Saturday, October 13, 2012

Renewing the Red River Rivalry

Earl Campbell ran for 126 yards and the game's only touchdown
when #5 Texas defeated #2 Oklahoma on Oct. 8, 1977.

This Saturday brings the 103rd meeting between Oklahoma and Texas in what is known as the Red River Rivalry.

As in most such border battles, there is a lot of pride involved. But a big portion of that pride comes from the fact that both OU and UT partisans are accustomed to having their teams in the Top 10 (if not the Top 5) when they play each other. Thus, there are national championship implications — even if neither team ends up playing for the national title.

The last time these teams met and neither team was ranked in the Top 10 was in 1999, when Texas was ranked 23rd and Oklahoma wasn't ranked at all. In fact, the 1990s was hardly the best decade in the series. Only the Oklahoma teams of 1990 and 1991 entered the game with Top 10 rankings.

It was a far cry from the 1970s and 1980s, when one or both teams routinely brought Top 10 rankings to Dallas' Cotton Bowl.

No matter what the rankings were, though, the OU–Texas game always seemed (to me) to be about two main things — ground games and defenses.

Having grown up in Arkansas and having graduated from the University of Arkansas, I have no fondness for the Texas Longhorns. Texas was Arkansas' greatest rival until the Razorbacks left the Southwest Conference in the early 1990s. It still isn't easy for me to go through an entire football season without an Arkansas–Texas football game.

For me, LSU and Alabama will always be surrogates for the real thing.

Actually, I have no real fondness for the Oklahoma Sooners, either, but the Razorbacks have seldom played Oklahoma. In fact, the teams have played each other only three times in my lifetime.

(Also, in the interest of full disclosure, I did work at OU as a journalism professor in the 1990s — and during that time, I did pull for the Sooners. But I stopped doing that when I left the campus.)

With Texas, it was different. The Longhorns played Arkansas every year. They were in the same conference. And Texas usually beat Arkansas every year. There were a few exceptions when I was growing up, but, for the most part, Texas prevailed.

I didn't pay much attention to the Texas–Oklahoma game most of the time. More often than not, both were undefeated — and they usually faced each other the week before Arkansas played Texas. I remember hoping that Texas and Oklahoma would beat each other senseless and fight to a draw (there was no overtime in college football in those days).

My hope was that Texas would limp into the game with Arkansas and, thus, be vulnerable. There were several occasions when Oklahoma hammered Texas, but it never really worked out that the Longhorns were so devastated that they could dispose of the Razorbacks.

Probably the OU–Texas game that made the greatest impression on me was the one played 35 years ago — when the series was known as the Red River Shootout. Behind a third–string quarterback named Randy McEachern and a powerful running back named Earl Campbell (who wound up winning the Heisman Trophy that year), fifth–ranked Texas defeated second–ranked Oklahoma, 13–6.

I hoped against hope that the Longhorns and their fans had exhausted themselves in the Cotton Bowl that October, but no such luck. Texas came to Fayetteville the following week and beat the Razorbacks, 13–9.

George Schroeder writes in USA Today that the series is losing its luster. But I don't agree. It still shines in these parts.

The OU–Texas football game, set against the backdrop of the Texas State Fair, is one of the great spectacles in college sports. Even if it doesn't have the dramatic twists and turns of that 1977 game, it is almost always worth watching.

Idle: #2 Oregon, #14 Georgia, #16 Clemson

  • #1 Alabama at Missouri, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on CBS: Missouri actually leads this series, but there's a catch. These teams haven't played each other in 34 years.

    Missouri won the first two meetings — in the 1968 Gator Bowl (35–10) and in Birmingham, Ala., in 1975 (20–7) — but Alabama won the only encounter where today's game will be played, Columbia, Mo., in 1978.

    If there is little to be learned from the past, perhaps the numbers from the present can give us some clues.

    For instance, Alabama has the top–rated defense in the nation; Missouri's defense is a respectable #26. I'm inclined to think that Alabama will have an easier time with Missouri's offense (ranked 96th) than Missouri will have with Alabama's offense (68th).

    What's more, unbeaten Alabama is coming off a bye week while Missouri is still looking for its first SEC win. I pick Alabama.
  • #3 South Carolina at #9 LSU, 7 p.m. (Central) on ESPN: This will be the 20th time these teams have played each other, and South Carolina has won only twice — in 1994 and in the very first meeting in 1930.

    That should provide plenty of incentive for the Gamecocks, and they're going to need it. LSU's third–ranked defense is likely to be a problem for South Carolina's offense (#63 in the nation), but LSU's 76th–rated offense isn't likely to be much more successful against South Carolina's #11 defense.

