By Jake Meltzer/Contributor
We are now just a day away from one of the most highly anticipated weekends of the year for Longhorns and Sooners everywhere.
This matchup could not have come at a better time for either team, as the rivaled Big 12 squads will come into the game with a combined 9-1 record, essentially controlling their own destinies from here on out. While these two teams are certainly the favorites to square off again in the conference championship at the end of the season, the Texas Longhorns know better than anyone that there are no guarantees in football. It's a fight to the finish, and we get to see two of the nation's best teams battle it out on Saturday.
Will the Longhorns remain hot and take home the Golden Hat for the second consecutive year or will this talented Sooner offense be too much for Texas? Here are six things to look for as we approach arguably the biggest game of the season up to this point.
1. Battle of the Best
The Red River Shootout will more than likely live up to its name this weekend, as these offenses will be led by two of the best quarterbacks in the country. Hurts has the best QBR in college football with a total rating of 96.6, while Ehlinger ranks 6th with a QBR of 85.1. Hurts and Ehlinger also rank 2nd and 3rd in passing yards in the Big 12, but what makes Hurts so special is his ability to run the ball. Not only is he one of the most efficient passers in the game right now, but Hurts also ranks 3rd in RUSHING yards as well. This Texas defense will certainly be in for a test, but Ehlinger won't make this game a cakewalk for the Sooners either.
2. Return of CJ
Wide receiver Collin Johnson will be back for the Longhorns this week and Texas offensive coordinator Tim Beck is excited to see the 6'6'' wide receiver back on the field. As for his quarterback, Beck said "Sam knows that [Johnson] is out there, that calms everybody a little bit." After setting the record for most yards in a Big 12 championship game against Oklahoma last season with 177, the Longhorns will certainly be happy to have their playmaker back, as he has missed the last three games with a hamstring injury. Something tells me Johnson wasn't missing this game under any circumstances.
Take a look at this touchdown from last year's Big 12 Championship:
3. Ground Game
After what could have been a devastating neck injury last weekend at West Virginia, Keaontay Ingram was medically cleared and will suit up this weekend against the Sooners. The 220-pound back is listed at the top of the Texas depth chart. Behind him? Last week's Big 12 Newcomer of the Week, Roschon Johnson, who rushed for 121 yards in a conference road win against West Virginia. While Daniel Young is listed as the 3rd back on the depth chart, one guy you should definitely keep an eye out for is Kirk Johnson, who took his first carry since 2015 last weekend. When asked about the senior running back, Coach Herman praised him, saying "He loves his teammates. He loves the game…It is just a really, really special story." If this offense wants Sam Ehlinger to be as effective as possible, the run game is going to need to get rolling early.
4. Get to Jalen
Jalen Hurts is going to find open receivers and put points on the board. That's a fact. However, if this Texas defense can put pressure on Hurts, they can prevent Oklahoma fromputting up 40+ points. We know how good this Texas offense can be. This game will come down to whether or not Texas can make Jalen Hurts uncomfortable enough to slow down or make mistakes. When asked about this, Texas defensive coordinator Todd Orlando said that he is "not hiding from the fact that [Texas has] to get better at getting after the quarterback." As for how they're going to do that, Orlando said this team has "some really dynamic guys, and we expect more out of them." In my opinion, whether or not Texas is able to do this will have a serious impact on the outcome of this game.
This is the type of defense that Texas needs to AVOID on Saturday:
Hopefully by now, Texas has watched enough film from the display LSU QB Joe Burrow put on against their defense to know what happens if you miss tackles, give up third down conversions, and give the quarterback all day to throw the ball. The feet of Jalen Hurts' add the element of the QB run to this Oklahoma offense, something that Texas has not seen much of this year. Chris Brown suffered a thigh injury last week but is expected to play this weekend, while B.J. Foster and DeMarvion Overshown are expected to suit up as well. One defender that Coach Orlando specifically hinted would have a big role this week is linebacker Juwan Mitchell. The "next man up" system worked last weekend, but let's see how this defense fares against one of the best offenses in the NCAA on Saturday.
6. The Rivalry
As I said earlier, freshman to senior, these schools do not like each other. These fan bases live to talk trash to one another throughout the season, and finally…we are back at the Cotton Bowl. An annual matchup that started back in 1900 when the Longhorns defeated Oklahoma 28-2, is now considered one of the biggest rivalries in all of sports. Texas has won more than half of the games played between the two, but were outgunned in the Big 12 title game last year. The Longhorns hold a 62-47-5 all-time record in the series. With that in the past, some of the guys on both teams have been waiting to play in this game since they were being recruited in high school. We should be in for another classic, as the Red River Rivalry is back.
Hurts has carried this Oklahoma team in the air and on the ground, passing and running all over every team on the Sooners' schedule up to this point. If Texas wants a shot at taking down the No. 6 team in the country, this defense will have to do everything in their power to contain the elusive quarterback. On the other side of the field, not too far behind in the Heisman conversation, is Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger. He has been the heart and soul of this Texas team. If Ehlinger can play mistake free football and the Texas defense can remain stout for 60 minutes, the Longhorns can win this game for the second consecutive year. Kickoff is at 11:00 AM at the Cotton Bowl!