The most interesting matchups of the season, in conjunction with the Doc's Big 12 Week.
It wasn't long ago -- still only four years -- that "the streak" in the Oklahoma-Texas series was one-sided and undeniable: OU took it to the Longhorns five years in a row from 2000-04, by an average score of 38-11, and went on to play for three mythical championships. It took the most electric player of the decade running the most unstoppable offense to end that streak in 2005 and finally what had been thoroughly lopsided ground. Texas is 2-1 in the Red River Shootout since Vince Young ascended from Austin, leaving scores of barriers smashed and bringing Mack Brown's record against Bob Stoops to a respectable 4-6.
So it must drive Longhorn partisans into a special kind of frenzy that, even with the series leveled -- or even tilted back toward the 'Horns -- on the field, the rivalry remains lopsided in another way: Stoops has six Big 12 championships to Mack Brown's lonely one, with Young in 2005. The actual score in the Cotton Bowl has hardly mattered, with the Sooners moving on to the Big 12 Championship and the BCS despite losing to Texas in 2006, the consequence of UT dropping November games to heavy underdogs Kansas State and Texas A&M, and the unforgettable chain of events that propelled OU to the greater glories after another Shootout loss. The recent history of the series is part of what made that more or less arbitrary snub so frustrating to the 'Horns: Even when Oklahoma loses, it wins.
In that context, nothing could have been more appropriate than the Big 12 media splitting its vote between UT and OU in last week's preseason poll, because -- whatever the ballots said -- that's exactly where last year's debate ended: In a tie, and one too deeply knotted and complex to break by endlessly chanting "45-35." It's an appropriate prelude to the only game of the upcoming season between teams that will both start the year in the top-five, adding a thick layer of animosity that the other big national game this fall -- Alabama-Virginia Tech, USC-Ohio State, even Florida-LSU -- can't hope to match. (Even if it is another unforgiving 11 a.m. kickoff.)
The way the schedules shape up, the stakes should be what they usually are, or at least are billed to be and seem to be at the time: As always, OU-Texas is a rubber match for the Big 12 title and an elimination game for the national championship. Even after last year's twisted denouement, that hasn't changed.
In fact, very, very little has changed from last year's Shootout except the perceived pecking order: Texas, a universal underdog then, should be a consensus favorite this time around, stemming from the assumption that Colt McCoy is every bit the quarterback Sam Bradford is, only working behind a veteran offensive line that happens to return all its key members, where Bradford's protection -- often perforated in the '08 game by Brian Orakpo and Sergio Kindle off the edge -- is almost entirely new. And it still has to deal with Kindle, who shows every sign of finally fulfilling his outsized hype as a senior.
But that's all: Texas knows it can block for its dominant, consistent quarterback, while Oklahoma hopes it can block for its dominant, consistent quarterback. And given the early expectations of the newcomers in OU's front five, it probably can.
Otherwise, if Bradford has the time he's become accustomed to his first two years, it's a classic toss-up, all execution and game-planning and sweating the small stuff and, ultimately, getting a little lucky. Which is exactly what the game of the year should be. Frankly, Texas probably deserves a karmic bounce or two, but it wouldn't be worth watching or waiting for if karma was predictable like that.