    I'll go with the home team — LSU.
  • #4 Florida at Vanderbilt, 5 p.m. (Central) on ESPNU: These teams have been playing each other regularly since the end of World War II, annually since 1992, and Florida has completely dominated the series.

    The Gators have compiled a 34–9–2 record against Vanderbilt, and they will be looking for their 22nd consecutive win over the Commodores today.

    I think they'll get it. Florida has the 12th–ranked defense in the nation (Vandy's defense is ranked 33rd). The offenses are similar — Florida's is ranked 88th, Vanderbilt's is 90th.

    But it's worth noting that the unbeaten Gators have already played Tennessee and LSU. Vanderbilt, on the other hand, played South Carolina tough on opening day but got blown out by Georgia.

    I feel confident in picking Florida to win.
  • #5 West Virginia at Texas Tech, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on ABC: West Virginia, with Geno Smith at quarterback, has the nation's third–ranked offense.

    Texas Tech's offense isn't too shabby, either, holding down the 16th spot in the national rankings.

    Texas Tech, however, has the #2 defense in the land, which would suggest that West Virginia's offense might have some trouble in Lubbock — except for a couple of things to keep in mind — 1) Oklahoma's offense is ranked 28th, pretty good, not perfect but it still slapped Tech around last week, and 2) West Virginia's defense is currently ranked #102, but the Mountaineers have had to fend off Texas and Baylor in the last couple of weeks, obstacles the Red Raiders have yet to face.

    The history of the series is of no help, either. The only other time these teams faced each other was in the Jan. 1, 1938 Sun Bowl (won by West Virginia, 7–6).

    It should be an interesting game, but I choose West Virginia to keep its Cinderella season going for another week.
  • #6 Kansas State at Iowa State, 11 a.m. (Central) on FX: After knocking off TCU last weekend, Iowa State has the challenge of facing a Top 10 team this week.

    Iowa State holds the all–time edge in the series, but Kansas State has won five of the last six encounters — and, frankly, figures to make it six of the last seven.

    In the 95 games these teams have played, though, only two others were played on Oct. 13 (in 1951 and 1979), and Iowa State won both. I suppose that is as good a reason as any to be hopeful that Iowa State will prevail.

    The numbers from the current season don't offer much hope for the Cyclones. Kansas State's offense is ranked #41 in the nation (Iowa State's is 91st), although the Wildcats' defense is #44 (compared to Iowa State's 28th–ranked defense).

    History, however, suggests that Iowa State can be dangerous. TCU, of course, was the latest to learn that, losing to Iowa State last week and tumbling out of the Top 25. Last year, Oklahoma State stumbled in the same place where TCU did this year — and where Kansas State is playing today.

    I choose Kansas State.
  • #17 Stanford at #7 Notre Dame, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on NBC: The first time these teams played, it was in the Rose Bowl, Knute Rockne was the coach of the Irish and Calvin Coolidge had just won a full term on his own after completing what remained of Warren Harding's term after his death.

    This will be the teams' 27th game, and, if the Irish win, they will have won exactly two–thirds of their encounters. But Stanford has won the last three in a row — and will be hoping to make it four straight.

    Can the Cardinal do it?

    I don't think so. Notre Dame has a higher ranked offense and defense — and the home field advantage. I don't think the Cardinal will be able to overcome that. Clearly — well, I presume it's clear — I choose Notre Dame.
  • #8 Ohio State at Indiana, 7 p.m. (Central) on Big Ten Network: This series is just about as lopsided as it gets.

    Ohio State has won 68 of 81 meetings (that's 86%) and 24 of 27 games played at Indiana (that's more than 90%).

    At this point in the season, Indiana has the nation's #26 offense (compared to Ohio State at #44). And the Hoosiers have been scoring a lot, even as they have taken three consecutive losses following a 2–0 start.

    But Indiana has the 94th–ranked defense — thanks in large part to giving up 116 points in the last three games.

    The 6–0 Buckeyes, on the other hand, had held all their opponents below 30 points until last week's 63–38 victory over Nebraska.

    Is there any chance Indiana can win? I don't think so. I pick Ohio State.
  • #10 Oregon State at Brigham Young, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on ABC: Not nearly as productive offensively as its in–state rival, Oregon State does have a better defense than Oregon (but not by much).

    BYU, however, brings the fifth–ranked defense, which should be able to handle OSU's 32nd–ranked offense. QB Sean Mannion leads the Beavers.

    Once known for its prolific quarterbacks, BYU's offense now ranks #72, and that should be even easier for Oregon State's defense to deal with, even though the Beavers are ranked #39.

    I'm just not sold on the Beavers. Maybe I will be after their game with the Cougars. But they've only played two games at BYU — and the last one was in 1986 — so there really isn't much recent history to study.

