Just days after a sobering debut loss to the Maryland Terrapins, newly-minted Texas Longhorns head coach Tom Herman uttered a cautionary quote — “This is a marathon, not a sprint.”
Such a sentiment held true as Texas slumped to a 3-4 start, and then limped to a 6-6 regular season finish before ultimately capturing the program’s first winning season since 2013 and first bowl victory since 2012. As far as 2017 was concerned, though, that was enough, and the general expectation entering 2018 was another simple step forward — further progress, such as an 8-4 regular season finish and something along the lines of an Alamo Bowl bid.
“This is a marathon, not a sprint.”
Still, the finish line as it pertains to the current Texas placement within the college football pecking order is already well within reach. Positioned at No. 9 in the AP Poll and Amway Coaches Poll, and as low as No. 14 in the College Football Playoff rankings, Texas isn’t competing for a national championship this season, and anyone who predicted Texas to do so at this juncture did so prematurely.
But a conference championship? Following a 9-3 regular season finish featuring a 7-2 mark in Big 12 action, Herman now has his Longhorns just one win away from the securing a 10-win campaign and the program’s first Big 12 title since 2009.
Ahead of schedule? Certainly. Overachieving? Herman will agree to that end, and Texas will have to overachieve yet again on Saturday if this Texas-sized turnaround season is to be celebrated in storybook fashion, as the high-powered and heavily-favored No. 5 Oklahoma Sooners await in Arlington.
Though the Longhorns and Sooners are quite familiar with — and a bit less fond of — each other, the circumstances surrounding Saturday’s meeting will force the two to tread historically untouched territory.
The annual Red River Showdown is a given, with the latest edition ending with Texas flaunting the Golden Hat to celebrate a 48-45 win, but the Horns and Sooners haven’t shared a field twice in one season since 1903, and the stakes are much higher this time around with a Big 12 title — and as far as OU is concerned, a potential playoff appearance — hanging in the balance.
First to 50 wins?
Considering how things have played out as of late — specifically for the Sooners — it certainly seems as if it could require 50-plus points to take home the Big 12 title.
The Sooners will enter boasting the nation’s top-ranked offense, per S&P+; one led by Kyler Murray, a Heisman candidate and the newly-crowned Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year.
By this juncture, it’s quite clear what Murray brings to the table. Aside from tremendous efficiency — Murray ranks second nationally with a passer efficiency rating of 206.8 — Murray’s a walking home-run threat with plenty others surrounding him, as Texas learned first-hand during the Red River Showdown.
When gifted the time to set up shop and orchestrate, which happens far more often than not behind an elite offensive line featuring four All-Big 12 selections, Murray has connected with his targets to the tune of 3,674 yards and 37 touchdowns through the air, with more than half of each effort coming courtesy of All-Big 12 first-team selection Marquise Brown (70 receptions, 1,264 yards, 10 TDs) and CeeDee Lamb (51 receptions, 882 yards, 9 TDs).
While the stats aren’t quite as overwhelming, Lee Morris and All-Big 12 first-team tight end selection Grant Calcaterra have proven extremely serviceable throughout the season as well, combining for 766 yards and 12 touchdowns.
The abundance of Oklahoma’s pass-catching options is common knowledge, though, as they make up a unit that ranks second in passing S&P+ (131.8) and passing marginal efficiency (14.5%), and sixth in passing marginal explosiveness (59.5%). That much hasn’t changed since the first time the Oklahoma two-stepped with Texas in early October.
What has changed, however, is how much more of a threat Oklahoma’s ground game has become since the Red River Showdown, thanks in large part to the emergence of Kennedy Brooks.
A solid starting point was actually placing increased emphasis on running the ball. After averaging 33.3 carries per contest and not once rushing 40 times in a single game throughout the first half of the season, Oklahoma has ramped that rushing effort up to 42.5 carries per game since the Texas loss, with four games featuring at least 40 attempts.
However, handing the ball off more has worked hand-in-hand with the emergence of redshirt freshman running back Kennedy Brooks, who has blossomed into Oklahoma’s budding star ball-carrier for the foreseeable future.
After seeing just 15 carries throughout the first six games and only three attempts against Texas, Brooks has since emerged as Oklahoma’s leading rusher with 993 yards on only 103 carries, which makes for an NCAA-leading 9.6 yards per carry. Furthermore, since the Texas game, Brooks saw only five carries against Kansas State and four against Texas Tech, but has since rushed for 518 yards throughout the final three-game stretch of the regular season.
Brooks isn’t alone in his success, either.
Sophomore Trey Sermon has been limited throughout the year while battling various ailments and has seen only three carries for 17 yards throughout the past two weeks, but nevertheless, he’s totaled 863 yards and 11 scores behind three 100-yard showings since the Texas game, including a 206-yard explosion against Texas Tech. Murray’s rushing rise — at least statistically speaking — has been more closely resemblant to that of Brooks. After failing to rush for more than 92 yards once throughout the first eight games, Murray has averaged 94.8 rushing yards per contest throughout the past four appearances, which features a pair of 100-yard showings against Texas Tech (100) and West Virginia (114).
He, too, is eyeing a 1,000-yard campaign with 853 yards to date.
With the ground game now running step-for-step with Murray and the potent passing attack and averaging 320 rushing yards per contest throughout the second half of the season, it’s not exactly surprising that writers like 247Sports’ Chris Hummer are calling Oklahoma’s offense the best ever.
Hawaii set the NCAA record for yards per play in 2006, averaging 8.58 yards per game. Oklahoma is on pace to crush that number, currently averaging 8.92 yards per play. That’s right, the Sooners average over a quarter of a yard more than the best offense in NCAA history. And they’re doing so against Power Five competition.
There’s nobody close to Oklahoma offensively in history. Alabama’s justifiably celebrated 2018 offense is averaging .88 fewer yards an attempt than the Sooners.
This isn’t to imply that Oklahoma’s offense can’t be outpaced, however.
The proof is in the previous meeting between the Big 12’s headliners, as well as Oklahoma’s most recent outing overall.
Though Oklahoma’s offense managed 31 more yards, it was the Texas offense that outscored the Sooners for the first time this season in the Cotton Bowl, 48-45. Much more recently, Oklahoma’s offense was limited to that same 45-point mark after being outscored by West Virginia’s offense, 56-45. In that game, the Mountaineers amassed more total yards with a 704-to-668 edge.
However, the difference in that win-and-get-in game, surprisingly enough, was the Sooners defense, which returned two forced fumbles for touchdowns in a 59-56 win.
The fact that the two efforts in question each saw Oklahoma produce 45 points paint a picture of what kind of afternoon the Sam Ehlinger-led Longhorns offense will need to have to keep pace, and ultimately, solidify their title hopes while ending those of the Sooners.
The good news for the Horns, however, is Oklahoma’s truly elite offense has had to produce points as such a prolific rate because the porous defense has allowed opponents to compile points of their own at a considerable clip.
For example, after seeing Texas pour on 48 points in what served as the Mike Stoops’ final appearance as a Sooner, the defense briefly appeared improved under Ruffin McNeill, allowing only 20 points to TCU and 14 points to Kansas State. There hasn’t been much to write home about throughout the past month, however.
Over its last four appearances against Texas Tech, Oklahoma State, Kansas, and West Virginia, Oklahoma’s defense is sacrificing 47.3 points and 585.3 yards per contest.
Unsurprisingly, the Sooners rank tremendously poorly in numerous key categories, from 84th in defensive S&P+ to 107th in success rate (45.5%) to 109th in marginal efficiency (-0.7%) to 114th in points per scoring opportunity (5.13).
The list goes on and on in a seemingly endless fashion.
While there’s plenty of blame to go around, the bulk of it falls on the secondary, which has been picked apart time and time again this season, just as Ehlinger did en route to 314 yards and two touchdowns earlier this season — both scores and 214 yards went to Collin Johnson and Lil’Jordan Humphrey, who has only blossomed further.
Now set to see Ehlinger again in the Big 12 title game, Oklahoma ranks 84th in passing defense S&P+, 108th in completion percentage rate (63%), and 127th out of 128 teams in passing marginal efficiency.
Worse yet for the Sooners, a secondary that already isn’t exactly talent-rich could be without several key contributors, as starting safety Kahlil Haughton (lower body) is questionable after missing the West Virginia game, as are starting cornerback Jordan Parker and his backup, Justin Broiles (chest).
If an already struggling secondary is ultimately as depleted on Saturday as it’s on pace to be, Ehlinger recording his fourth 300-yard game of the season seems more likely than not, especially considering that he’s unlikely to face much pressure up front.
To that end, the Sooners hardly rank within the top 75 nationally in sacks per game (2.08), and they fare much worse given the pace of competition they play, ranking 101st with a sack rate of only 5.1 percent.
Overall, it’s safe to assume fans of dominant defense won’t be intrigued on Saturday, but Texas can and has beaten Oklahoma in a shootout with a few wrinkles of its own, which will likely need to be replicated to came away with a title-clinching win.
In terms of sheer explosiveness, Texas’ offense quite simply can’t match Oklahoma, as was evident in October — the Sooners averaged 9.2 yards per play while the Longhorns only managed 6.7 yards per play.
The key difference, however, was that the Horns controlled the clock with an advantage of 8:40. Texas will take points however they come on Saturday, but ideally, scores would come at the tail end of lengthy drives that keep Murray sidelined and the Longhorns defense rested; all the while wearing Oklahoma’s defense down further.
Furthermore, forcing a turnover or two as Texas did in October may be necessary. In the Red River Shootout, excluding the last-second fumble, the Longhorns forced two key Murray turnovers — a Brandon Jones interception that led to three points, and a Murray fumble that led to seven more. If the Sooners cruise through Saturday without coughing the ball up, the Texas offense likely won’t be able to keep pace. Otherwise, the recipe for success is there, the Longhorns just have to repeat it.
The general odds aren’t in Texas favor, though. Per S&P+, Oklahoma is a 15.5-point favorite with an 82-percent win probability. The good news for Horns, however, is Herman is 12-1 against the spread dating back to his time at Houston, including nine wins; one of which came in early October and now serves as the lone blemish this season for the Sooners.
Can Texas overcome the odds once more, capturing the program’s fourth Big 12 title while effectively ending Oklahoma’s playoff hopes?