Last spring, an Austin American-Statesman beat writer used her cell phone to stealthily snap a photo of the Wall of Champions inside Texas' training facility. There, listed right alongside the Longhorns' 1996 and 2005 Big 12 titles, was a new addition: 2008, asterisk and all.
The real 2008 title, of course, belongs to Oklahoma.
A quick refresher: The 'Horns beat the Sooners by 10 points last season, but Texas' loss to Texas Tech created a three-way tie in the Big 12 South. Mack Brown pleaded his team's case during the nationally televised Oklahoma-Oklahoma State game, and Texas fans and boosters paid for a banner pulled by a plane that read "45-35, settled on the field." But despite their efforts, the Sooners wound up playing for -- and winning -- the Big 12 title.
Brown, though, isn't using the tiebreaker fiasco as motivation.
"[Last season] came down to outside sources that made that decision, not the two teams, the two schools or the two coaches," he said. "That shouldn't have anything to do with us at all and even if it [did], we've talked about revenge a lot. What you want to do is get excited about playing in this game; you don't have to be mad."
1. Texas' season rides on this game, too. Oklahoma's two loses have almost certainly eliminated the Sooners from the national title race. The Big 12 title, though, remains in reach. If the Sooners hope to stay in the conference hunt, they can't leave the Cotton Bowl with a third loss. "A win would kind of make our season at this point," said Oklahoma offensive tackle Trent Williams.
But while this year's Red River Rivalry game could go a long way toward salvaging Oklahoma's disappointing opening stretch, it might be even more important for Texas and its national title hopes. Texas may rank second in the coaches poll and third in the AP, but the latest simulated BCS standings (by BCSGuru.com) place Texas fourth behind Florida, Alabama and Virginia Tech. A loss against the Sooners, who BCSGuru currently ranks 20th, could seriously jeopardize the Longhorns' chances of jumping the Hokies, Trojans or a one-loss SEC team down the road.
Texas may have enjoyed seeing the Sooners suffer two early losses, but those struggles have made the most marquee game on Texas' schedule a little less so.
2. Jordan Shipley will be the most important offensive player in the Cotton Bowl. Last year's Heisman winner and runner-up haven't put together the seasons we expected. Sam Bradford missed three-plus games with a shoulder injury. Colt McCoy has already thrown six interceptions. Their duel is an interesting storyline, but McCoy's roommate and fishing buddy Shipley could overshadow it.
Shipley's deceptive speed makes him a headache for opponents, both as a punt returner -- he's already scored two touchdowns this season, including a 74-yarder against Colorado last week -- and receiver (he's on pace for a school-record 113 receptions). "What you notice on film is [Shipley's] running by guys," said Wyoming secondary coach Alex Grinch, who saw Shipley in Week 2. "It's on the short throws, and his ability to do something with it or his ability to run by DBs. He scares you from that standpoint."
In its two losses to BYU and Miami, Oklahoma allowed a combined 531 passing yards and five touchdowns. Texas will look to exploit the Sooners' struggles against the pass by using Shipley to stretch the field.
3. But that doesn't mean there won't be defense ... Much talk centers on the Big 12's high-flying offenses, but the conference also boasts a pair of top 10 defensive units.
Despite losing former standouts Brian Orakpo and Roy Miller, the Longhorns have successfully generated pressure and rank first in rush defense (46.2 ypg). They've also held their last two opponents, UTEP and Colorado, to 180 yards. The Sooners' ninth-ranked D can stop the run, too. Behind tackle Gerald McCoy, they rank third against the run (53.6 ypg) and in points allowed (8.4 per game). In their three wins, they've allowed a total of seven points.
That said, these are the best offenses either unit has seen. Texas is averaging 479.6 yards and a nation's best 47.2 points, while Oklahoma is producing 457 yards and 35 points per game.
If this does turn into a defensive struggle, it should benefit the Sooners. In the Brown-Bob Stoops era, Stoops has recorded wins of 14-3 (2001) and 12-0 (2004). In contrast, Texas has scored 28 points or more in all four of Brown's victories.
Oklahoma's 1-2 punch at running back has rushed for 744 yards and six touchdowns this season. To find out what problems the duo poses for defenders, I spoke to Idaho State coordinator Brian Strandley. Here's what he had to say:
"Playing those two guys, you end up playing the best running back you'll ever see, and you get two of them in the same game. We always talk about tackling well as a defense, but I think you have to hit them with 11 hats and pursue the ball. You can't just say 'OK, we're going to fill this gap and wrap those two guys up.' You got to get more guys to the party and constantly hit them.
"They're bigger than they look on film. They're two very, very talented football players and they run the ball very well. Murray's a little bit different style; he's more of a long-strider and an all-around guy. [Brown's] really quick and explosive and he can break one too.
"[You have to] hit them in the backfield before they get started. That's the thing: penetrate, because if they get in the open field they can break one on you."
Each week I'll feature the best prediction/trash talk on the week's featured matchup. Follow me to make your entry and check out the pairing for next week's Game of the Week.
"McCoy is overrated. I'm hoping OU pulls out a 'rare one' on them. OU takes it 14-10. For point of reference."-- @alisonfraker
Texas 34, Oklahoma 31. Bradford's back, leading receiver Ryan Broyles may be too, and a sense of desperation will serve as motivation for the Sooners. On the other side, the Longhorns have payback on their minds, whether or not they want to admit it. This game will be another aerial shootout, giving Texas and deep-threat Shipley the edge.