It’s Red River Rivalry week and the stakes are high as the No. 3 Texas Longhorns square off with the No. 12 Oklahoma Sooners for control of the conference title race in both schools’ final year in the conference.
Both teams are undefeated and riding high, looking like both are on an upward trajectory as they prepare to jump ship to the SEC next year. This matchup is hard to predict, but this year feels especially tight, so we reached out to Jack Shields, managing editor of Crimson and Cream Machine to help us preview the matchup.
Burnt Orange Nation: After a down year, it looks like Oklahoma has found its way back and is one of the top teams in the conference, if not the country. What have Brent Venables and his staff done to turn things around?
Crimson and Cream Machine: The most important improvement has been the infusion of quality depth along the defensive front. In the case of the defensive line, this has come via the transfer portal. At linebacker, it’s been all about development. In the second year in the system, the game has slowed down for the Danny Stutsman and others, and you’re starting to see the impact.
In the secondary, the young talent — Gentry Williams, Peyton Bowen, etc. — has emerged. These types of players were not meeting their full potential under the previous staff, so it’s a promising and refreshing sight.
BON: Statistically, Oklahoma is one of the top programs in the country, but many folks are knocking them based on a strength of schedule argument. From someone who has watched the Sooners, is that a legitimate argument or is it overblown?
CCM: Both. I’m not sure what Butch Jones is doing at Arkansas State, but it isn’t good. SMU is respectable, I suppose. Tulsa was completely outmatched physically (as should be the case). Cincinnati is not as bad as its 2-3 record, and that game probably would’ve been an L last year. Iowa State seems to be improving, but by no means will that be a quality win.
What I will say is that Oklahoma is making critical plays at critical junctures, which was not happening last season. The scores with Arkansas State, Tulsa, and ISU would be been closer last year, while the games against SMU and Cincy would’ve been in serious doubt.
BON: Quarterback Dillon Gabriel had a good season a year ago and is outperforming his numbers in 2023. What has made the difference in his game this year?
CCM: He seems to be much more comfortable in the pocket, and he’s shown much better accuracy in the intermediate game. Additionally, I think he just has more playmakers at receiver. This team doesn’t have a Marvin Mims, but the group is more dangerous as a whole.
Another element is the QB run game. Last season, Oklahoma did not have a viable backup QB (as you are aware). Obviously, OU had to more conservative in that regard. Now you’re seeing him make some plays with his legs, particularly in the red zone.
BON: Perhaps the biggest turnaround from a year ago is the Oklahoma defense, who are up 15 spots in opponent-adjusted defensive efficiency, which was already a step up from the final year of the Riley era. How have they leveled up so quickly?
CCM: Going back to the first question, it’s largely been thanks to help from the portal and the development of its younger guys. Ten years ago, this transition would’ve been a 3-year rebuild. To some degree it still is, but the portal certainly expedites the process.
Other than McCullough, none of the defensive portal additions have All-American upside, but Venables and Co. have been good about bringing in the right body types to accomplish what they want to accomplish up front.
BON: What is one storyline you’re watching on Saturday?
CCM: Texas is better up front on both sides of the ball. What I want to see is how Oklahoma will attempt to mitigate this discrepancy through scheme, and how much of a difference will these adjustments make. In short, Texas is a year ahead of Oklahoma in the area of SEC suitability, so I want to see how OU fares in this regard.
BON: Oklahoma wins this game if….
CCM: If the pass rush is able to get home, and if OU is able to truly establish the run, they’ll have a shot.
BON: Oklahoma loses this game if...
CCM: Simply put, they lose if the above two things don’t happen.
BON: What’s your prediction or Saturday?
CCM: I’ll go with Texas in a close one. Based on OU’s remaining schedule, I think we’ll be able to reconnect for another one of these discussions in a couple of months. Bill Bedenbaugh’s offensive lines tend to become better run-blocking units as the season goes along. If that happens again, I’ll actually like OU’s chances at that point.