One axiom most coaches agree on is that their profession is as much about crisis management as game plans or recruiting. When something goes wrong or is going wrong, the coach at the top of the organizational chart needs to have the answers.
Tom Herman dealt with that after a season-opening loss to Maryland. The nine months of offseason work and culture change disappeared like free food in a press box. Since then, Texas’ only loss has been a double-overtime decision at USC, which was ranked No. 4 at the time.
Herman’s counterpart in Saturday’s Red River Rivalry at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas is faced with the first crisis of his short career. A week after the Longhorns’ loss to Maryland, Oklahoma and coach Lincoln Riley won at No. 2 Ohio State. That restored considerable national respect and stamped the Sooners as an early contender for the College Football Playoff.
“We’ll be disappointed if this is the highlight of our season,” Riley said after beating the Buckeyes.
The lowlight came last Saturday when 30-point underdog Iowa State posted a stunning 38-31 upset of Oklahoma in Norman. Riley’s first loss as a head coach brightens the spotlight speculation on how he’ll handle the setback. The bus ride down I-35 to Dallas will be longer and more introspective than expected.
This will be the first time since 1947 that this rivalry game matches first-year coaches. Then it was Blair Cherry for Texas and Bud Wilkinson for Oklahoma. With the offseason coaching changes in Austin and Norman and the new coaches being rising stars, the anticipation is that their presence will open a new chapter in the series that started in 1900… and boost the Big 12’s reputation.
That won’t happen – if it does – for a few more years. What might happen Saturday, as with any rivalry, is complete guesswork. The talking points are plentiful.
- Texas is a touchdown underdog to the 12th-ranked Sooners. Herman has been a coaching underdog 12 times (six at Ohio State as offensive coordinator, five at Houston and once at Texas) as coach. His only loss was this season’s double-OT defeat at USC.
- The Longhorns are coming off perhaps their most complete game of the season, a double-overtime defeat of Kansas State. The driving force in that game was freshman Sam Ehlinger, who was making his third start in place of injured sophomore Shane Buechele. Herman has been cagey regarding who will start, but it will be a surprise if it’s not Ehlinger. “That kid’s a hard-nose baller,” Texas receiver Collin Johnson said. “He’s a great runner, a great passer, and a great teammate. And a great leader as well.”
- ‘Tis a rare game when the criticism and heat are falling on a coordinator from each team. Longhorn fans are learning what Nebraska and Ohio State fans know – offensive coordinator Tim Beck’s play calling and use of personnel can be maddening. But Beck at least isn’t OU defensive coordinator Mike Stoops; most Sooner fans are wishing he had followed his brother Bob into retirement. With the presence of Riley’s friend and mentor Ruffin McNeill – an outstanding defensive coordinator – on staff, Riley this week had to squelch rumors he was considering an in-season staff shakeup.
- Sooner Nation is riled up about the defense because in their last two games (Baylor and Iowa State), the Sooners have allowed 831 passing yards, 69 percent completions, seven passing TDs, zero interceptions, 10.8 yards per attempt, 15.7 per completion, and 13 completions of 20 or more yards. “The thing I’m most disappointed about is whether it’s a ball down the field or especially the bubble screens and quick screens, those are the ones you can’t be giving up 15-20 yards a pop on,” Riley said Monday. “Obviously we’ve got to do better there with our tackling.”
With the Cotton Bowl dividing the fan bases at the 50-yard line – half crimson, half burnt orange – the venerable venue typically doesn’t need a scoreboard to show who’s winning and losing. Unless the game is coming down to a final play, the losing fans depart early to drown their sorrows with adult beverages and fried concoctions at the State Fair of Texas.
By 6 p.m. Saturday, either UT’s Herman or OU’s Riley will be faced with a loss to a hated rival. If the Longhorns stage the upset, Riley’s crisis mode management will slip into high gear.
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