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Red River Revival
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The rivarly between OU and Texas is definitely thriving again
Lincoln Riley says he's not quite there.
He's not quite ready to emulate legendary Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer and don a "Beat Texas" hat on the sidelines of the Sooners' annual Red River Rivalry showdown against Texas at the Cotton Bowl.
"In about 10 years," joked Riley. "Hopefully, we can win a few more games. I might throw one on. You never know. I might surprise you one day.
"Not this year, though. I promise you that."
Over the last few years, the rivalry has taken on a new dynamic as both sides of the long-term leaders of the rivalry -- Bob Stoops and Mack Brown -- stepped aside for new blood.
Oklahoma has kept rolling through its transition, with Riley leading the Sooners to the College Football Playoff in each of his first two years at the helm.
Texas' transition has been a little more rocky, with the tumultuous three-year term of Charlie Strong giving way to Tom Herman’s swagger after the 2016 season.
Through his first two seasons, Herman has already won more than Strong did in his tenure.
Texas' resurgence has revitalized the rivalry.
Last season was the first time the game had been played between ranked opponents since 2012. Each of the previous five seasons, Oklahoma entered the game ranked while Texas was not.
Riley won't quite say the rivalry is at its peak, but does praise Texas' improvement in recent years and says the Longhorns' 2018 success -- winning 10 games and making the Sugar Bowl -- is healthy for the rivalry.
"I've got (too) much of a long, healthy respect for this rivalry so to say it's the best it's ever been? That's pretty good," said Riley. "And it is really good right now -- how the rivalry should be. It’s one of the great rivalries in all of sports. It’s been a lot of fun being part of it the last four years. We've had a lot of great battles and I'm sure we've got more coming. But to say it's the best ever (right now)? I know my history better than that."
While it's hard to argue the rivalry is better now than it was during the eras of Switzer and Bud Wilkinson on the Oklahoma sideline and Darrell Royal across the field in burnt orange, the rivalry is certainly in a good spot.
A big part of Texas' problem since losing the Bowl Championship Series title game in 2009 has been shaky quarterback play.
After the Colt McCoy era, the Longhorns have gone through quarterbacks like Garrett Gilbert, David Ash, Case McCoy, Tyrone Swoopes, Jerrod Heard and Shane Buechele -- before finally arriving at Sam Ehlinger.
During that same period, the Sooners only went through Landry Jones, Trevor Knight and Baker Mayfield as quarterbacks who saw regular playing time -- minus Blake Bell’s Belldozer package -- before last year's matchups featured Kyler Murray facing off against Ehlinger.
Ehlinger threw for 3,292 yards and 25 touchdowns with just five interceptions as a sophomore in 2018. One of his signature games came against the Sooners last season, when he threw for 314 yards and a pair of touchdowns in a 48-45 win against the Sooners in October.
"I tip my hat to him," OU receiver CeeDee Lamb said of Ehlinger. "He's a competitor. He's a winner. He does a lot for that university. I wish him all the luck except for against us."
Ehlinger has also stoked the rivalry.
After last season's game, his postgame exchange with Murray went viral. Ehlinger said he was only trying to congratulate Murray on a great game but Murray took offense.
"If he would have won the game, I wouldn't have run up to him in that moment,"
Murray said in the aftermath.
Murray, as the teams prepared to meet for the Big 12 title, only offered up a "no comment" on Ehlinger.
While Murray decided to be quiet on Ehlinger and Texas, Mayfield did not.
In an interview with a Norman radio station in June, Mayfield first pushed back against the notion that Texas was back.
"They said that when they beat Notre Dame a couple years ago (in 2016) and they won two or three games after that," said Mayfield. "I'm sick of that crap."
That season, the Longhorns went 4-7 after a season-opening home win over the Fighting Irish.
Then Mayfield took aim at Ehlinger
"He couldn't even beat Lake Travis (Mayfield’s high school alma mater), so I really don't care ... (about) his opinion on anything winning," said Mayfield. "You know, Westlake (Ehlinger’s alma mater and a rival of Lake Travis) is a great program, but the two best quarterbacks to come out of there are Drew Brees and Nick Foles. Sam can stay down there in Texas."
He wasn't done.
"That'll stir the pot," Mayfield continued before addressing Ehlinger again. "He doesn't like me, and I hope he knows I don't like him either."
Herman didn't mind the comments.
"Sam loves to play with a chip on his shoulder, and I'm sure he will use this to crank it up a notch," said Herman.
The rivalry took on a different dynamic last season, when for the first time since 1903, the teams met for a second time in a season.
Oklahoma avenged its earlier loss by beating the Longhorns 39-27 in the Big 12 title game.
Playing Texas again a second time didn't take away from the rivalry, it only enhances it, players said.
"It means everything," said defensive lineman Neville Gallimore. "That's what it's all about, apart from the fans, the politics and all that. We're all players. We love football. We want to showcase our abilities. It's always a great thing that it's been put on a high pedestal, but at the end of the day as a player we just want to play and compete."
While Gallimore says it's better when both teams are competing for championships, the rivalry doesn’t depend on it, he said.
"It's one of those games -- it's a game where you're playing for pride, playing for the Golden Hat," said Gallimore. "We know how we feel about them. We know how they feel about us. It's like every other game that you come in to work, but it just means that much more."
In addition to Texas’ success, the back and forth between Ehlinger and Oklahoma quarterbacks and the unique second meeting last season, there's also the continued "Horns Down" storyline stoking more fire for this season’s meeting.
Last season, Ehlinger took offense after West Virginia players flashed the hand sign during the Mountaineers' win.
"I remember every single team and player that disrespects the rich tradition of Texas by putting the Horns down," Ehlinger wrote on Twitter.
Before last season's Big 12 Championship Game, Riley said he was told that the sign would draw a penalty. The league later said -- and reiterated over the offseason -- that context mattered.
"It's like any unsportsmanlike act," said Big 12 coordinator of officials Greg Burks. "If somebody scores real quickly, turns to their cheering section, it's real quick and moves on, we’re probably not going to react to that. If they happen to turn to the other crowd or the other bench or it's prolonged to a player, it would be like any unsportsmanlike act."
Lamb said he doesn't mind the league's stance on the gesture, though he entered the field in the December meeting with his pinkies, index fingers and thumbs extended -- and hands high above his head and pointed toward the ground.
"I guess so," Lamb said when asked if the gesture should be penalized. "It's disrespectful to their school. It’s their symbol. So I mean I guess you could say it's not worth a penalty."
This season, it appears likely that the teams will meet as ranked opponents at least once.
The Sooners started the season strong, staying in the top five while Texas remains highly regarded even after an early-season non-conference loss to LSU.
"I feel like it's gonna be the same as last year," said Lamb. "It's gonna be a gunfight. It's gonna be a war."
And should the teams meet twice this season once again, Riley said it wouldn't be the same as the October meeting, but it'd still be good for the league.
"It's tough to put into words how it was different, but it certainly was a new feeling.
"I know it was great for the league and great for college football and a lot of people were happy about that."
(Editor's Note: This story appears in the 2019 OU-Texas Preview issue of Sooner Spectator. To read more, call 405-850-9063)