Power struggle in Big 12 South begins

The chances that Texas will return to the BCS championship game

for a second straight year are greatly diminished, if not gone,

after a humiliating rout at home.

That doesn’t mean the Longhorns are done in the Big 12.

What better way to shake off a 34-12 loss to UCLA than with a

victory over archrival Oklahoma just seven days later?

”The only big games at Texas, (former) coach (Darrell) Royal

told me, are the ones that you lose,” coach Mack Brown said Monday

on the Big 12 coaches’ call. ”We’ve lost ones before that got big.

Everybody gets mad and everybody gets angry, and all we can do is

go back to work.”

The annual Red River Rivalry game at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas

will be lessened in stature this year after the Longhorns’ stunning

loss on Saturday highlighted a day of struggles by the Big 12’s

powerhouses. The Sooners edged Cincinnati 31-29 and No. 6 Nebraska

was unimpressive in a 17-3 win against South Dakota State of the

Football Championship Subdivision.

That leaves serious questions about whether the Big 12 has a

legitimate national title contender while two other conferences

will have their best teams playing at center stage Saturday night:

No. 1 Alabama hosts No. 7 Florida in the SEC, and No. 9 Stanford

visits No. 4 Oregon in the Pac-10.

In these parts, it still doesn’t get much bigger than No. 8

Oklahoma vs. No. 21 Texas. The teams have combined to win the last

six Big 12 championships, escalating tensions between rivals that

have been playing for over a century.

”That just made it more intense, I think, and the fact that

we’ve been in the national hunt – both of us over the years – also

intensified it or at least brought it more attention nationally,”

Sooners coach Bob Stoops said. ”In the end, being in the same

division has really made it even more important.”

And this week, it’s one of two big games in the division. Texas

A&M (3-0) will visit Oklahoma State (3-0) on Thursday night in

the only game featuring two of the conference’s six remaining

undefeated teams. All three of the North’s unbeaten teams –

Nebraska, Missouri and Kansas State – are off this weekend, leaving

the spotlight to shine on the South.

The winner of Thursday night’s game emerges as the top

challenger in the South to the Red River rivalry victor.

”There’s no question that you want to get going in conference

play, and you’re playing good football teams,” Oklahoma State

coach Mike Gundy said. ”You want to keep momentum going. Our guys

have performed pretty well up to this point, so we want them to

continue on and keep some momentum as we roll through

conference.”

For now, the Cowboys and Aggies have flown under the radar, with

each team posting two blowouts and barely scraping by once. With a

national TV audience looking on, both unranked teams have a chance

to make a statement in their Big 12 opener.

”We look at every week as a big test and this week certainly

because they’re a team that has had some good success here as of

late with coach Gundy. He’s done a great job,” A&M coach Mike

Sherman said. ”They’re moving the ball on offense, they’re playing

good defense and they have very good special teams units.

”It’ll be a good test for us, no doubt about it. The kids are

anxious to play the game.”

Texas already has a leg up on the rest of the South with its

Week 3 win at Texas Tech, but last week’s loss did nothing but

raise concerns.

”This isn’t my first fan panic,” Brown said. ”The only thing

we can do to get fans to calm down is win.”

Brown knows that well. After losing to Oklahoma five straight

times to start the 2000s, the Longhorns have won four of the last

five and at least have that momentum on their side in a series

filled with streaks.

”When you start losing it, the fans get on you so hard that it

puts so much pressure on you as a coach and your kids that it’s

hard to get it turned back,” Brown said. ”That’s all you hear

because you’ve got great respect between the two universities and

the game is big, and it’s really important. It’s a midseason game,

so it’s really a hard game for everybody.

”I think that that’s probably what’s happened is that one group

feels so much pressure because their fan base feels that

pressure.”

Stoops, however, is quick to point out that the Sooners have won

three of the last four Big 12 championships – with two of them

coming in seasons when Oklahoma lost to Texas in Dallas.

”This game matters because it’s right now. Then after that,

you’ve got to win them all to have the chance to be the Big 12

champion,” he said. ”This game doesn’t do it.

”Sometimes I think the media, ‘Oh, this is the only game that

counts.’ Well, if you win this game and lose a bunch of others, it

doesn’t amount to much.”