Horns, Sooners hope to avoid 0-2 start to Big 12 play

NORMAN, Okla. -- Big Tex still will be lording over the proceedings.

The insults will be flying between rival fans on the midway before this season's Texas-Oklahoma game on Saturday (ABC, 3:30 ET). The corny dogs and funnel cakes will be just as scrumptious on the nearby midway of the State Fair of Texas.

But losses by both teams have robbed this year's edition of the Red River Rivalry of much of its significance. They have left the 79th consecutive matchup in Dallas as almost an afterthought in this weekend's cornucopia of great games.

Those recent setbacks have robbed the bitter feud of much of its national appeal. But Saturday's game still has important and far-reaching consequences despite shocking losses by Texas to Kansas State and Oklahoma at Colorado last week.

Desperation has replaced elation for both teams. Each team approaches the rivalry game coming off a loss for the first time since 1999.

The winner of the game still controls its destiny in the South Division. The loser might be headed to the Alamodome in December -- for the Valero Alamo Bowl.

That realization has ratchetted up the importance of Saturday's game in Dallas -- even if a top national ranking won't be decided. Both teams started the season with legitimate national title hopes but could find them quashed by the second week of October.

"We both know there's a lot on the line," Oklahoma wide receiver Malcolm Kelly said. "Rankings don't matter. This is a big game every year because of the nature of the game. But with both teams coming off losses, we know that it's even bigger this year."

With their national title hopes dealt a serious blow, the Sooners say they still have plenty to play for in the Red River Rivalry. The two schools have divvied up the last eight South Division titles, with the Sooners accounting for five of them.

Those hopes could be a long shot for Saturday's loser, considering that no Big 12 South team has ever been able to claim a division championship after beginning conference play with a two-game losing streak.

"I really think all that makes it even bigger because it adds intensity," Oklahoma tackle Trent Williams said. "Knowing the pride in both of our programs, it's really a do-or-die situation for both of us. One of our biggest goals was to win the Big 12 South. We know that by going 0-2 to start the season, we wouldn't be able to do that. And that's going to add a little hype to the game."

The Longhorns see the game in similar terms after a disappointing home loss.

"This game is very pivotal for us,"Texas defensive end Brian Orakpo said. "We both want to get back on that winning track again and we are both coming in with an awful loss. And we both have something to prove."

The recent turn of affairs was particularly shocking for the Sooners, who were ranked third and were playing like one of the nation's best teams. Oklahoma was leading the nation with a scoring average of 61.5 points and seemed capable of outscoring any opponent behind wunderkind freshman quarterback Sam Bradford.

That all unraveled last week in Oklahoma's 27-24 loss at Colorado. In the process, the Sooners squandered a 17-7 halftime lead as the Buffaloes stormed back for 17 unanswered points in the fourth quarter.

"We've been humbled," Oklahoma linebacker Lewis Baker said. "A lot of us were down -- coaches, players. But our coach reminds us that we're still a great football team and we can't let a loss keep you from trying to reach your goal."

The Sooners self-destructed with a variety of struggles down the stretch at Colorado. Leading receiver Kelly did not have a pass thrown to him in the entire game. Oklahoma's offense struggled with a litany of turnovers and key penalties as the Sooners had no drive longer than five plays during the second-half collapse.

The Sooners converted only one of nine third-down plays and wore down as the Buffaloes had 82 offensive snaps compared to 46 for the Sooners, including a 46-19 advantage in the second half.

Bradford suffered the worst game of his short career, completing only eight of 19 passes with two interceptions.

Despite those struggles, Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops expects Bradford to rebound against the Longhorns, excelling in the same situation where Texas' Colt McCoy thrived in the past season as a freshman.

"I don't think his confidence will be shaken, whatsoever," Stoops said. "He's doing an excellent job in what we're asking him to do. Sam was the least of our problems the other day. There's a whole bunch of other things around him that need to be better."

Texas had its own problems in a 41-21 loss to Kansas State that was the worst home defeat in Mack Brown's coaching tenure with the Longhorns.

A litany of big plays doomed Texas as Kansas State produced a punt return, a kick return and an interception return for touchdowns.

After winning a Big 12-record 21 consecutive games from the middle of the 2004 season to late last season, the Longhorns have now lost their last three conference games.

"At a place like Texas, when you lose a game, there's a huge backlash of negatives," Brown said. "What you have to tell your team [is] that there are some things that you did well and some that you need to fix. Then, you have to go right back to work and pull your reins in a little tighter as a team and family in order to try to correct those mistakes and not let that negativity outside your [football] family get inside."

An aggressive, physical Kansas State defense bullied the Longhorns at the point of attack, forcing McCoy into a career-high four interceptions and later knocking him out of the game with a mild concussion. It marked the second-straight season that McCoy was unable to finish a loss against the Wildcats.

"We know as a team that we're better than what we displayed on that day,"Texas tackle Tony Hills said. "It just makes you want to go out there and prove it. These guys are going to fight. You never have to question the heart of this team, even if things aren't going their way."

But some have wondered if Texas' recent string of off-the field problems -- the program has had six players arrested since June -- might have robbed the team of focus.

Former Texas quarterback Vince Young returned to the team last week during an off week with the Tennessee Titans to impart a message of getting things right.

"The reason we were able to beat Oklahoma [in 2005], win the Big 12 and beat USC was we were a team," Young told the Dallas Morning News. "There were no 'me' guys off to themselves. This team has all the talent in the world. They just need to pull together."

The Longhorns have not started a conference race 0-2 since 1956, when Texas finished 1-9 overall and 0-6 in the Southwest Conference. Legendary coach Darrell Royal was hired to replace Ed Price after that lost season.

Even with the diminished national attention, the annual rivalry hasn't abated. It was thrown into a new national spotlight earlier this summer after an infamous bar altercation in Oklahoma City.

Texas fan Brian Christopher Thomas nearly was castrated in a bloody skirmish with Sooners fan Allen Michael Beckett after an argument that was precipitated by Thomas' Longhorns T-shirt and some not-so-friendly trash talk about the fortunes of the two teams.

Stoops said he wasn't surprised by the bar fight, considering the extreme rivalry among some fans on both sides.

"No, I'm not," Stoops said. "Some of those joints you would go in are pretty rough. And there are some strong allegiances out there."

Brown said it would be hard to make generalizations about the two sets of fans, although he is familiar with both of them.

"But there would be some fans that don't like each other and are very aggressive," said Brown, who served as offensive coordinator at OU in 1984. "But I'm sure not going to wear a [Texas] T-shirt in a bar in Oklahoma."

All of that won't change at the Cotton Bowl Saturday afternoon, even if both teams' approaches might be a tad muted after last week's disappointments.

"For us, it's still a big game," Stoops said. "We always start off the year wanting to win the South and win the conference. That makes it a big game. It's like it always is. You have to win it."

Tim Griffin covers the Big 12 for the San Antonio Express-News.