Guerin Emig: The Sooners and Longhorns have separated from the Big 12 pack. That being the case, and OU-Texas next week being extra delicious given the 49-0 wipeout of a year ago, why wait to crank up the hype machine?
The only Big 12 Football Power Poll necessary as of Sept. 25:
We’ll see if Kansas can give Texas a game Saturday, if history repeats in Austin (this will never, EVER get old). Don’t count on it.
We’ll see if Iowa State quarterback Rocco Becht can do to OU Saturday what he did to Oklahoma State last week. Don’t count on it.
Don’t count on the Big 12 pack closing the gap on the Sooners or Longhorns between now and Oct. 7, the day the winner separates not just from 3 through 12 in the conference but 2 through 12.
It’s shaping up to be the first Red River rumble of 5-0 teams since 2008, a star-powered epic that might never be duplicated (see for yourself).
Maybe KU or Iowa State spoils the party this week.
Maybe I just did with a classic sportswriter’s jinx.
I’m willing to chance it. No, I embrace that I’m chancing it. I’m all in on OU-Texas ‘23 even 12 days out.
Let’s crank up the hype with four delicious matchups.
Dillon Gabriel vs. Quinn Ewers
Gabriel watched Texas maul OU 49-0 last October while recovering from the wicked head shot he took the previous week at TCU. One year (minus one week) later, he is the nation’s fifth-most efficient passer.
Here’s how well Gabriel is playing: He went 26-of-38 for 322 yards, a touchdown and no interceptions at Cincinnati last week, and it felt like he was a couple steps off.
He’ll need to be fully on Oct. 7 against a defense that chewed up and spit out OU’s Gabriel-less game plan last year.
He’ll need to at least match his counterpart. Ewers has thrown nine touchdown passes and no interceptions over Texas’ 4-0 start. He threw four touchdown passes and one interception in last year’s 49-0 debacle.
Side note: There is a Heisman Trophy backdrop here. Gabriel is on several Heisman top-10 lists through four games, while Ewers ranks behind the Pac-12 1-2 of Caleb Williams and Michael Penix Jr.
Danny Stutsman vs. Jaylan Ford
Ford was voted Big 12 Preseason Defensive Player of the Year last July after being a third-team All-American linebacker in 2022. He ranks 17th in the Big 12 with a Texas-leading 25 tackles.
Stutsman did not make the Big 12 Preseason First-Team Defense after being an honorable mention all-conference linebacker in 2022. He leads the Big 12 with 43 tackles.
“He’s playing like a Butkus winner right now,” OU linebacker Dasan McCullough said of Stutsman after the Cincy game. “He’s literally playing like the best linebacker in college football.”
Feels like an OU advantage in this showdown between defensive linchpins. Feels like it.
Just know that Ford is as capable a game plan wrecker as Stutsman. If he hasn’t stood out as obviously this season, it’s because he’s getting a lot of help from defensive mates like linebacker David Gbenda, lineman Byron Murphy and Anthony Hill, Texas’ splendid freshman linebacker.
OU’s run game vs. Texas’ run game
It’s worth repeating every time these two rivals hook up: The team that runs almost always wins. It’s been that way ever since 1999 with two exceptions — Texas in 2014 and again in the ‘18 regular-season meeting.
How this shakes out Oct. 7 is anyone’s guess.
OU ranks 65th among FBS rushing teams, Texas ranks 67th. The yards-per-carry numbers aren’t that different — OU is right at 4, Texas is at 4.4.
Both offensive lines had questions coming into the season. Both have been better at pass-blocking than in run support.
Both coordinators are using a little QB run. Both Gabriel and Ewers ran in touchdowns last week, Ewers scoring from 29 yards out.
Here’s the difference: Texas has discovered an RB1.
Jonathon Brooks is no Bijan Robinson, but then he isn’t asked to be. The Horns simply need someone to complement an air show featuring Ewers, Xavier Worthy, AD Mitchell and Ja’Tavion Sanders. Brooks has complied with 379 yards and a 5.8-yard-per-carry average.
The Sooners have juggled Tawee Walker, Marcus Major and Jovantae Barnes with a cameo from Gavin Sawchuk in trying to replace Eric Gray. Nobody has emerged.
Somebody needs to emerge Oct. 7. Somebody needs to at least match Brooks’ production.
Brent Venables vs. Steve Sarkisian
I have covered Venables long enough to know what pride means to him. I know his pride took a direct hit last year in the Cotton Bowl.
“Coaching and getting them ready, that responsibility starts with me,” Venables said before leaving the fairgrounds, “and we obviously did a very poor job of that … The accountability begins and ends with me.”
If the head coach called himself out that infamous day, he has answered to it so far this season. OU’s 4-0 record reflects improvement by players and coaches.
Coaches must show their biggest gains Oct. 7.
Several position group matchups are a push. Texas has a big edge at tight end and a solid one at defensive line. The only group tipped toward OU is the secondary and that’s close.
Venables must put in his best work, with a major assist from offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby, to make up for Texas’ personnel edge.
Sarkisian settled into this game nicely last year after letting 2021 slip away, but then he didn’t have to work too hard. Texas decelerated after going up 28-0 and ran the ball over the fourth quarter to get the game over with.