Commentary

Horns face first test in Red River Rivalry

Updated: October 16, 2009, 11:50 AM ET
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

When Texas coach Mack Brown sat down for his Monday news conference, his first words into the microphone were, "It's finally here."

[+] EnlargeMack Brown
Brian Bahr/Getty Images Mack Brown isn't worried about revenge or the rankings.

To which the rest of us say: It's about time. We need the Red River Rivalry between Texas and Oklahoma to get a read on the boys in burnt orange.

The least-scrutinized No. 3-ranked team in years jumps into a Texas State Fair-sized petri dish Saturday (ABC, noon ET) for full block-and-tackle examination.

The Longhorns are hardly obscure: They play home games in front of more than 100,000 people; they're on television more often than "Seinfeld" re-runs; their quarterback was the 2008 Heisman Trophy runner-up; their tradition is bigger than Bevo's horns.

Despite all those built-in attention advantages, this Texas team has been bizarrely buzz-less. Two reasons:

  • • The schedule has been wimpy.

It's the 100th-toughest in the nation, according to Jeff Sagarin. The Horns are the only team in the AP top seven not to have faced a ranked opponent. Even the one game people cared about, Sept. 19 against Texas Tech, was overshadowed by Florida-Tennessee and USC's loss to Washington.

Every weekend, there has been a bigger game. Even this one has lost some luster as Oklahoma has lost twice (by a total of two points). The unquestioned preseason Game of the Year today earns no better than co-Game of the Week billing with USC-Notre Dame.

  • • The highlights have been skimpy.

Bad competition is one thing. Failure to maul bad competition is another. The Horns failed to take the lead for good until 24 seconds remained in the first half against Wyoming, and until the third quarter against Colorado.

[+] EnlargeColt McCoy
Jim Cowsert/US PresswireColt McCoy hasn't played as well as he did in '08 -- yet.

"They've started this year's games at the level of their competition because they think they're pretty cool right now," Brown said of his players. "That's a dangerous thing."

Along the way, the Heisman runner-up has been less spectacular than last year. Colt McCoy has run the ball less often and less effectively, and he's already thrown six interceptions after throwing just eight all last season (though Brown will point out that four of the '09 picks have been tipped or deflected).

Meanwhile, the Texas running backs have failed to pick up McCoy's slack. The Horns are a tepid 39th nationally in rushing, and when Texas ran for a puny 46 yards against a Buffaloes defense that was gouged for 305 yards by Toledo and 257 by West Virginia, worry swept across the Lone Star State. That worry intensified when the top two backs to date -- Vondrell McGee and Tre' Newton -- both were injured against Colorado and are question marks for Oklahoma.

"Just blame me and move on with it," Brown said, trying to dismiss the topic.

Despite some of the wobbling, there has been no spill. Texas remains undefeated. Texas has scored exactly as many points through five games in 2009 as it did through five games in '08, averaging 47.2 per game. Texas is in prime position to play for its second national championship in the past five seasons.

Brown wants people to keep that in mind. Which is why he pointed out what a difference in expectation can mean in appraising a team.

In 2008, it was widely anticipated that the Horns would take a step back -- that their seven-year string of double-digit victories would come to an end. Instead, they went 12-1 and were jobbed out of a chance to play for the national title.

This year, Texas was viewed as the prime competition to defending champ Florida -- and it still might be. But the Horns have been jumped in the AP Top 25 by Alabama, which dominated a ranked Mississippi team on the road while Texas schlepped past Colorado at home.

"If you would've watched Alabama Saturday and then watched us," Brown said, "I'd probably put them ahead of us."

But now comes a chance to make an impression on voters still trying to get a handle on the Horns.

Oklahoma is 3-2 but still Oklahoma -- loaded with talent and loaded with incentive. The Sooners' defensive front seven is in the argument for best in the nation, and there is NFL-level ability at quarterback and running back as well. The difference from last year is a lack of experience on the offensive line and at receiver, which has slowed down the ridiculously potent offense of '08.

"I think we got used to scoring 60 points," offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson said. "I don't know that 60's out there."

[+] EnlargeSam Bradford
Jackson Laizure/US PresswireSam Bradford returned to Oklahoma's ineup last week.

What remains out there: the chance to ruin Texas' national title dreams and win the Big 12 South for the fourth straight season. With the crystal football out of reach, this game looms as a season-maker in Norman.

The return of 2008 Heisman winner Sam Bradford after missing 3½ games with a shoulder injury sharpens the story angles for this game. He lit up Baylor last week for 389 yards -- with several dropped passes. His presence alone adds significant juice to the matchup and significant hope for Sooners fans.

"No slight on Landry [Jones, the backup], but last year [Bradford] was the best player in college football," Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said. "Of course it's different. You're not just talking about any old guy."

Nor are you talking about any old rivalry -- not in any year, and especially not after 2008. That season ended with the Sooners' having lost the Red River battle but having won the Big 12 war, thanks to a controversial tiebreaker. Texas fans certainly haven't forgotten how that went down and will not forget about it, no matter how much Brown might try to defuse the topic this week.

"People have constantly asked me is there revenge for what OU did to us last year," Brown said. "All OU did was win all their games after us.

"They didn't do anything to us. It wasn't about them. Our problem is we lost to [Texas] Tech and put the decision-making process back in the hands of the BCS computers and the Big 12 tiebreakers. … It came down to outside sources that made that decision, not the two teams."

Thanks to the arrival of a worthy opponent on a big stage, outside sources will finally be able to come to some definitive opinions about buzz-less Texas and its 2009 championship worthiness.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.