They say if you come at the king, you best not miss. The king of the Big 12, at least recently, has undoubtedly been Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley.
Riley has been the Sooners’ coach for two seasons now, and all he has done in those two years is win the Big 12 twice, make the College Football Playoff twice, coach two different quarterbacks to Heisman trophies, and go 2-1 against their hated rivals in the Texas Longhorns.
The expectations this year are it is going to be more of the same, with graduate transfer Jalen Hurts now at the helm of an offense that should remain as one of the very best in the country and the defense getting a makeover under new defensive coordinator Alex Grinch.
Riley’s hire was both expected and extremely unexpected at the same time. After longtime Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops suddenly retired in the summer of 2017, Lincoln Riley was immediately named his replacement after serving as the offensive coordinator for just two seasons.
Many felt Riley could be the new head man in line when Stoops decided to call it quits, but nobody really planned for it to be so soon.
The Riley hire coincided with Texas beginning a new era of their own, bringing in Tom Herman from Houston to replace Charlie Strong who never was able to get the Longhorns past any level of mediocrity.
The Herman era got off to a bit of a rocky start, getting upset by Maryland in the season opener of his first year, but since then it is undeniable the impact he has had on the program. Coming into this season, many view Texas as a top-10 caliber team capable of winning the Big 12 and even being an outside College Football Playoff contender.
Pair that with a dark-horse Heisman candidate at quarterback in Sam Ehlinger, and it seems pretty clear that this Texas team could very well be the best one the Longhorns have had since losing the National Championship to Alabama under Mack Brown in 2009.
Due strictly to the fact that both teams are going to be very good in 2019, the Oklahoma-Texas rivalry is already going to be in full swing, and the players know it. The trash talk has been flying around for months, highlighted by former Sooner quarterback Baker Mayfield making his disdain for Ehlinger quite clear.
“He doesn’t like me,” Mayfield said. “And I hope he knows that I don’t like him either.”
Sooner linebacker and preseason Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year Kenneth Murray hasn’t been shy about ripping Texas either. He offered the scintillating statement of “No comment” when asked about Sam Ehlinger, and when asked why he left his home state of Texas to come to OU, he simply said it was because he “wanted to win.”
Tom Herman, meanwhile, had his own view of the situation, “‘It’s flattering to know that we’re on people’s minds even in the offseason. Even our rivals want to talk about Texas football. It’s flattering,” Herman said this week at Big 12 Media Days.
Then, of course, there is that ole “Horns Down” thing. The tradition of putting the Texas “Hook ‘Em” horns upside down that has been around for decades has suddenly become a big issue in Austin, with Herman and Texas wide receiver Collin Johnson both calling it “disrespectful,” prompting the Big 12 to resort to flagging it when it’s done in-game in certain situations.
“When we have discussed it, by rule, anything that’s prolonged to be bringing attention to the individual rather than the team is a foul,” Big 12 Coordinator of Officials Greg Burks said regarding Horns Down.
This has done nothing but added fuel to the fire of an already intense rivalry game every October.
Oklahoma players have already showed they can restrain themselves when needed, never being flagged for it during the Big 12 Championship game last season after being warned it could happen. But, once the clock struck zero, they were certainly prevalent in the postgame celebration.
The question of “Is Texas is back?” is still mostly up in the air as to what is actually considered being “back.” That being said, it certainly feels very much that the Red River Rivalry is back. The game always has an unquestionable level of electricity no matter the success of the teams, but it feels different now. The game is going to have a large significance on a national level that it hasn’t recently, and not just for the two fan bases.
Both teams have conference title hopes and beyond, and both teams have coaches they believe are going to be around a very long time.
Riley right now has what Herman wants, and that’s to have the Big 12 in the palm of his hand. Oklahoma has won the Big 12 four straight years, and most assume that they will make it five this year unless Texas can take the next step and topple the Sooners.
“I think the league will continue to evolve,” Riley said. “I think there are too many good coaches, too many good players, too many programs that maybe had been down for few years that are showing a lot of promise right now.”
Lincoln Riley may be the king of the Big 12, but Tom Herman is making a run at the throne. 2019 could be the year Texas announces their return as one of the big dogs of college football, or it could be the year Oklahoma re-asserts themselves as the class of the Big 12 for years to come.
Texas will get their season started August 31st at home against Louisiana Tech with Oklahoma hosting Houston the next night. The Red River Showdown is set for October 12th at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas.