NORMAN — Cotton Bowl Stadium will become a pressure cooker on Saturday morning.
So which team handles the heat better? That aspect is frequently overlooked in the Oklahoma-Texas matchup.
We know about the rushing yards advantage (winner always has more) and the first-year quarterback phenomenon (repeat QBs always fare better than first-timers) and the head coaches (Lincoln Riley and Tom Herman, both rookies last year, now know what to expect) and all that.
But what about experience? What about having players who have played in big-time college football games?
Just like in that quarterback scenario — Texas’ Sam Ehlinger started for the Longhorns in this game last year, while OU’s Kyler Murray will be making his first OU-Texas start (unless he oversleeps like he did last week) — the Longhorns seems to have a significant advantage.
Texas brings into Saturday’s 11 a.m. Big 12 Conference game an experienced roster full of players who have combined for 421 career starts. That breaks down into 236 career starts on the Texas offense and 185 on the UT defense.
Oklahoma, on the other hand, brings in 277 career starts: 174 on the offense and 103 on the defense.
Riley has spoken repeatedly this season about the Sooners’ youth, while Herman has extolled his team’s experience. Could that be the deciding factor come Saturday?
Consider the makeup of each team’s season so far.
Texas lost its opener 34-29 on the road at Maryland, and has since won four straight tense games. Tulsa probably should have won in Austin but Texas prevailed 28-21, USC had a halftime lead before the Longhorns pulled away late 37-14, TCU took the lead right before halftime before Texas took over late 31-16, and the ‘Horns jumped out to a big lead early at Kansas State but then had to hold off a Wildcats rally in a 19-14 UT win in Manhattan.
“I think we’ve learned … that we can win games a variety of different ways,” Herman said. “… What we’ve learned is that our best is good enough to play with anybody in the country, but when we’re not playing our best, we’re gonna be in a dogfight with anybody in the country — and have a chance to let it get ugly with some of the elite teams in the country.
“But our guys are learning week in and week out how to play their best in critical moments, and I feel like we’ve done that.”
On the other hand, Oklahoma has been in two tough games: a 37-27 road win at Iowa State and a 28-21 overtime victory over Army. The Sooners have been so explosive and so efficient on offense that they’ve raced out to early leads of 42-0, 35-7 and 28-9 against Florida Atlantic, UCLA and Baylor, and were not in stressful situations in the second half.
That could matter Saturday.
Last week I asked both Herman and Riley about two qualities intrinsic to winning but almost impossible to quantify: grit and tenacity. In recruiting, how do you find players who have those qualities? Everyone can identify a 6-5, 270-pound defensive end, or a wideout who runs a 4.3. But how do you know you’re recruiting a ballplayer?
“That’s a good question,” Herman said. “I think … you have to have tremendous relationships in the high schools you recruit. You’ve got to know head coaches, assistant coaches, guidance counselors, the teachers, and that’s one where I was so proud of our 2018 signing class, because they were really, really good players, but we walked away from some guys, too, that wanted to come here because they didn’t pass the test. Our coaches had dug around enough and had relationships enough with the people at the high schools that are gonna be honest with them.”
Riley echoed Herman’s sentiments almost exactly.
“Finding it’s probably the toughest part just because we’re so limited in recruiting on how many times we can see these guys, how much we can contact them,” Riley said. “I really think that’s where the relationships you build with the high school coaches, with the people in those schools, taking the extra time to ask the extra questions, to spend your time there to really get to know these guys.”
After players are on campus, what’s the best way to develop grit and tenacity? And how does a head coach perpetuate them to the benefit of the program?
“I think the way that we train is very fight-or-flight mentality,” Herman said. “You’re gonna get exposed if you don’t have grit and tenacity. If you don’t, we can teach you. We can show you the errors of your ways, we can coach you on how to mentally train yourself for that. I think the way that we train day in and day out, even in the offseason, it’s very competitive, and you find a lot out about a guy.”
Riley also described the importance of offseason fitness training within the OU culture helping reveal such innate characteristics. Maybe someone comes to Norman with great physical talents but doesn’t know how to work or sacrifice. Those traits can be taught, Riley said.
“The talent is a big part of it, but we can get good enough players here that we’ve got to make sure we’re getting the right people here too,” Riley said. “Not that you don’t take a chance every now and then, of course you do, you’ve got to do it at the right time and then I think the development of the culture that we have here, that we’ve created here, that you feel like maybe if you’ve got a guy that’s on the edge that you get him in our strength program, you get him around the rest of our players, you get him around our former players, that we can help push them over that hump and I think we’ve been able to do that with a lot of kids.”
On the 44-man two-deeps released this week, Oklahoma has 24 freshmen and sophomores, while Texas has just 17. At OU, eight starters are freshman or sophomores. At Texas, only four are.
The reality is that older, more experienced college football players perform better than younger, less experienced ones.
Listen, No. 7-ranked Oklahoma appears to have a clear and decisive edge in athletic talent over No. 19 Texas. OU just has better players.
But in the realm of age and experience, where so many OU-Texas games have been decided, the Longhorns have an advantage.
“I try to tell our guys all the time,” Herman said, “ ‘I don’t want to find out what kind of tenacity and grit you have on fourth-and-1 against TCU; I should know that by April. You know? And know whether to even put you in a game in situations like that.’ ”
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “The Franchise Drive” every weeknight from 6-8 on The Franchise in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, and appears throughout the day on other shows on The Franchise. Listen at fm107.7 in OKC, fm107.9/am1270 in Tulsa, on The Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page. Hoover also covers the Big 12 for Sporting News and Lindy’s magazine and is a feature writer for Sooner Spectator magazine. Visit his personal page at johnehoover.com.