No, Jalen, this isn’t the Iron Bowl. It may not be the SEC championship game or the College Football Playoff, either.
Texas-Oklahoma is none of those things, as OU quarterback Jalen Hurts will discover Saturday at the Cotton Bowl.
“It’s very different,” UT nickel back B.J. Foster said. “Texas is different. Football is more physical in Texas. Red River Showdown is way better. This is the best thing you can play in.”
Saturday is something different for Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger, too. It’s his third trip into this boiling caldron, where athletes carve out permanent places in school history. It’s a chance to do something far more important than win another Golden Hat trophy, too.
With a win, No. 11 Texas (4-1, 2-0 Big 12) would catapult back into the national championship race. The Longhorns, who are 10 1/2-point underdogs Saturday, would probably be favored to win out the regular season.
And with a win, Ehlinger launches himself into the Heisman Trophy race.
As of now, it’s Hurts’ trophy to lose, if you believe current polls. The Athletic’s straw poll of 50 Heisman voters has Hurts getting 31 first-place votes with Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa second. Ehlinger didn’t get a single vote on anyone’s ballot for first, second or third. Not one.
This week, Las Vegas oddsmakers have Ehlinger slotted eighth on the Heisman odds list. The list cuts off after eight names.
Should the sixth-ranked Sooners (5-0, 2-0) come out on top, the Horns would have to roadmap their way to the Big 12 championship game for a potential December rematch.
Get your corny dogs ready. This whole thing is deep fried.
“That’s probably the most exciting bus ride that I’ll ever be on in my entire life,” OU receiver CeeDee Lamb told reporters in Norman. “On one side, you are getting flipped off. On the other side, you are getting praised. It’s nice.”
Ehlinger knows what to expect at this point. He had 384 total yards and accounted for two touchdowns as a freshman in 2017, a 29-24 Texas loss. As a sophomore, he pushed the pace early and had 386 total yards and five touchdowns (two passing, three rushing).
He put up 391 total yards against OU in the Big 12 title game, the highest total ever by a UT quarterback against the Sooners. Almost all of those same OU defensive backs return this season.
Historically, first-time quarterbacks don’t fare well in this game. Hurts is not your typical first-time player, though. He played in every big game the SEC offers while at Alabama. The graduate transfer has been sensational in OU’s first five games this season. But only one of those five teams has a winning record — 3-2 Texas Tech.
“I’m extremely excited,” Ehlinger said. “You know, he’s had success everywhere he’s been. Following his story and understanding what he’s persevered through, just unbelievable respect for him and what he’s been able to do with the college level.”
Ehlinger chooses his words carefully with reporters. He doesn’t offer blanket praise for just anybody. We may never know how he truly feels about former OU quarterbacks Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray. With Hurts, Ehlinger is different, though.
“So I’m extremely excited to get out there on Saturday and compete against him because he’s such a respectable guy,” Ehlinger said.
On the surface, it would appear Texas’ defensive game plan should be the same against Hurts (6-2, 218) as it was against Murray (5-10, 195 pounds in 2018). Keep the quarterback contained in the pocket. Don’t let him get loose in the open field. Make him beat you with his arm.
Hurts is the third-leading rusher in the Big 12 and averages 99.8 yards per game. Passing wise, he has thrown 14 touchdowns and only two interceptions.
“From what I’ve seen, he doesn’t like to slide, so he’s going to engage contact with you,” Foster said. “Kyler Murray, you don’t know what he’s going to do — slide or run past you. It’s just hard to sack Kyler Murray. But with Jalen Hurts, you just have to play solid defense, and we’ll be good.”
Foster is possibly UT’s most ferocious head-hunter. Asked if he’d be excited to see Hurts going hard, Foster said, “He’s not dumb. He’s going to have to slide or it’s not going to be good for him.”
Hurts wanted no part of discussing Texas this week. Either that, or he’s still confounded by his Nick Saban hardwiring.
The Channelview graduate was in the 2016 recurring cycle and acknowledged he was recruited by former UT coach Charlie Strong. “I liked Vince Young, great player,” Hurts said.
What specifically did Hurts like about Young? “He’s a winner and he made plays.”
Why didn’t Hurts go to Texas? “I ended up going to Alabama.”
What was different about Alabama? “I just ended up going there.”
Nobody wins championships based on loquacious monologue.
“He’s at a point of his career where he’s seen everything, he’s gone against some of the best guys in the country,” UT defensive coordinator Todd Orlando said. “Sam’s the same way. You have this non-fear. You just go out there and you play and if something bad happens, you can just wash it out and say, OK, they got me on that one, I can move on to the next play.”
As always, this game features subplots galore. Texas receiver Collin Johnson is expected to play after missing three games with a hamstring injury. Just having him on the field forces OU coaches to think about their defensive alignments. Maybe that opens things for receivers Brennan Eagles or Devin Duvernay.
The Longhorns’ defensive linemen haven’t generated a consistent pass rush all season. Texas has been solid against the run, though. All but two of the team’s sacks have come via blitz pressure. Does that open things up for Lamb and Charleston Rambo to run catch deep balls?
It should be a war in the trenches, especially after Texas left tackle Sam Cosmi said OU’s defensive linemen weren’t “super special.” He didn’t mean it as a true putdown, but that’s not how it was interpreted across the Red River.
This game always comes down to unexpected players making unexpected plays. A Roschon Johnson touchdown pass for the Horns, perhaps? An OU hook-and-lateral with Lamb and maybe Trey Sermon?
Hurts will love the Texas-OU atmosphere. Heisman love or not, Ehlinger just wants to leave wearing the Golden Hat.
“Hey man, that’s a statement game, you could call it,” Foster said. “We’re going to go out there and play our best. They’re going to play their best because we’re Texas. The best team is going to win.”
Contact Brian Davis at 512-445-3957. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.