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Tuesday, October 05, 2004

INsite: Beyond the Border War 

(note: this is the cover story for the October issue of INsite)

Beyond the Border War

by Andrew Fox

Outside the Cotton Bowl this weekend, hundreds of thousands of people will walk the Texas State Fair midway. They’ll eat corny dogs and fried twinkies, and they’ll drink overpriced beer from paper cups. They’ll ride the Tilt-a-Whirl until they vomit and they’ll collect chotchkes from the Fair’s many exhibitions, most of which will end up in a box in their attic before Halloween.

For the 70,000 fans possessing a ticket to Saturday’s game, though, what goes on outside the Cotton Bowl couldn’t possibly matter less. Those fortunate souls don’t need a roller coaster to entertain them or a piping hot turkey leg to quell their appetite. Instead they’ll feed off of three roller-coaster hours of the best college football can offer – a do-or-die war between two of America’s superpowers – and they’ll take home memories that will last for years.

The game in question? The annual Texas-Oklahoma Red River Shootout. It’s a battle between two tradition-rich schools, a rivalry of intense state pride, and it could never be characterized as just a mere football game.

The winner moves on for a shot at the BCS championship. The loser returns home in shame, its season in shambles.

That’s the conventional thought anyway. Is it true? The Texas Longhorns have been that latter team for four years running. If it extends to a fifth consecutive season this weekend, should the Longhorn faithful go ahead and close the book on 2004 before the first BCS poll’s release? Let’s take a look at what awaits both a Texas win and a Texas loss in the Big XII’s biggest game.

If Texas loses…

Some might say “when,” not “if.”

Few of college football’s talking heads give the Horns a chance to hoist the Golden Hat on Saturday. Oklahoma’s recent dominance has created a sense of skepticism (focused solely toward Mack Brown’s club) unseen in the Lone Star State since the Warren Commission released its infamous report four decades ago.

Cynicism might be a better term, based on the attitude that many Texas fans carry into this weekend. An Oklahoma win would magnify that contempt to a level on par with the ill will that marked John Mackovic’s final days on the Forty Acres.

It won’t, however, destroy Texas’ season. Not necessarily that is. For starters, this could easily be Brown’s best Texas team, but unfortunately, one with a foe that might be the best in the land.

The Longhorns could drop their fifth in a row to Bob Stoops – if they do they’ll at least keep it close – and still salvage 2004. It won’t be pretty at first, but when is any loss pretty at Texas? And it’s not like Brown’s teams haven’t rebounded from OU debacles in the past.

The 2001 Horns stormed back from Dallas despair to climb within a hair of playing for the National Championship. Don’t expect OU – or the four or five other teams that would have to collapse in late November – to give Texas that hope again. The Sooners don’t face Eric Crouch on the plains of Nebraska; Nor will they hiccup away a rivalry game to out-manned Oklahoma State.

So a loss here would mean no BCS Championship shot; though a berth in one of the other BCS games would remain a possibility. The Horns actually had that berth locked up last year, despite the 65-13 Red River Blowout, before Kansas State screwed up those plans with the “Arrowhead Massacre” of OU. Again, that’s an encore unlikely to occur.

One thing that recent history has shown is that losing to Oklahoma usually serves as a wake-up call for Brown and company. Even with a loss, this team remains a formidable power in college football. They’ll play out the stretch like a team that wants to spend New Year’s in Tempe or New Orleans, so don’t be surprised to find them in one of those spots this January.

If Texas Wins…

The simple fact is that no television commentator or major metro sportswriter thinks Texas can beat OU. Therefore any win – big or small – sets the Horns up for something they haven’t experienced in more than twenty years: a true National Championship run.

With a victory over Oklahoma, Texas becomes the prohibitive favorite to capture the Big XII crown. Three of their toughest remaining games come at home (Missouri, Oklahoma State and Texas A&M), so the Longhorns need only avoid potential pitfalls in Lubbock (Texas Tech) and Boulder (Colorado) to advance to the conference title game in Kansas City.

Upsets happen in college football, but there is no chance that Mack Brown follows up a win over OU with two conference losses. It just will not happen.

Even with one defeat, a solid outing in Kansas City will boost Texas among the elite of National Title contenders. Except for USC, which faces its own challenge against California this weekend, none of the other college football powers are set up to easily survive the regular season unscathed.

SEC juggernaut Georgia has struggled several times already, and surprise contender Auburn is certainly beatable. Ohio State already has a loss, and Big Ten rival Michigan looked mediocre at best in a hard-fought home win over San Diego State. Miami’s usually high-octane offense has lacked punch thus far, as has Florida State’s.

It’s not only probable that both Orange Bowl participants could sport a blemish on their record, it’s likely. That’s the reality of college football these days.

So as long as the Horns get to Kansas City and win that game, the odds say that Texas fans could finally see the UT Tower illuminate the Austin skyline again in a show of national football supremacy. With a conference title in his pocket and an OU feather in his cap, Mack Brown could finally grasp the opportunity that has eluded him for so many years.


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