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Texas can finally turn the corner with a Red River Showdown win over No. 12 Oklahoma

With Texas and OU each at a fork in their season, the stakes are raised during this year’s Red River Showdown.

Oklahoma v Texas Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The annual Red River Showdown is just over a day away and it couldn’t have come at a better time for both, the Texas Longhorns and the Oklahoma Sooners.

After winning three of their last four, the ‘Horns sit at 3-2 — Texas’ best start since 2013 — and the opportunity to finally find some consistency and turn the corner against an elite opponent is there for the taking. Meanwhile, after suffering arguably the worst defeat in school history last weekend — a 38-31 home loss to Iowa State — Oklahoma’s bounce-back effort will come on a national stage against a bitter rival currently tied for first in the Big 12. With a seemingly season-defining showdown at stake, though, the ‘Horns and Sooners appear to be trending in opposite directions — Oklahoma narrowly snuck by winless Baylor prior to losing to Iowa State, while Texas’ lone loss since Maryland came on the road at the hands of No. 4 USC in double overtime.

Now set to square off with a pair of first-year coaches for the first time since 1947, can Tom Herman and Texas remain perfect against first-year Sooner coaches and send Oklahoma home with back-to-back regular season losses for the first time Bob Stoops’ debut season in 1999, which also capped with a loss to the Longhorns?

If that proves to be the case, clamors of, “Texas is back, folks,” may finally be rooted in reality, and as a result, Oklahoma’s College Football Playoff aspirations, and possibly even Big 12 Title hopes, will come crashing down at the Cotton Bowl.

Despite Oklahoma coming off of a historically embarrassing loss to ISU and Texas appearing to be on the up-and-up, the Sooners still stand as two-score favorites. The good news for Texas is that odds, rankings, and anything related become irrelevant once what’s often described as nothing short of a unique experience kicks off. There’s also room for a bit of added optimism of the Texas sideline, considering the man that will lead the Longhorns onto the field has thrived as an underdog throughout his career.

One such effort actually came last season at Oklahoma’s expense, in which Herman guided Houston to a 33-23 season-opening win over the No. 3-ranked Sooners.

Now at Texas with the same defensive coordinator that limited Oklahoma to 23 points last year, this matchup, too, should be decided by how successfully the ‘Horns can hold a dynamic offense in check.

Led by Heisman candidate quarterback Baker Mayfield, the Sooners boast nothing short of an elite offensive attack and it shows across several statistical leaderboards.

Through five games, the Austin native has played pretty close to perfect football, completing 100-134 passes for 1,635 yards and 15 touchdowns, and more notably, no interceptions. As a result, Oklahoma’s aerial attack leads the nation in passing efficiency by a large margin at 217.24, along with ranking No. 5 in the nation in passing yards per game (384.4). Paired with a respectable running game shouldered by Trey Sermon and Abdul Adams, Oklahoma’s offense headlines the entire nation with 587 yards per game, while also ranking No. 6 in scoring offense with 44.6 points each time out.

On one hand, Oklahoma should be able to find a fair amount of success against a Texas secondary that ranks 59th nationally in passing efficiency defense (124.54) and 97th in passing yards allowed per game (249). On the other hand, Mayfield’s near-perfection will be put to the test against a defense that tops the Big 12 with eight interceptions, thanks in large part to safety DeShon Elliott’s five picks.

If Mayfield and the Sooners aren’t able to have their way with Texas through the air, there’s a good chance that the Red River Showdown becomes a lower-scoring affair, which plays into the ‘Horns hands perfectly.

Unfortunately for the Sooners, freshman standout receiver CeeDee Lamb and Adams were banged up against the Cyclones and have been limited in practice throughout the week. If one or both can’t suit up, that throws a significant wrench in the Sooners offensive game plan and more specifically, an Oklahoma ground game that will already face its tallest test simply can’t afford to be without its most explosive option.

Although Sermon leads Oklahoma with 373 yards on the year, he’s done so on 61 carries, while Adams has nearly matched that total with 372 yards on 35 carries — a 10.6 yards per carry average. The Sooners will need every bit of productivity they can get from both, Sermon and Adams to find success against a stout Texas run defense, though.

