You could point to any number of reasons why the red river shootout has always held a place among the marquee rivalry games in college football. However, since Bob Stoops and Mack Brown arrived at Oklahoma and Texas in the late 1990s, the game has ascended from one the sport's best to arguably its premier annual grudge match. The secret ingredient added by the two coaches: success.
For going on 15 years, these two squads have been playing for way more than pride. OU and Texas have combined for nine conference titles, two national championships and six appearances in the BCS title game since 1999. The early October date has traditionally added to the intrigue, as it's just about the time of year that the national picture is taking shape. The occasions when at least one of the rivals haven't harbored legitimate national title hopes have been few and far between.
But this year, not so much.
Brown and Stoops are undoubtedly touting their chances to their teams to work their way back into the hunt. Only the most sunny of optimists sporting burnt orange or crimson and cream actually buy that. Having already dropped conference home games, just winning the Big 12 feels like a tall order for both.
So throw out the usual "clash of the titans" or "rival playing spoiler" narratives. A better theme for this year is confidence. Specifically, who has more of it?
OU slogged through the first two games of the season, and the sloppiness eventually caught up with it in a disappointing loss to Kansas State that left Sooner Nation stewing. Based on OU's play last weekend versus Texas Tech, the defeat seemingly sharpened the Sooners' focus. It demonstrated a level of resiliency that should give OU fans some comfort with the 'Horns on deck. Of course, Stoops will be back in the line of fire should his team lay an egg Saturday in the Cotton Bowl.
Now, it's the Longhorns who are dealing with the deflation of an emotional loss. Spirits were deservedly high around Austin heading into last weekend's match-up with West Virginia, as the 'Horns had just gone on the road for a quality win over a solid Oklahoma State team. The Mountaineers, however, took down Texas in a highly charged atmosphere at DKR – the kind of defeat that frequently comes with a hangover.
Forget schemes and shaking up the depth chart. For now, Brown's greatest challenge looks to be re-instilling the confidence in his team that it had before stumbling last weekend. In particular, his heralded D has been one of the biggest busts in college football this year and needs to get its groove back.
This game presents a number of compelling physical match-ups, from Texas trying to exploit a thin OU defensive line to the Sooners scheming to keep UT's talented pass rushers at bay. Those kinds of questions offer everyone involved a nice little illusion of control over the outcome of the 2012 Red River Shootout.
Unfortunately for the control freaks, the winner of Saturday's game probably won't hinge on a zone blitz or blocking scheme, though, but rather the confidence of the players doing the blitzing and blocking. Best of luck planning for that.