Texas-OU weekend — the greatest rivalry in sports, the Red River Showdown — kicks off on Saturday at 11 a.m. Central at the Cotton Bowl following ESPN’s College Gameday with the nation watching with bated breath to watch these two undefeated juggerknauts of college football square off for the 119th time.
In a rivalry that dates back to 1900, this is the first year since 2011 that both the No. 3 Texas Longhorns and the No. 12 Oklahoma Sooners come to Dallas undefeated on the season. As Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian and second-year Oklahoma coach Brent Venables face off for the second time, the tides seem to be turning in favor of the Longhorns in a matchup that has been dominated by the Sooners over the last two decades.
Despite Texas holding the better overall Red River Rivalry series record at 63-50-5, the Sooners have bested the Longhorns as of late, taking 16 of the last 24 matchups. Sarkisian has now seen both the greatest highs and lows of this rivalry game after pitching the largest shutout in the game’s history last year, while also watching Oklahoma and Caleb Williams mount the largest comeback the year before.
“I have a bunch of guys in that locker room that were that were on the sideline when we when we lost a 20-something point lead two years ago in a very tough loss,” Sarkisian said Monday. “And then a bunch of guys in that locker room that won a big game last year, so they felt the lowest of the lows in this game, they felt the highest of the highs.”
In year three this Longhorns team comes in as the favorite. They are battle tested after two wins over top-25 teams, confidently ranked no. 3 in the AP poll, and well on their way to a serious national championship run, pending, of course, the outcome on Saturday.
On the other side of the ball, Oklahoma is certainly not the powerhouse of old that has dominated Texas over the past two decades in this meeting. Coming off a 6-7 record in Venables’ first year as head coach, and a 49-0 beatdown in last year’s matchup, this Oklahoma team has a lot of question marks coming into Dallas this Saturday despite their 5-0 record.
In year two Venables has overturned this roster through the transfer portal, bringing in 22 new faces to add to the active roster. The wide receiving corps is starting to come into its own with the addition of some new players and the maturation of others. The defense is much improved from a year ago. And Dillon Gabriel is playing much better football compared to a year ago.
Both teams are massively improved from last year, and as always, this game in Dallas will set the tone for the bitter rivals with high hopes for the 2023 season.
Offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby enters his second year as the offensive coordinator in Venables’ system. They currently rank sixth in the nation in third-down percentage at 55.2 percent, second in the nation in pass completion percentage at 78.9 percent, and boast the third-highest scoring offense in the nation averaging 47.4 points per game and scoring 237 points in total on the season.
Fifth-year senior quarterback Dillon Gabriel enters his second year as the starter for the Sooners after joining the team last year as a transfer from Wake Forest. The lefty from Hawaii certainly had his ups and downs last year, but ended up finishing second in the Big 12 with 3,168 passing yards, along with 25 touchdowns and six interceptions.
In his fifth year, Gabriel has seen massive improvement, not only in his passing ability, but also his rushing. With some new faces at wide receiver, Gabriel has thrown for 1,593 yards through the first five games of the season for 15 touchdowns and only two interceptions.
As mentioned, he has also improved drastically as a runner, with four rushing touchdowns on the season as Lebby often uses his legs in the red zone. Gabriel runs with physicality and is not afraid to drop his shoulder and take big hits. Maybe after watching the tape on this Texas defense, he’ll slide a bit more in Week Six.
Gabriel is very dynamic outside of the pocket. He can escape the pocket and make great throws on the run and across his body. He has been incredibly efficient over the first five games of the season, playing high-level football.
However, he has yet to play a defense as elite as the one in Austin. With an offensive line with only one returning starter, and an inability to establish a prolific running game, this Saturday will be a big test for the surging Sooner gunslinger.
This Oklahoma offense likes to air the ball out — they are the seventh-most prolific passing offense. Averaging 318 passing yards per game with Gabriel, many of their throws consist of long balls to junior Michigan transfer Andrel Anthony, who has certainly brought life to an Oklahoma offense that was missing a big playmaker after the loss of Marvin Mims to the Denver Broncos in the 2023 NFL Draft.
Anthony has already had two 100-plus yard games on the season and is quickly becoming the new deep threat target for Gabriel in this offense, leading the team with 387 receiving yards on 22 receptions and one touchdown, but look for that number to continue to rise as he becomes more comfortable in this new offense.
The returning starters that make up the leadership of this wide receiver room are junior Jalil Farooq and a name Longhorn nation figured they were done with after 2016, Drake Stoops.
