DALLAS — Consider it a sign of how much Bob Stoops and Mack Brown have raised the bar in the Red River Rivalry when Oklahoma and Texas are playing each other without any real national title implications.
For the first time since 1999, when Stoops was in his first season coaching the Sooners and Brown was in Year 2 at Texas, neither team will be ranked in the top 10 for Saturday's clash at the Cotton Bowl. It's just the second time in 15 years that both teams will arrive already with a conference loss – both at home, no less.
Yet there's still plenty on the line when the No. 13 Sooners (3-1, 1-1 Big 12) and No. 15 Longhorns (4-1, 1-1) square off for the 107th time in one of college football's most colorful rivalries.
First of all, it's a struggle for Big 12 survival with No. 5 West Virginia (which beat Texas) and No. 6 Kansas State (which beat Oklahoma) already leading the pack. And maybe, just maybe, the winner keeps the glimmer of hope alive that enough teams lose to make a national championship a possibility.
Even if all players had to look forward to was the incomparable feeling of putting the Golden Hat trophy on their heads, that would be enough.
"All the games are fun for me, but this one hits me deep," Texas safety Kenny Vaccaro said. "This is a good rivalry. It's rich. I think just the tradition throughout the many years, the battles back and forth."
Since Stoops and Brown have been around, the rivalry has reached a new level – such that a game pitting two top-15 teams is a tiny bit of a letdown. But before 2000, it had been 16 years since both teams came in ranked in the top 15. Since then, eight out of 11 games have featured at least one team in the top 5, with both teams ranked that high four times.
"It's one of the biggest games of the season. We all look forward to this game," Sooners defensive end David King said. "The atmosphere, there's nothing like it."
Let King tell you a little about it.
For participants, the experience starts with a bus ride to the stadium, inside the State Fair of Texas. Fans from both teams will surround the buses, hardly holding back their opinions.
"You get so many middle fingers it's ridiculous," King said.
The atmosphere inside the Cotton Bowl is as colorful as outside of it, with the fair's traditional corny dogs and funnel cakes. The stands are split along the 50-yard line with all of Texas' burnt orange on one side and Oklahoma's crimson on the other.
Just walking down the tunnel to the field is a lifelong memory for most who play. It's a chance to stare down your bitter rival while the most boisterous of fans rain down a mixture of insults and praise.
"You come out, you're on the OU side and you run down the field and you go take your knee, say your prayer and you're right in a sea of orange," King said. "You know they're just saying some of the most inappropriate things. But I'm sure our fans are saying inappropriate things to the Texas players when they're walking out."
And that's all before the game even gets started.
The Sooners have won the last two meetings. The Longhorns had claimed four of the previous five showdowns.
Brown's Longhorns were also off to a promising start a year ago when Oklahoma delivered a reality check by scoring three defensive touchdowns in a 55-17 blowout. Texas scuffled to another mediocre season, by its standards, but emerged from the Holiday Bowl with David Ash appearing as though he has finally stabilized the quarterback position.
So far this season, he's been far from the biggest problem for the Longhorns. He's third in the nation in passing efficiency and has thrown for 11 touchdowns with only one interception. It's been a talented defense that hasn't lived up to expectations, and the placekicking has been a question mark, too.
"It should be a great matchup, where last year we laid an egg in the OU game because they played much better than we did," Brown said. "There were a lot of turnovers, and we were out of the game before we even got in it."
For Oklahoma, quarterback Landry Jones is on the brink of setting the school record for wins. He's 32-8 in his career and his next victory will push him past Steve Davis, who went 32-1-1 and won two national championship in the 1970s. Jones can also become the fourth Sooners QB to go 3-0 as a starter against Texas. He also relieved an injured Sam Bradford in the 2009 loss.
Whether Jones performs like the school's winningest quarterback or is turnover-prone, as he was in the loss to Kansas State, could go a long way toward determining the outcome.
"They're going to get their shots, we're going to take our hits and it's just going to be who keeps swinging is going to win this game," Sooners defensive end R.J. Washington said. "Who wants to fight more than anyone else?"