DALLAS – Moments earlier, one quarterback had left the field. Kyler Murray paused for a moment to kneel at the goal line, alone, before walking slowly up the tunnel. Now Sam Ehlinger traveled the same path. But the Texas quarterback had a bounce in his step and a trophy in his hand as he paused to talk with the man in the wheelchair.
Beneath the goalpost, Ehlinger gave the golden cowboy hat to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who put it on as they posed together for a photo. A hug and then a handshake, and the quarterback bounced happily up the tunnel, gold hat in hand.
That was Texas 48, Oklahoma 45 in two postgame scenes. And it’s always this way in one of college football’s best rivalries, played in its most picturesque setting. But what to make of it all? Let’s go with this:
Texas is (on its way) back. Oklahoma’s not going away. And the Big 12 should be very happy.
Never mind a five-game winning streak or a superlative performance Saturday, it’s premature to make sweeping declarations about Texas, and so no one did. It’s also way too soon, even after that terrible defensive performance, to suggest Oklahoma is done. Sooners coach Lincoln Riley rightly called the game “an epic,” and it deserves to stand on its own.
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For most of the day, Texas dominated a bitter rival. Meanwhile Oklahoma, buried until the fourth quarter, stormed back – three touchdowns in less than six minutes to tie – flashing the spectacular offensive capability that had them ranked among the nation’s best. And then Texas drove for the winning field goal. A roar went up from the burnt orange horseshoe.
“This game was crazy wild,” Texas defensive end Charles Omenihu said. “Maybe the wildest I’ve ever been in.”
So yeah, it was an epic, absent any of the potential external stakes. But there is a bigger picture. Inevitably, the prism is the College Football Playoff. Or for certain, the Big 12 race – and the league’s overall status among college football’s hierarchy.
In that light, Saturday’s result in the Cotton Bowl goes down as a huge step forward for Texas, which has won five in a row after that inexplicable season-opening loss to Maryland. Led by Ehlinger’s solid but not flashy play, the Longhorns have beaten three ranked opponents in that span. They are growing rapidly in confidence and swagger. Saturday, they looked every bit like a team that could contend for the Big 12 title.
A caution, though: During a decade of struggles, we’ve seen similar moments before from Texas. Abbott, for one, is familiar with this routine. Two years ago, the governor congratulated the Longhorns after a win against Notre Dame. Remember that? An internet meme sprouted – Texas is back – but months later, after another losing season, it was firing Charlie Strong and hiring Tom Herman.
This time “feels different,” said Abbott, a few moments after he’d shared an embrace with Herman. “… This is five in a row against top-tier teams. It’s clear this is a different Texas football team than what you guys have seen in the past.”
It’s obviously a significant setback for Oklahoma, which went into the game with some defensive questions and exits with terrifying answers. A loss to Texas does not have to be debilitating to the Sooners’ Big 12 title or playoff hopes – see 2015, when Oklahoma lost to Texas and rebounded to get there. But how it happened makes it hard to believe the Sooners have what it takes to get through the Big 12 unscathed the rest of the way.
Or it could be that Murray is so good, the Sooners can overcome those defensive deficiencies. The junior quarterback made two critical mistakes, turnovers that led to 10 Texas points – and at least as important, radically swung momentum toward the Longhorns both times. But Murray also jump-started a frenzied comeback with a 67-yard bolt through Texas’ defense.
Don’t miss this, either: Saturday goes down as a very good day for the Big 12. Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby, who attended the game, noted the presence Saturday at the State Fair of ESPN’s College Gameday and Fox’s pregame show, too, and said: “The eyes of the football world saw a hell of a football game.”
But it was more than just a show. In the short-term, it’s possible warning lights should be flashing in the conference office, located a few traffic snarls down the freeway from the Cotton Bowl. If Oklahoma is the league’s best playoff hope – well, uh oh, that defense.
But long-term, the league’s fortunes rest on its power programs performing like power programs. On Texas being Texas again. Bowlsby has to be neutral, but he didn’t deny the obvious.
“The Big 12 is stronger when Texas is stronger,” he said.
For his part, Herman deflected questions about what the victory meant for the program, resorting to clichés like going “1-0 every week.” He declined even to answer whether the Horns might have finally gotten over a hump, “because that would be admitting we know where the hump is.”
But he added: “It would be foolish for me not to understand the big picture. We’ve taken some really big steps here the last few weeks. I’m not gonna deny that. I’m not gonna downplay that for these players. They’ve taken some very important steps for this program’s development and its progress.”
And in that fourth quarter comeback, Oklahoma showed that for all the defensive issues, the Sooners are not exactly fading away.
“We’ve been nationally relevant for a long time,” Riley said, “and we plan on keeping it that way.”
If Saturday was the start of something, if the Big 12’s biggest names can produce big games like these – trading blows and supremacy like they did a decade ago – the conference will be in fine shape. Which brings us back to a delicious prospect that might not be all that far off:
How about a rematch in the Big 12 championship game?
Yeah, this is fast-forwarding. But wouldn’t you like to see this game again, Gov. Abbott?
“I hadn’t thought about that,” Abbott said “ — but yes!”
And then the governor added: “This game was not as close as the score. Texas dominated it. If they played again, I think, it’d be the same result with a wider margin.”
Maybe – although the Sooners might disagree. Murray, the first-round pick of the Oakland Athletics who plans to be finished with football after this season, was disconsolate during a postgame interview session.
“I’m obviously not used to losing,” he said. “It hurts. I’m disappointed. But” – and here he paused for several seconds – “it’s tough. I turned the ball over, and they didn’t. I feel if I didn’t turn the ball over, we’d have a better shot to win that game. … We’re better than that and I know we’re better than that.”
A few minutes later, someone finally asked Longhorns senior defensive end Breckyn Hager the question he knew was coming: Is Texas back? He’d just finished a rambling dissertation on how the Longhorns had gradually bought into what Herman was preaching. He’d insisted he was “glad” they’d lost to Maryland (“I’m still so happy we lost that game,” he said). He’s always quotable. But he stopped short.
“Woooo!” Hager said. But he fingered the “C” on his jersey, designating him as captain, and said he knew he had to speak for the team.
“The only thing that’s back,” Hager said, “is we’re going back to work for Baylor.”
He smiled, then added an exclamation point: “Hook ‘em!”