Stoops acts as a secure safety blanket for this Oklahoma passing game. Playing in the slot, he has become a reliable outlet for Gabriel, who often moves outside the pocket. He is a capable blocker, and does his work mainly in the short and intermediate game.
Farooq lines up at the Z position and has 15 receptions for 285 yards and two touchdowns, while also receiving some carries for the Sooners as well. He can be dynamic in many different ways and adds a different layer to this Lebby offense that runs a multitude of schemes.
Lastly, Pete Kwiatkowski and this Texas defense need to keep an eye out for freshman wide receiver Nic Anderson. With 279 receiving yards and five touchdowns through the four games he has played, Anderson has become a sneaky-fast touchdown target for this Sooners offense. They like to use him in sweeps and motions in the red area and he could continue to become an integral threat for this offense as the season continues.
Gabriel spreads the ball out to multiple receivers, with no clearcut No. 1 option — 14 different players have caught a touchdown pass this season, so it will be difficult to pinpoint who will carry the bulk of the touchdown duties this Saturday for PK and this Texas defense.
Venables would like to run the ball more, but through the first five games of the season has had trouble establishing a formidable rushing attack, mainly due to their lack of consistency and defined roles in the running back room. The Sooners are only averaging around 126 rushing yards per game over the last three games, despite averaging 34 rushing attempts each week.
Fifth-year senior running back Marcus Majors seems to be the lead back in this OU backfield, however, the unit as a whole doesn’t seem to have a clearcut leader. Majors has dealt with injuries and academic issues throughout his five years in Norman and this year has prioritized staying healthy and taking on a bigger role in this Sooners offense.
“It’s all on me really,” Major said after OU’s practice on Tuesday. “Just stay in the training room, just being available for my team. Just doing the best I can with that.”
Throughout his first four years in Norman, Major carried the ball 116 times for 525 yards and seven touchdowns. He’s also caught 11 passes for 102 yards and another touchdown, providing a second level of versatility to this Sooners offense.
“We want to continue to improve in our run game — we’re not where we need to be yet,” Venables said on Tuesday
After being the second option for Lebby and this Sooners offense through the first few games of the season, Major’s veteran presence has slowly increased his touches over the last three games, and landed him the most touches in this backfield.
Javonte Barns was the apparent leader in this backfield through the first three weeks, but has seemingly disappeared from the rotation, handing the backup duties to junior running back Tawee Walker.
This Oklahoma offensive line has seen tremendous turnover from last year, with only one returning starter in senior center Andrew Raym (6’4, 309 pounds). Venables looked to the transfer portal for help at left tackle, bringing in fifth-year senior Stanford transfer Walter Rouse (6’6, 322 pounds).
Despite this many new faces up front, this offensive line has managed to keep Gabriel clean through the first five games of the season with only four sacks allowed so far. Although, this offense has yet to see a defensive line as talented as Texas’ up until this point, so this should be a big test to better gauge this Sooners’ big uglies.
Overall, this offense has had trouble starting slow so far in the season. They let Iowa State, Cincinnati, and SMU all hang around in the first half before taking the game over in the second. I’m not sure if it’s bad game scripts by Lebby or bad execution by the offense in the first half, but they struggle to create a wide margin against less talented teams in the first half. However, they come out firing in the second half through good halftime adjustments that leave the scoreboard and stat sheet telling a different story.
Second-year defensive coordinator Ted Roof and this Oklahoma defense are the catalysts that have made up for this season’s comings on the offensive side of the ball.
“The multiplicity of what they do is very challenging,” Sarkisian said Monday. “They’ve got a lot of defense fronts and different coverages. They’ve got a lot of pressure packages. So, it’s definitely challenging on that front, especially when they’re all on the same accord and working well together.”
Roof and Venables have brought in nine transfers to retool this defense that allowed 49 unanswered points in last year’s Red River Rivalry and they have certainly stepped up to the challenge this year.
The defense is led by junior linebacker Danny Stutsman, who has become the heart and soul of this defense in his third year.
“His leadership, he just took it to another level,” Venables explained Tuesday. “Through all of his work, the improvement in his knowledge, the improvement through that work, he had a lot of confidence coming into the season.”
Stutsman leads the team with 49 tackles and nine tackles for loss on the season and has become the centerpiece for this new Oklahoma defense.
“Stutsman, historically with Brent, he’s always had that kind of playmaker linebacker in his system that he asks a lot of,” Sarkisian said Monday. “He’s a really good blitzer. He can pressure the quarterback, he’s really good at coverage and zone coverage of keeping his eyes on the quarterback to create turnovers. And he’s a good tackler. So I think for all that it takes football IQ and you definitely can tell he’s got it he’s got a high football IQ over there with what they do.”
