship Game (the game's winner has advanced to the national title contest four times this decade).

This will mark the 10th time the Sooners and Longhorns have faced each other with both ranked in the top five. Oklahoma has won five, including the past three. The No. 1 ranking would indicate the Sooners are expected to win again this season.

Of course, coach Bob Stoops isn't taking anything for granted.

"In the end, [the ranking] doesn't mean anything," he said. "You've got to play your best in this game. If you are at your best, it's not because you were ranked No. 1."

The Sooners are expected to remain there largely because quarterback Sam Bradford will be throwing against a young Texas secondary, which features sophomore cornerback Chykie Brown, redshirt freshman safety Earl Thomas and true freshman safety Blake Gideon.

But Texas coach Mack Brown says his secondary is better than some might think, especially after facing several pass-oriented opponents this season.

"I would have told you five weeks ago that I'd be scared to death to play this schedule with that secondary," he said. "But it's a different secondary than it was five weeks ago. Those guys are growing up fast. Our secondary has not been as bad as advertised."

Bradford, a leading Heisman Trophy contender, has been as good as advertised. Bradford has thrown 18 touchdown passes, including seven that covered at least 40 yards. But Texas quarterback Colt McCoy, also a Heisman contender, has been excellent, too. He has completed nearly 80 percent of his passes, with 16 going for touchdowns. McCoy also leads the Longhorns in rushing.

He might not be as inclined to run against the Sooners, who have knocked an opposing quarterback out of the game four times this season.

"He's always been a great runner, but he looks even faster and even more accurate this year," OU linebacker Ryan Reynolds said of McCoy. "It's going to be an even bigger challenge for us."

  • Oklahoma TB DeMarco Murray had a 65-yard touchdown burst in last season's 28-21 victory over Texas. He has blazing speed and has 431 yards and five touchdowns this year, but he hasn't been the big-play threat he was a year ago. The more powerful Chris Brown provides a nice change of pace and has rushed for 313 yards and six touchdowns behind the Sooners' massive line. Texas is third in the nation in run defense for a variety of reasons: The Longhorns' previous opponents were primarily passing teams and were usually behind, so they had to throw. But Texas is also shutting down the run because tackles Lamarr Houston and Roy Miller are roadblocks inside and OLBs Roddrick Muckelroy and Sergio Kindle are fast and athletic. Last week, the Longhorns held Colorado RB Rodney Stewart to 27 yards. He was coming off back-to-back 100-yard performances.

  • Sam Bradford might be the best quarterback in the nation. He has passed for 1,665 yards and 18 touchdowns, with seven covering more than 40 yards. The Sooners have three big-play threats at receiver with Manuel Johnson, Juaquin Iglesis and Ryan Broyles and another at tight end with Jermaine Gresham, who had a big game against Texas last season. If that's not enough, OU's massive line featuring T Phil Loadholt and G Duke Robinson has allowed just five sacks. But Texas leads the nation with 19 sacks, and relentless DE Brian Orakpo has 5.5 of them. Kindle also is an effective blitzer. The Longhorns need to get pressure because they start redshirt freshman Earl Thomas and true freshman Blake Gideon at safety. Texas has allowed five touchdown passes and ranks 97th nationally against the pass, but part of that is because the Longhorns have had leads and opponents have been forced to throw.

  • Texas has used the tailback-by-committee approach, and it has been reasonably successful. Cody Johnson and Vondrell McGee, both power runners, each have 50 carries and have produced just under 200 yards. However, Chris Ogbonnaya is expected to start. QB Colt McCoy is the Longhorns' top rusher with 317 yards. There's also an experienced, proven line. But that line easily faces its greatest challenge thus far. OU is excellent against the run and averages more than eight tackles per loss per game. DT Gerald McCoy is a rock inside. The Sooners could get a boost with the probable return of DT Demarcus Granger, who has been sidelined for three weeks with a foot injury. LBs Ryan Reynolds and Travis Lewis lead the team in tackles.

  • McCoy has completed almost 80 percent of his passes and has thrown for 16 touchdowns and just three interceptions. He also has thrown at least two touchdown passes in each game. WR Quan Cosby is sure-handed and productive, leading the Longhorns with 32 receptions. Jordan Shipley, who endured injuries early in his career, has developed into a big-play receiver and has seven touchdown catches. Ogbonnaya is a good receiver out of the backfield. The Longhorns' line has allowed seven sacks and will be tested by an OU pass rush that has produced 17 sacks. Lewis has 3.5 sacks, and DE Auston English who has 2.5 sacks this season led the Big 12 in that department last season. SS Nic Harris is the leader in the secondary. CBs Brian Jackson and Dominique Franks were unproven entering the season, but have played well. Franks has an interception and five pass breakups. The Sooners have allowed an average of 159 passing yards per game.

  • Oklahoma's Murray and Iglesias are capable of breaking long kick returns, as is Texas' Cosby. The coverage teams are basically even, too. Texas kicker Hunter Lawrence is 4-for-4 on field-goal attempts, with three coming from beyond 40 yards. Oklahoma kicker Jimmy Stevens has converted a 36-yarder, his only attempt. Texas punter John Gold averages 42.1 yards per kick, with four killed inside the 20. OU's Mike Knall averages 37.1 yards, with eight killed inside the 20.

  • Both Oklahoma's Bob Stoops and Texas' Mack Brown have won national championships this decade, but Stoops has five conference championships to Brown's one. Stoops also has a 6-3 edge in the series against Brown. Texas first-year defensive coordinator Will Muschamp is recognized as one of the best in the nation, but is making his first appearance in the series.

  • X-factor
  • Turnovers are a key in every game, but that's especially been the case in this series. Whether it was Adrian Peterson fumbling or Chris Simms throwing interceptions, nine times in the past 10 meetings the team with the fewest turnovers has prevailed. Bradford and McCoy have combined to throw just three interceptions this season. Oklahoma has not lost a fumble. Texas has lost three.

  • Oklahoma will win if
  • The Sooners keep Bradford upright, which means fending off Orakpo and Muschamp's various blitzes. Given time, Bradford can pick apart secondaries, especially an unproven group like the Longhorns have this season. The Sooners also must prevent McCoy from getting out of the pocket and making big plays on runs or finding receivers breaking open late.

  • Texas will win if
  • The Longhorns will get a big boost if they can at least make Oklahoma respect the running game. That would slow OU's pass rush and give McCoy more time. Texas needs to pressure Bradford and avoid giving up long passes, which it wasn't able to do last season. Texas cannot afford to commit turnovers and needs to get a field position advantage. A close game could work in Texas' favor because Lawrence seems to provide an edge in the kicking game.

  • Olin Buchanan: Oklahoma 31, Texas 27
    Tom Dienhart: Oklahoma 33, Texas 24
    David Fox: Oklahoma 31, Texas 24
    Mike Huguenin: Oklahoma 34, Texas 24
    Steve Megargee: Oklahoma 28, Texas 24

    Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.

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