In late 2016, former UT system president Greg Fenves and interim athletics director Mike Perrin summoned enough institutional coherency to hire one of college football’s rising young coaches to take over the floundering Texas Longhorns program — 41-year-old Houston Cougars head coach Tom Herman.
Months later, the retirement of Oklahoma Sooners head coach Bob Stoops in Norman held the potential to enact a seismic shift on a Big 12 Conference the Sooners have now dominated for two decades. Offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley was the replacement for Stoops — his first head coaching job — after two years at Oklahoma and at only 33 years of age.
The confluence of events that ranged from Charlie Strong flaming out in Austin after only three seasons to Stoops stepping away from one of the best jobs in college football while still winning conference titles naturally set up Herman and Riley as rivals.
Never mind the unavoidable reality that each coach’s tenure would hinge on their ability to win in October at the Cotton Bowl or at AT&T Stadium in December. Or both.
Asked this year how Texas can turn around Herman’s 1-3 record against Riley, Herman’s answer took him in multiple directions before eventually landing on a laugh and a prayer.
“Hopefully one of these days they’ll stop having first- and second-round draft picks at quarterback,” Herman said.
In fairness to Herman, all the necessary qualifications preceded and proceeded his statement, but there’s a funny thing about humor — it always serves a purpose. And the purpose in no small part by Herman was throwing up his hands at the insane level of talent for Oklahoma at quarterback over the last three seasons.
In 2016, Texas Tech transfer and Austin-area native Baker Mayfield set the NCAA all-time record with a 196.4 passer rating. The next season, Riley’s third in Norman, Mayfield beat his own record before Kyler Murray surpassed Mayfield in 2018. In the last two years, Joe Burrow and Tua Tugavailoa each set the record, while Tugavailoa’s former teammate, Jalen Hurts, transferred to Oklahoma and posted what now stands as the No. 7 season in passer rating in college football history.
In the last four years, then, Riley’s quarterbacks have rewritten the record books and redefined what quarterback excellence in college football looks like.
However, all three were transfers, providing Riley with a unique challenge in 2020 — the opportunity to prove that Mayfield, Murray, and Hurts weren’t simply a result of Riley building on growth undertaken by those players at Texas Tech, Texas A&M, and Alabama, respectively.
Arizona product Spencer Rattler, ranked as the No. 1 pro-style quarterback in the 2019 class, is the heir to the Oklahoma offense after a redshirt season.
Meanwhile, Riley bounced back from losing the commitment of the No. 4 2021 quarterback, Brock Vandagriff, by securing the pledge of Caleb Williams, the top quarterback in the class.
In between the 2019 and 2021 cycles, Riley took a flier on Chandler Morris, the son of current Auburn offensive coordinator Chad Morris.
So the future looks bright for the quarterback position in Norman as Rattler attempts to make the understandable adjustments for a redshirt freshman playing big-time college football for the first time. There are no guarantees regarding the development of Rattler or Williams, but there’s no question that Riley has shifted from recruiting top transfer talent at the position to top high school talent.
Rattler has flashed the expected brilliance through his first three starts, throwing for 10 touchdowns, completing 73.4 percent of his passes, and averaging 10.4 yards per attempt.
But Rattler has also looked like a redshirt freshman, taking eight sacks so far, including three in the opener against Missouri State, the overmatched FCS opponent. And he’s also thrown four interceptions in the last two games, resulting in an interception rate of 4.3 percent, including two interceptions on attempted game-winning drives.
Entering the season, Rattler’s youth didn’t dissuade Las Vegas from giving the redshirt freshman better Heisman odds than Texas senior quarterback Sam Ehlinger, one of the nation’s most productive returning quarterbacks. Rattler, by comparison, had thrown only 11 passes in his brief collegiate career.
Oklahoma was picked by the media as the overwhelming favorite to win a sixth straight conference title, marking the fifth year in the row that the Sooners earned the nod, an unsurprising development given the long run of success that includes 13 conference titles since the creation of the Big 12.
The Sooners have unquestionably earned the benefit of the doubt from regional media and the oddsmakers — despite the back-to-back losses, Oklahoma enters Saturday game as the narrow favorite.
So despite the struggles for Rattler and the Sooners overall early this season, other than Big 12 titles and College Football Playoff appearances, Riley has distinguished himself from Herman in another area — his ability to continue serving as the primary play caller in Norman.
Quick, name Riley’s offensive coordinator. Struggling to remember? You’re probably not alone, because other than Riley, the offensive braintrust consists of co-offensive coordinators Bill Bedenbaugh and Cale Gundy, with Shane Beamer serving as the assistant head coach for the offense.
Bedenbaugh might be the best offensive line coach in the country even if his line is still attempting to round into form this season, but Gundy and Beamer are better known for their famous football last names — there’s no question that the offense belongs to Riley.
And so it’s easy to give the credit where it’s due after an offseason in which Herman was forced to admit that calling plays took too much time away from his other duties as a head coach, forcing the termination of Tim Beck and the hire of former Oklahoma State offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich.
The fact is that Herman failed in an area that was a main selling point when he was hired, while Riley hasn’t missed a beat in his transition to overseeing the Oklahoma program and is still calling plays on gameday. Well, at least Riley hasn’t missed a beat until this 1-2 start to the 2020 season.
Meanwhile, some fans in the Burnt Orange Nation have already turned on Herman after the narrow win on the road against Texas Tech that required an improbable comeback and the disappointing, mistake-filled loss against TCU last weekend.
Without the slow start to the Rattler era in Norman, it would be fair to say that the trajectories of the two head coaches are wildly divergent — Herman desperately needs a win in this rivalry to deliver Oklahoma’s first three-game winning streak since 1998, the last year that John Blake served as the Sooners head coach. Even with the slow start, the trajectories for Herman and Riley are still objectively divergent.
Historical trends only heighten the urgency for Herman.
Texas remains ranked at No. 22 in the AP Poll, while Oklahoma dropped out following the Iowa State loss. The higher-ranked team in that poll has won 18 of the last 28 matchups in the Cotton Bowl.
With Ehlinger set to make his fourth start in the Cotton Bowl, the Longhorns have a further advantage since the team with a quarterback featuring experience in the rivalry game has won 14 of 20 matchups against a quarterback making their first start in the Showdown.
Furthermore, the only four other Texas quarterbacks to make four starts against Oklahoma all won their final game.
The aspirational comparison for the Longhorns on Saturday is the 2005 contest, a cathartic blowout in favor of Texas — it’s the last time that the burnt orange and white entered the hallowed grounds of the State Fair as a ranked team while Oklahoma did not. Clearly, the year’s Horns don’t deserve mention in the same sentence as the last Texas national champions beyond the mere factual reality of that statistic, but it does illustrate the opportunity in front of Herman’s team.
The type of opportunity that doesn’t even come along once a decade for the Horns. Not since the creation of the Big 12, at least.
“We feel like we’re building something here that is sustainable and that rivalry is going to be, on a national perspective, I still think it’s the greatest rivalry in all of college sports because of the venue, because of the two states, because of the history of it,” Herman said. “We’ve got to do our part in making sure that we win some more of those battles.”
Dimmed by both teams coming off losses, the rivalry doesn’t have the same national implications of previous season, but that fact puts even more pressure on Herman to start solving his Lincoln Riley problem, because there’s no future for Herman in Austin absent victories over the Sooners in the Metroplex, whether in October or December.