After allowing Maryland to scamper for 263 yards in the opener, Todd Orlando’s run defense has allowed just 263 total yards in the previous four games; an average of 66 yards per game. With the ‘Horns forcing offenses into a one dimensional focus, Orlando has been able to put his elaborate schemes on full display en route to 10 sacks and 21 tackles for loss through the last three games. Such a stat doesn’t bode well for an Oklahoma offense that’s tied for 46th nationally in sacks allowed per game (1.6) and tackles for loss allowed per game (5.2). Then of course, the natural byproduct of such dominance is defenses being forced into unfavorable third downs, where Texas has thrived, ranking No. 9 in the nation after allowing conversions on only 25 percent of attempts.

Package all of the aforementioned together and you get a Texas defense that headlines the Big 12 nearly across the board — yards per play allowed (5.16), points per drive allowed (1.46) and ranks No. 2 in defensive success rate (35.5%).

In short, the ‘Horns defense has played at a championship level since the Maryland game, allowing just 17 points per game, and while limiting Oklahoma to such minimal productivity shouldn’t be expected, Orlando’s defense at Houston did hold the Sooners to just 393 yards.

If Orlando can’t replicate similar results this time around, the odds of Texas picking up a fourth win in five attempts and likely jumping back into the polls are reduced significantly.

This isn’t to say Texas simply can’t allow points because Oklahoma’s offense is lethal and will reach the scoreboard, but if Saturday turns into a shootout, the ‘Horns don’t have the firepower to keep up.

For example, Texas’ 40 points during last week’s double-overtime win over Kansas State marked its most significant offensive output against a Power 5 opponent since the Texas Tech game last season. It’s worth noting, too, that 21 of Texas’ 27 points in regulation came in the second quarter alone. Sure, Texas appeared to be turning a corner with Sam Ehlinger behind center after the freshman totaled 487 yards of offense, but the defense will need to do its part to assure that kind of output will be enough against the Sooners.

Fortunately for Texas, an elite gunslinger isn’t a necessity to find success against this Oklahoma defense. Against a backup-turned-starter and a third-string quarterback in Baylor’s Zach Smith and Iowa State’s Kyle Kempt, respectively, the Sooners collectively allowed 806 yards and seven touchdowns through the air the last two games. If an injured Steven Parker remains out against Texas and Jordan Thomas continues to struggle at corner, a Collin Johnson-Reggie Hemphill-Mapps duo that totaled 213 yards against Kansas State could be in for a big game and thus, help open things for a struggling run game that may have found its spark in Ehlinger’s dual-threat ability.

Offenses have been able to find success against a banged up Oklahoma defense by spreading the Sooners out and from that point, tackling has proven to be a major issue. Although Chris Warren III hasn’t found much success aside from the San Jose State game, it’s not difficult to imagine Texas finding comfort in a spread aerial attack before running Warren and Ehlinger right at the defense and forcing it to make stops.

While that’s obviously easier said than done, it’s essential for the Longhorns offense to find some sort of consistency and success throughout.

As noted, Oklahoma’s offense is going to put up points because that’s simply what it does better than nearly everyone else in college football. It’s quite possible that Oklahoma becomes the latest offense that the ‘Horns defense holds below its season average, but what will that difference be?

Ideally, Texas would benefit from preventing this from getting past the high 20s or low 30s. That means not only will Texas have to score, as well, but Tim Beck’s unit will need to find ways to keep drives alive and keep Mayfield and his handful of weapons watching from the sidelines.

Where history doesn’t stack up in Texas’ favor though, is not only have the Sooners not lost back-to-back regular season games in nearly two decades, but since 1990, quarterbacks making their first Red River Shootout start against a more proven passer are 2-12-1. It’s safe to say the odds would be against Ehlinger in that regard, if he does, in fact, get the starting nod.

The same can be said for Texas as a whole, as the ‘Horns are not only 9-point underdogs, but own only a projected win probably percentage of 20.4 against the Sooners, per ESPN’s FPI.

As we saw against USC, Texas is ready to rise to the occasion and play to its level of competition, but does Herman have this team ready to turn the corner against a program that housed College Football Playoff aspirations just seven days ago?

For all the progress Texas is making as of late, a step that significant may be a bit too premature.

Oklahoma - 34, Texas - 27