It’s not often that the Texas Longhorns and the Oklahoma Sooners head into the Red River Rivalry 5-0 and ranked among the top teams in the country — it’s only the third time the Longhorns have entered the series with that record and the first since the 2008 and 2009 meetings. The 2008 game, a Cotton Bowl classic, played a pivotal role in deciding who played in the national championship game.
This Saturday, in the final matchup as Big 12 foes, the stage is set for another showdown with national championship implications and the nation has taken notice.
Each team boasts an impressive offense with a suffocating defense. While Texas is now -6.5-point favorites according to DraftKings, the game truly could go either way. Here are four key battles that could decide the outcome of the meeting in Dallas.
Oklahoma passing offense vs. the Texas pass defense
Oklahoma’s prolific passing attack, led by their talented wide receivers and quarterback, has been a force to be reckoned with this season. Currently ranking second in completion percentage, third in scoring offense, and seventh in passing yards per game in the nation, the Sooners have shown the ability to shred opposing defenses.
Oklahoma QB Dillon Gabriel this season:— PFF College (@PFF_College) October 1, 2023
♦️ 74% Completion Rate
♦️ 1,589 Passing Yards
♦️ 15 Touchdowns
♦️ 2 Interceptions
♦️ 132.9 Passer Rating pic.twitter.com/D5m3pRj1sh
However, it’s important to note that they haven’t faced a defense of Texas’ caliber yet. The Longhorns pass defense has been formidable with six interceptions on the season and a reputation for shutting down passing lanes thanks to an experienced secondary that starts four seniors.
Jahdae Barron : 4 tackles & an INT— Lee Harvey (@MusikFan4Life) September 10, 2023
Jerrin Thompson : 4 tackles & an INT pic.twitter.com/TbAZYPhTiA
Their ability to disrupt the rhythm of the Oklahoma passing game will be critical in this matchup.
If Texas can create turnovers or limit the big plays, they will significantly improve their chances of victory — the winner of the turnover battle in the Red River Rivalry is 14-7 since 2000. On the flip side, if Oklahoma can exploit the occasional vulnerabilities in the Texas secondary, as evidenced by long passing touchdowns allowed against Alabama and Kansas, it could put immense pressure on the Texas offense.
A potent passing game can not only rack up points but also control the tempo of the game, keeping the opposing offense off the field. Furthermore, if Oklahoma is able to routinely rely on their wide receivers to get open against the Texas secondary, the strengths of the Longhorns defense will be hindered. Keep a close eye on the timing and separation of Oklahoma wide outs on Saturday.
Oklahoma third-down offense vs. the Texas third-down defense
Third down is a critical feature of any game. For the second straight week, the Texas defense will be facing a highly successful third-down offense in the Kansas. After holding the previous No. 1 team in third-down conversion to an 0-for-8 performance, the Horns will face the sixth-best team in the country in the Cotton Bowl.
This year, Oklahoma has converted over half their third downs as they currently have gone 37-for-67 (55.2 percent). The Texas defense is ranked nine in the country in third-down stops and has held opponents to a 26.9-percent conversion rate.
Once again, something will have to give and whichever direction it leans could sway the outcome of the game. If Texas is able to stop Oklahoma short of the chains, the momentum of the game will favor Texas.
Oklahoma fourth-down offense vs. Texas fourth-down defense
While third down will be huge in this game, fourth-down plays represent an extension of that matchup and thus a potentially pivotal one on Saturday. Both third and fourth downs are an opportunity for the defense to cement drives as being unsuccessful for the offense. If Texas is able to hold Oklahoma on third down, expect the offense to remain on the field for the Sooners, especially in short-yardage situations.
Oklahoma is currently tied for sixth in the country in fourth-down conversion rate at an impressive 87.5 percent — with opponents only stopping them once in eight fourth-down attempts. Coming into the game, the Sooners coaching staff will likely be quite confident in this aspect of the game and try to use it to their advantage.
A year ago Oklahoma struggled to make the clutch plays. Now, Dillon Gabriel and Jeff Lebby are raising this offense to one of the best in the country!— The Main Line Podcast (@TheMainLinePod) October 3, 2023
#6 in 3rd down conv: 55%
#6 in 4th down conv: 87% pic.twitter.com/LJXCCSIbc3
On the flip side, Texas has consistently improved on fourth down throughout the season. Texas is tied for 27th in the country and has held opponents to only four conversions on 11 attempts (36.4 percent). This unit is also likely confident in their fourth-down ability because in the last two games, the defense has allowed one conversion in seven attempts (14.3 percent). In addition, several of those stops have occurred in critical places on the field or in relation to the game like the fourth-down stop against Kansas that led to Texas offense scoring the final 21 points of the game and the defense producing two three and outs and another fourth-down stop.
While these plays may be few in comparison to other key matchups, their outcome remains equally as impactful on the overall result.
A final matchup to watch on Saturday will the performance of each team in the red zone. Currently, Oklahoma has scored 11 red-zone rushing touchdowns and eight red-zone passing touchdowns on 27 attempts (70.4 percent).
The Texas defense has yet to give up a red-zone rushing touchdown and has given up a single passing touchdown on 10 total red-zone attempts (10.0) percent. The ability to convert red-zone opportunities into touchdowns will be a huge matchup on Saturday.
When looking more broadly about red scoring, Texas ranks No. 2 in the country on overall red-zone defense as they have held teams completely scoreless in 50.0 percent of all attempts this year. The role that scoring seven versus three or even zero cannot be understated in the overall outcome of the game.
I am eager to see if these 1v1 opportunities present themselves when the Texas offense is in the red zone.— CJ Vogel (@CJVogel_TFB) October 3, 2023
OU has faith in their cornerbacks on an island, but that is a lot of ground to cover with no help. pic.twitter.com/ItDVDyrsNe
On the flip side, the Texas offense has been somewhat mediocre at getting into the end zone. Texas has scored a touchdown on 11-of-21 red-zone attempts (52.4 percent). Texas has successfully kicked a field goal on 8-of-21 red-zone possessions (38.1 percent).
This number hasn’t posed a problem thus far this season but allows teams to stick around both on the scoreboard and mentally. The score remains close and the defense can feel as if they won the drive by holding the offense out of the end zone.
The Oklahoma red-zone defense has also impressed thus far. They have only allowed opponents into the red zone eight times this year and have given up no rushing touchdowns and just three passing touchdowns for a touchdown rate of 37.5 percent. If Oklahoma can force Texas to kick field goals, the outcome could end in their favor. In a game where every point counts, the red-zone efficiency of both teams will be a pivotal aspect to watch on Saturday.
In the grand scheme of the game, these key battles could prove to be the factors that sway the outcome of the game. The significance of these aspects cannot be underestimated, as they have the potential to dictate the course of events on the field. From the Oklahoma passing game to the chess match on third and fourth downs and the importance of scoring touchdowns in the red zone, these moments of truth will shape the final outcome of the last Big 12 Red River Rivalry.