So far this season the Oklahoma defense has totaled nine sacks and is capable against the run. The Sooners currently hold the 28th-best rushing defense in the league allowing 105.2 rushing yards per game.
The secondary is led by junior strong safety Billy Bowman Jr. and has been elite in taking the ball away this season. With 10 interceptions on the year, two of which came from Bowman, this Sooners secondary blankets receivers on the deep ball.
However, much like the Kansas secondary last week, because they are so hyper aggressive they tend to allow big plays in the passing game in their attempts to jump passes.
Bowman is flanked by fifth-year senior Justin Harrington, who plays at the CHEETA position, a hybrid defensive position of nickel and safety.
“Well, it starts with the versatility, the ability to play coverage and at the same time, be physical enough to get in the box and be efficient in there,” said Roof. “So, a lot of versatility there.”
The front seven is where this defense has seen the most change from last year, due to the addition of some notable transfers.
Roof brought in fifth-year senior defensive tackles Rondell Bothroyd (6’3, 275 pounds) from Wake Forest and Da’Jon Terry (6’3, 321 pounds) from Tennessee by way of Kansas. Junior defensive tackle Ethan Downs (6’4, 263 pounds) is the only returning starter for this defensive front.
Defensive tackle Jacob Lacey, a fifth-year senior transfer from Notre Dame, was named a first-year captain for this week — “he’s a really hard-working guy, super positive, easy to coach, brings out the best in guys around him, so he’s earned this opportunity,” Venables said.
This defensive line is full of depth and veteran players brought in through the transfer portal with 10 total seniors throughout the rotation. The defensive front is certainly their deepest unit on the roster, so they will have a steady stable of fresh legs throughout the entirety of this game, and the rest of the season.
In response to questions about his new-look defense, Venables responded, “They’re all hungry and to me it’s the front-line guys. If it’s Dasan McCollough or it’s Jeren Kanak — we’ve got a lot of first-year players. A lot of them are young, or maybe it’s their first year as a transfer. But they’re hungry, they’re driven, they really feed off of each other.”
The Sooners are right below Texas in third-down defense at 10th in the nation, allowing conversions only 27.6 percent of the time, and are the second-best scoring defense in the league with 34 total points allowed on the season.
Through the air and on the front, this Sooners defense has been able to keep the team in games as the offense takes time to develop their rhythm. However, they are not as battle-tested against the likes of this Texas offense. The skill positions of Brooks, Worthy, and Mitchel will be a great test behind this elite offensive line to prove if they can continue to create turnovers and get to the quarterback against a top-five offense in college football.
Gavin Freeman handles the bulk of the punt-return duties, while Peyton Bowen also works in the return game. Against Arkansas State, Freeman had one 82-yard punt return for a touchdown, making him a notable threat against this Texas punting unit.
Zach Schmit is the field goal kicker for the Sooners and he is all but automatic, going 6-of-7 on field goals this season with a season long of 46. Schmit has yet to miss an extra point this year, going a perfect 29-of-29 through the first five games.
This Oklahoma team may be undefeated through the first five games of the season, but Venables, Gabriel, and the Sooners have yet to face a top-25 opponent, which makes their early-season success harder to evaluate.
They have ended games well, but overall have let less talented teams such as Iowa State, SMU, and Cincinnati teams hang around through the first half. Their success through the air will be tested by this Longhorns secondary and Gabriel’s ability to run with physicality will be risky against Jaylan Ford and this hard-hitting Texas defense.
It will be interesting to see how the offensive and defensive schemes will change going into this matchup, as everyone seems to play faster and hit harder in the Red River Rivalry. This game will be a great barometer to determine if Gabriel’s early season success is a product of his talent, or lackluster defenses.
The key to success for Texas on defense should be to make Gabriel uncomfortable. If he tries to drop his shoulder against the likes of Ford or Murphy, make that the last time he tries that for the rest of the season. Texas must limit the explosive plays that this Oklahoma offense is capable of, and put a lid on the back end of the defense against these Sooner receivers.
On offense the Longhorns should try and test this defensive front. Texas has one of the best offensive lines in the game, and should try to dominate the line of scrimmage and running game with Jonathan Brooks. This defensive secondary is talented, but they have yet to face a team with skill positions as talented as those on this Texas offense. This game will be a great test for Quinn to remain efficient as he has through the first five games of the season, and get the ball into the hands of Xavier Worthy and AD Mitchell.
Texas is favored by 6.5 points, according to DraftKings Sportsbook.
Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details.