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Red River Showdown: Texas can become the Big 12 favorite, or keep playing catch-up to Oklahoma

While Texas rebuilt, Oklahoma won conference title after conference title. What happens in the Red River Showdown will tell us whether Texas is ready to take control of the conference this year, or keep playing catch-up to OU.

NCAA Football: Texas at Texas Christian Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Aside from the lone early-season hiccup in Fayetteville, it’s safe to say things are going quite well during Steve Sarkisian’s first season on the Forty Acres. Of the Texas Longhorns’ four wins, three have come in dominant fashion by a combined 113 points, and the other was a relieving road win in which Texas exorcised some of its purple demons with a 32-27 win over the TCU Horned Frogs last weekend.

But in the big picture, winning games against overmatched opponents doesn’t really move the needle in Austin — competing for conference titles does. So naturally, against an Oklahoma Sooner’s program that’s controlled the conference for the past six seasons and is favored to do so yet again this year, the midseason Red River Showdown will serve as an excellent measuring stick for where Sark’s Longhorns truly in Year 1.

“I think at the end of the day, the peripheral puts measuring sticks on us of where we are,” Sarkisian said during his weekly press conference. “For us, our process is our process and we have to wire in and respect every opponent we play and make sure we’re putting our best foot forward, and ultimately week in and week out we see where we’re at. Are we making incremental gains to continue to get better?”

“When you take over a program, you always want the big leaps and bounds and the growth and all those things, but for me the positive has been I think we’re making incremental progress as a program in a lot of different phases, whether that’s mental toughness, whether that’s physical toughness, whether that’s style of play, whether that’s recruiting,” Sarkisian added. “There’s a lot that goes into it, but in the end, when you’re playing the team that, over recent history, has won the conference, well, here’s an opportunity to basically see ‘where are we at this point?’ … And we’re gonna find out, we’re gonna see where we’re at.”

As is, Texas sits at 4-1, marking the best start for a first-year Longhorns head coach since Fred Akers won his first 11 games in 1977. And all things considered, Sarkisian has done nearly everything right throughout his first five appearances.

Texas started fast, dominating a ranked Louisiana team that some expected to upset the Horns. When things didn’t go nearly as well in Arkansas, rather than standing firm in his preseason decision, Sark quickly made a critical change at quarterback from Hudson Card to Casey Thompson, which has proven to be an excellent move thus far. Elsewhere his staff has made other minor depth chart adjustments that speaks to their willingness to make changes when something needs to be improved.

And, as promised, Sark’s getting the ball into his playmakers hands, which, in turn, has led to wins. Those wins now have the Longhorns here, sitting at No. 21 nationally with the second-best odds (31.3%) to win the Big 12, behind only… you guessed it — Oklahoma.

To be sure, Sark wasn’t expected to contend for Big 12 title in his first year at Texas, especially without the presence of Sam Ehlinger, so a Red River loss doesn’t mean the program is necessarily faltering in Year 1. The entire Big 12, Oklahoma included, has been underwhelming.

That said, Oklahoma has quite clearly been the standard as of late for where exactly a program — more specifically, Texas — is during a given season, which is why despite owning the second-best record in the conference throughout the previous three seasons, Tom Herman isn’t in Austin anymore. There was a gap between the Sooners and the Longhorns, and it wasn’t exactly a close one.

So, at the midpoint of the 2021 campaign, beating No. 6 Oklahoma on Saturday, something Sarkisian’s previous two predecessors did just once each during their seven combined seasons, will tell us exactly what Texas is this season — a legitimate Big 12 title contender, and likely the frontrunner.

With a loss, well, Texas will be where they’ve been for the past decade — playing catch up to Oklahoma.