    I'm going to go with Brigham Young and its defense.
  • #11 USC at Washington, 6 p.m. (Central) on Fox: The good news in this game is that the Huskies are at home.

    When they've had to play the Trojans in Los Angeles, they've lost nearly three–quarters of the time. But in Washington, the Huskies and Trojans are almost even. USC leads, 18–17–4.

    And the Huskies won the last time they played the Trojans in Washington — but that victory snapped a three–game winning streak for the visitors.

    History can tell you a lot about what to expect — but it isn't infallible. For that, it helps to know how the teams have been performing to date.

    And Southern Cal has just been better on both sides of the ball than Washington. I have to go with USC.
  • Boston College at #12 Florida State, 4:30 p.m. (Central) on ESPN2: When I was growing up, the cliche was that defense wins championships.

    In recent years, we've seen some exceptions to that rule — but, for the most part, it still seems to hold true.

    And Florida State has the nation's #4 defense — so far. If it plays up to expectations, Florida State should have little trouble with Boston College's 52nd–ranked offense.

    And I would expect the Seminoles' 14th–ranked offense (led by the nation's eighth–ranked QB, E.J. Manuel) to manhandle Boston College's defense, which hasn't even been good enough to rank in the Top 100.

    All this — and the home field, too. Give me Florida State.
  • #15 Texas vs. #13 Oklahoma, 11 a.m. (Central) on ABC: When I was growing up, this series was never really known as an aerial circus.

    But, this year, Texas bring the #3 quarterback in the country, David Ash, who is completing more than 75% of his passes.

    The series really was known more for its punishing ground attacks — in that regard, OU has Damien Williams, who is averaging nearly eight yards per carry — and great defenses — OU's is 17th in the nation so far.

    But if the Sooners have the advantage on defense — and they do (Texas is ranked 74th) — the Longhorns have the edge (but, really, only slightly) on offense. Texas is 25th in that category; Oklahoma is 28th.

    In large part, I guess it could be said that Texas' numbers have been disproportionately affected by the Longhorns' recent schedule. They played Oklahoma State and West Virginia in the last two weeks, two of the best offenses in the country; Oklahoma will play those teams back to back in November.

    But the Sooners have faced Kansas State and Texas Tech in their last two games — and held both under 25 points.

    I think defense will prevail, and Oklahoma will beat Texas for the third straight time.
  • #18 Louisville at Pittsburgh, 10 a.m. (Central) on ESPNU: I suppose one could be forgiven for wondering what is on the line in this game.

    Pittsburgh is 2–3 and winless in Big East play. Louisville is 5–0 and coming off a bye week.

    Well, Louisville might have something to prove, even against the likes of Pitt. Hold on to your hats, but Pittsburgh is ranked ahead of Louisville in both offense and defense.

    OK, the difference between them on defense is almost nonexistent — Pitt is 22nd, Louisville is 24th. It's much greater on offense, where Pittsburgh (led by QB Tino Sunseri) is ranked 31st and Louisville (led by QB Teddy Bridgewater and halfback Senorise Perry) is 70th.

    It's a streaky series. Louisville has lost the last four in a row, but, if the Cardinals can snap that skid, they will knot the series at 8–8.

    I think Louisville will do it.
  • Tennessee at #19 Mississippi State, 8 p.m. (Central) on ESPN2: In the last 25 years, these teams have played 10 times — and Tennessee has won nine of those games.

    But Mississippi State's last victory over Tennessee — in 1994 — came in Starkville, where today's game will be played.

    Perhaps that is a good omen. Some of the numbers from this season sure aren't. For example, Tennessee has a higher–ranked offense (#17 in the nation compared to #64), behind QB Tyler Bray and halfback Rajion Neal. The 3–2 Volunteers have scored 197 points. The Bulldogs do have QB Tyler Russell but little else.

    However, in the proud tradition of SEC champions, Mississippi State is 25th in defense (and trails four conference rivals in that category) whereas Tennessee languishes in 87th place.

    It can be argued that Tennessee has faced tougher competition than Mississippi State, but that will change. The Bulldogs will face Alabama, Texas A&M and LSU in succession in late October–early November.

    At that point, we will find out just what kind of defense the Bulldogs have. For now, I think it will be enough to win for the sixth time this season.

    I'll go with Mississippi State.
  • Syracuse at #20 Rutgers, 11 a.m. (Central) on Big East Network: This series predates America's entry into World War I and has been played annually since 1980.

    Syracuse has won more than 70% of the games that have been played between the two schools, but most of those games were played when Syracuse had a much better program than Syracuse.

