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How the Red River Rivalry defines Texas seasons with high expectations

“This is not a regular season game, it’s a bowl game at mid season.”

Syndication: Austin American-Statesman RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL / AMERICAN- / USA TODAY NETWORK

The Red River Rivalry. Arguably the biggest game in sports. Every year, same time, same place, a game that defines success or failure for the Texas Longhorns. No matter how much potential or success any Texas team has had through the first five games of the season, a win at the Cotton Bowl acts as the barometer for the rest of the season. Primarily when expectations are as high as they are this year.

“Heroes are made in this game,” former head coach Mack Brown once said. “You can stink for the rest of your career, and if you make a play in this game, they love you for the rest of your life — It’s special and unique. It’s why people come to Texas and go to Oklahoma, just to play in this game.”

Texas–OU weekend has saved and ended coaches’ careers, it’s turned unknown players into legends, and high expectations into failures. How will this year’s matchup ultimately define the Longhorns this year?

At the beginning of this season, Sarkisian and the Longhorns defined success as competing for or winning a Big 12 championship, saying, “Our goal is to get to Arlington in December — to compete for the Big 12 Championship Game.”

However after five weeks, two wins against ranked opponents, and the No. 3 ranking in the national AP poll, expectations for this Longhorn team are much larger than just the conference.

“We can all collectively say ‘Texas is back,’” said SEC Network’s Paul Finebum. “I think Sarkisian has a top three roster in the sport,” said Colin Cowherd.

A win against Oklahoma can only result in two outcomes — affirming the rat poison or consuming it. How quickly will the hype train for Ewers and Sarkisian dry up after a loss, or run off the rails after a win. There is a history behind the shift in momentum a win at the State Fair can bring for both teams.

In Sarkisian’s first year the Longhorns started the season 4–1. People were excited for the new hire with the pending move to the SEC and believed Sarkisian with his experience at Alabama could help lead the Longhorns into the future. In Week Six, Caleb Williams and the Oklahoma Sooners ended up overcoming the largest deficit in Red River history and the momentum shift for the rest of the season was palpable as the Longhorns went on to lose five straight, a season slide that truly culminated in a 57–56 overtime loss to a one-win Kansas team at home. After one game they lost their mojo and they lost their season.

In 2018, Sam Ellinger and the Longhorns beat the Sooners 48–45 in a thriller against Kyler Murray and Lincoln Riley. That season led to the high point of then-head coach Tom Herman’s career — a win over Georgia in the Sugar Bowl. The next two seasons they lost, and Herman was out the door.

When Brown and the Longhorns entered the 2010 season, the program outlook seemed strong. They had just competed in their second national championship game in four years, boasted nine 10-plus win seasons in a row, and had back-to-back Red River wins with Colt McCoy. They started the season 3–1 coming into the game, which ended in a 28–20 Sooner win in Dallas. Other than a big win against a stout Nebraska team the week after, the Horns lost five of the last seven games and Brown saw his only five–win season of his career, the start of a slide that ended his tenure on the Forty Acres in 2013.

In 2005, Vince Young and the Texas Longhorns snapped a five-game losing streak against the Sooners and they won a national championship. Anyone else seeing a pattern?

At the midway point of the season, the Red River Rivalry typically shows the ceiling or floor for Texas coming into the second half of the year. It can shift momentum for the better or worse. It shows the warts or bright spots of a Texas roster that is regularly expected to be at least a top-25 team in the nation.

For most seasons it is the first real test against an elite team in college football and a test of whether or not that year’s Texas roster can maintain their composure in the closest thing to a postseason atmosphere that can possibly be simulated in the regular season.

“This is not a regular season game, it’s a bowl game at mid season,” Brown said back in 2020. ”What I finally started doing is saying, ‘Alright, that’s the last game of the season. We’re playing Oklahoma. That’s the bowl game at midseason,’ and then we start over. Because I didn’t want that one to linger into the next week.”

Whichever squad can leave Dallas with a victory, can maintain their composure against any team in the nation. This game not only tests each team’s talent in the physical game, but the mental as well.

“Starve your distractions, feed your focus.” This is the message Sarkisian and his coaching staff are preaching for this week in the Longhorns locker room. “We were able to do that in preparation for the Alabama game with all the stuff going on around this game. We need to be really present with what we’re doing.”

Texas comes into this game with a leg up in that regard winning two games against top-25 opponents. But even a win against Bama is nothing compared to a win against Oklahoma, no matter how good or bad that year’s team may be. The emotions, the rivalry, everyone runs faster and hits harder at the Cotton Bowl. The stakes are just higher in this rivalry that has lasted over a century.

A win for Texas this year would be a testament to their maturity, an affirmation of their potential, and a springboard to a playoff-caliber season that as of now we all believe they are capable of.