The Red River Showdown traditionally has been a midmorning buffet of resentment and braggadocio, of “those sorry bastards” and Horns Down hysterics. It’s also an annual litmus test for the Big 12 Conference.
The rivalry game in Dallas often denotes the moment pragmatism makes its way into the postseason-expectation conversation. And for tentpole institutions like Oklahoma and Texas, those expectations almost always involve trophies. But in this strangest of seasons, the 2020 installment of Texas-Oklahoma will feature twin powers reeling into State Fair weekend.1
Texas lost to TCU2 in its conference home opener one week after it needed two touchdowns, an onside kick and a 2-point conversion in the final three minutes of regulation to avoid an upset against Texas Tech.
Oklahoma fell to Iowa State in its first loss in Ames since 1960 and has lost two consecutive conference games.3 Suddenly, a team that has qualified for the playoff in three consecutive seasons and won five consecutive Big 12 titles is tied for last place in the conference standings.
“It really bothers me that we’ve based everything that whether our league is good or bad or not on whether Oklahoma and Texas are good,” TCU head coach Gary Patterson said Monday. “To be honest with you, we have a lot of good football teams and we always have had a lot of good football teams.”
For decades, the Big 12 has gone as far as Texas and Oklahoma would take it. The Big 12 championship game has included at least one of its titans every year since 2000,4 and the conference trophy case features two BCS national titles: one from Texas, one from Oklahoma.
Although Texas has been mediocre for much of the 2010s, the Sooners have emphatically, undeniably carried the conference torch in their stead.
All of that makes the early returns this season so surprising for the folks in Austin and Norman. ESPN’s Stats & Information Group has tracked total efficiency metrics for every season since 2005, and through three games, this is the third-worst showing for Oklahoma and the seventh-worst showing for Texas over that stretch. Each enters this weekend ranked in the metric outside the top two in the Big 12 — Oklahoma ranks sixth! Keep in mind that as recently as late September, these were the conference’s best odds of securing an invite to the playoff — and now neither has a probability exceeding 4.2 percent.
That the conference is considered wide-open need not be in and of itself an indictment, and in that regard, Patterson has a point. But he should also read the room: At best, the Big 12 hasn’t started the season the way it hoped.
By total efficiency, the conference is off to its second-worst aggregate performance through three games since 2005. And in a season in which two of the five power conferences have yet to take the field, the Big 12 has just three ranked teams, only one of which is in the top 20. That’s Oklahoma State at No. 10, the last unbeaten team in the conference, which has just a 5 percent probability of reaching the playoff.
Of course, the blame doesn’t rest solely at the feet of the Longhorns and Sooners: Kansas and Baylor are averaging negative expected points added per play. And in what feels like his 15th season as starting QB, Sam Ehlinger has paced the Longhorns to one of the top scoring offenses in the country in the team’s first season under offensive coordinator Michael Yurcich. But Oklahoma, which has set the national standard in scoring potency, hasn’t been quite the pace-setter in its first season with quarterback Spencer Rattler. The redshirt freshman has posted the lowest QBR through three games of Lincoln Riley’s tenure, and the Sooners are scoring 3.14 points per drive, the worst mark since 2016.
It’s not that the generally disastrous Big 12 defenses have ascended, either: The conference aggregate defensive efficiency through three games is below average when compared to the previous 12 seasons.
The Big 12’s scoring deterioration isn’t reflected nationally: Points per drive, score rate and offensive points per game through three games across Football Bowl Subdivision teams were the highest since 2008, the first year for which data is available.
In the conference’s annual benchmark game, this year’s Red River Showdown feels less like a measuring stick for conference supremacy and more like a test for a pulse. “September was the most volatile first month of a season that we’ve ever seen,” wrote ESPN’s Bill Connelly. That’s a sentiment co-signed and shared by most fan bases in the Big 12.