Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
It will be a typical trip to Fair Park Saturday morning for Bob Stoops.
He’ll board the team bus and cruise through traffic en route to the Cotton Bowl. When he arrives at the fairgrounds, Texas fans will be yelling and taunting him just like usual. Some might even pound on the team bus in a quaint but familiar way of greeting them to the yearly festivities.
Stoops is familiar with these mid-October encounters with Mack Brown and Texas. Saturday’s will be his 11th -- six victories and four defeats over the years. It’s the longest continuous rivalry between two coaches in the nation.
The old familiar foes have staged some great battles over the years. And it can be argued that the upcoming Red River Rivalry is the biggest for Stoops in a long time.
After a 3-2 start, the Sooners are in need of a restorative boost that an upset victory over the No. 3 Longhorns would provide. A win on Saturday would put the Sooners in the driver’s seat for an unprecedented fourth-straight Big 12 title.
But a loss might send them spinning to some potentially ominous events that are unfamiliar in Stoops’ program. With tough upcoming road games against Kansas, Nebraska and Texas Tech the Sooners could skid to a four- or five-loss season that has occurred just twice since his arrival in 1999.
Stoops isn’t called “Big Game Bob” as much as he used to be when he claimed a national championship in his second season in 2000 and marked the early rivalry with five-straight victories over Brown and Texas from 2000-04.
The rivalry has turned a little bit in recent seasons as Brown has claimed three of the last four games in the series including last season's 45-35 comeback victory. Stoops’ recent BCS struggles have hurt as well as the Sooners BCS title game loss to Florida was his fifth BCS bowl game loss since 2004.
But his domination remains just as strong in the Big 12, where the Texas-Oklahoma rivalry has defined the recent history of the league. In his own playground, Stoops’ coaching record has made him the most significant figure in the Big 12’s history.
Since Stoops arrived in 1999, either Oklahoma or Texas has won the Big 12 South Division championship every year. In the Big 12 title game, the Sooners have won six to the Longhorns one during the 10-year period. During that same period, every Big 12 North team has claimed at least a share of the title. No other coach has won more than one Big 12 title.
That success is what Stoops focuses on rather than vagaries of what has been a streaky series with the Longhorns over the years.
Stoops discounts any “mojo” that Brown has over him because of the Longhorns’ recent success against the Sooners.
“To me, everybody makes a big deal of this game, but in the end, the objective is the championship,” Stoops said. “That’s what matters. If we win this game and don’t win the Big 12 title, nobody is patting us on the back. And I’m sure it’s the same way for them.”
Stoops prefers a larger view than merely one game and he has point.
“It’s part of it, but the rest of it matters more than just one game like this one,” Stoops said. “And that’s what the focus will be on as long as I’m here.”
It's not quite like it used to be for Stoops in Oklahoma. The Oklahoma radio talk shows have pointedly ripped the Sooners for a predictable run-oriented offensive attack. And despite the return of Sam Bradford, the Sooners’ struggles inside the red zone are a big concern. The Sooners were forced to rely on four field goals after their receivers dropped 11 passes against Baylor, including three in the end zone.
The defense has needed to make two critical stops that would have marked the season. Instead, the Sooners allowed a 16-play game-winning scoring drive to BYU. And the Sooners allowed Miami to kill the clock when they couldn’t get the ball away from the Hurricanes in a game where they were gashed for 140 yards rushing.
Because of those struggles, Oklahoma defensive tackle Gerald McCoy wants a close game on Saturday with the challenge on the Sooners’ defense at the end of the game to preserve the victory.
“If we had given the ball back to our offense, I think we would have been able to win,” McCoy said. “Our defense has a lot to prove after those games.”
That entire attitude infuses the Oklahoma program heading into the game.
In reality, the Sooners are only a pair of one-point losses removed from the national title race. Most observers agree that the presence of Bradford at full strength likely would have made a difference in both games.
But the Sooners have to pick up the pieces to finish the season strongly.
And the most important step in that rebound will come Saturday amongst the Ferris Wheels and corny dogs in a game that will be as important as any recent Red River Rivalry games.