    But times have changed. Since 2005, Rutgers has won five of seven meetings. Even better for Rutgers is the fact that the Scarlet Knights have been more successful at home than on the road against Syracuse.

    Of course, it's all relative. Rutgers has won nearly 30% of its home games against Syracuse and about 29% of the road games (Syracuse won two encounters played in New York during World War I).

    Rutgers has been enjoying much more success on the gridiron since 2005 than it did in the preceding years — and, off to a 5–0 start, the Scarlet Knights may well be on their way to their best season ever. If they can get five more wins, they will be in double–digit victory territory for only the third time in school history.

    Syracuse has the edge in offense, ranked #37 compared to Rutgers' #89. But that seems like a contradiction. Rutgers has a higher–rated passer (Gary Nova) than Syracuse (Ryan Nassib). And Rutgers' halfback (Jawan Jamison) is 13th in the country.

    Rutgers has been winning mostly on the strength of its 15th–ranked defense (Syracuse is ranked #40). And, if you have been reading me for awhile, you know that I tend to favor a good defense.

    Accordingly, I will take Rutgers — by about 10 points.
  • Fordham at #21 Cincinnati, 1 p.m. (Central) on I seldom gamble on anything, but I would be willing to bet that this is the first time in a long time — if ever — that a Fordham game has been televised.

    Even if it is online.

    It&apsos;s a first, as far as I can see. Certainly, it appears to be the first time these teams have faced each other in my lifetime.

    And it is a formidable challenge for Fordham. Cincinnati has the 28th–ranked offense in the land. QB Munchie Legaux has completed only 55% of his passes, but he's thrown three times as many touchdowns as interceptions, and halfback George Winn is contributing more than 100 yards per game on the ground.

    Cincinnati's defense has been good but not spectacular, holding the 40th ranking nationally.

    But, really, how good does it have to be to top Fordham? I think Cincinnati will win easily.
  • #22 Texas A&M at #23 Louisiana Tech, 8:15 p.m. (Central) on ESPNU: In the overall rankings, A&M is one slot ahead of Louisiana Tech.

    But in total offense, Tech is one spot ahead of A&M. They are 11th and 12th, respectively. Tech has scored more than 50 points against all but one of its opponents so far.

    The undefeated Bulldogs have been playing the likes of Houston and Rice, though, and their closest contest was their game with Virginia. The Aggies have played Florida and Arkansas.

    The Aggies bring a higher—ranked defense (#45) into the game than Tech (#119) so I'm inclined to give the advantage to Texas A&M.
  • Fresno State at #24 Boise State, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on NBCSN: This hassn't been an extensive (or regular) series — the teams will be meeting for the 15th time since 1977 — but Boise State has dominated, especially at home.

    In fact, Fresno State won the first time the Bulldogs traveled to Boise, but the Broncos have won the last five in a row.

    In the past, it has seemed that teams tended to win in the Mountain West Conference by scoring — a lot. If that still holds true, the edge should belong to Fresno State, currently ranked #20 and led by QB Derek Carr and halfback Robbie Rouse (Boise State is ranked 85th, even though QB Joe Southwick has completed nearly 65% of his passes).

    Both teams are pretty good on defense. Boise has a slim edge in that category; the Broncos are 27th in the nation, the Bulldogs are 31st.
    The 4–1 Broncos have bounced back with four straight wins since losing to Michigan State in their opener. Of their five opponents, only New Mexico has scored more than 17 points on the Broncos.

    The 4–2 Bulldogs surrendered 42 points in their loss to second–ranked Oregon and gave up 40 points in their win over San Diego State., but three of their foes have been held to two touchdowns or less.

    I'm tempted to take Fresno State, but — perhaps based only on reputation — I'm taking the home team, Boise State.
  • Illinois at #25 Michigan, 2:30 p.m. (Central) on ABC: These Big Ten rivals don't always play each other — but, when they do, Michigan usually wins.

    They've played 93 times since 1898, and Michigan has won about three–fourths of the time, whether the games has been played in Champaign or Ann Arbor.

    And, frequently (but not always), Illinois wins when it faces a Michigan team that has been having an off year.

    This Michigan team isn't really having an off year. Sure, the Wolverines are 3–2, but those losses have been to #1 Alabama and #7 Notre Dame. The Illini, meanwhile, are staggering along at 2–4.

    In spite of the presence of Denard Robinson in the lineup, Michigan is ranked #73 in offense, but that looks positively gaudy compared to Illinois' #101 ranking.

    On the defensive side of the ball, Michigan is currently ranked #19. Illinois isn't bad at #37, but everything really points to a (low scoring) Michigan victory.
Last week: 11–7

Season: 97–23

No comments: