In 1996, Oklahoma was what Texas is.
Way worse, in fact.
In the 67 years the Red River Rivalry had been played in Dallas in October, the Sooners had never entered the game with four losses.
But in '96, Oklahoma headed to the Cotton Bowl under first-year coach John Blake with a record of 0-4. Oddsmakers favored the Longhorns by three touchdowns. And in its preview the day of the game, The Daily Oklahoman newspaper ran the headline, "The Red River Riot Might Be Rout."
Like those '96 Sooners, this year's Longhorns have few reasons to believe this weekend. After two early-season losses and three lackluster wins, Texas is a two-touchdown underdog. The Longhorns haven't shown life in the Cotton Bowl in three years, and haven't won in four. Texas fans are so pessimistic about this game that tickets on the burnt orange side of the bowl are going for half as much online as they are on the Oklahoma side.
But former Sooner James Allen, the hero of the '96 Red River game, and ex-Texas quarterback Peter Gardere, who engineered one of biggest upsets in series history, have messages of hope for the Longhorns.
"The rankings mean nothing in this game," Gardere said. "It's played on so much adrenaline, really strange things can happen."
Underdogs have usually not fared well in the Red River Rivalry. But the two biggest underdogs of the past 25 years? Well, they both won.
"There's so much emotion running on both sides," Allen said. "It's a gut check like no other for the team coming in as the underdog.
"That can be a dangerous team."
Just ask the '96 Longhorns. Or the '89 Sooners.
In 1989, Oklahoma was in transition. Barry Switzer, the fourth-winningest coach in college football history, resigned amid NCAA sanctions and off-the-field scandals.
But much of the talent Switzer had recruited to Norman remained for his successor, longtime Sooners defensive assistant Gary Gibbs. And Oklahoma was a 17½-point favorite to beat Texas a fifth straight time.
For good reason, too.
The Longhorns were coming off a 4-7 season and, like this year's team, already had lost twice in '89. Texas was on the way to a third loss, until a freshman quarterback by the name of Peter Gardere rallied the Longhorns past lowly Rice in the fourth quarter of his first career start. That still hardly gave anyone confidence the Longhorns could finally topple Oklahoma, too.
"We knew though if we could just keep it close," Gardere said, "maybe a few things would break our way to keep us in the ball game and we'd have a chance at the end."
That's exactly what happened.
The Longhorns caught their first break in the first quarter when the Sooners fumbled a punt, and backup Texas linebacker Mical Padgett caught the ball midair and raced 44 yards for a touchdown. The Sooners actually blocked the ensuing extra point, but kicker Wayne Clements collected the ball and threw it to Curtis Thrift in the end zone for a two-point conversion to give Texas a 15-7 lead.
Then in the third quarter, Oklahoma star tailback Mike Gaddis, who had rushed for 120 yards and a touchdown in the first half, was breaking off another long run when he tore up his knee on a cut, knocking him out of the game.
Despite all the misfortune, the Sooners still held a 24-21 lead with 3:42 to play. But even though Gardere had done little in the second half to suggest he could muster another game-winning drive, he at least had his chance.
"We can do this," Gardere told his teammates in the huddle. "We can take it down and score."
Starting at the Texas 34, Gardere found Tony Jones for 8 yards, then Johnny Walker for 17. Suddenly, the Longhorns were in Oklahoma territory for the first time all half.
And then, Texas got that one final break.
Off a blitz, Oklahoma linebacker Frank Blevins appeared to sack Gardere. But Corey Mayfield negated the sack by jumping on top of Gardere after the whistle. The Sooners' third personal foul of the day gave Gardere first down at the Oklahoma 25, instead of second-and-20 at the 45.
Two plays later, the Sooners blitzed again, but Gardere found Walker isolated in single coverage, and lofted a strike over the middle for a touchdown.
Texas 28, Oklahoma 24.
"You go into that game ready to play," Gardere said, "you never know what can happen."
In 1996, after opening with humiliating losses to TCU, San Diego State, Tulsa and Kansas by a combined score of 154-86, the Sooners had fallen to the lowest point in program history.
Allen, who had been stuffed at the goal line by Stonie Clark in the '94 loss to Texas, quickly lost his starting job to freshman De'Mond Parker. Blake benched quarterback Eric Moore, too.
Oklahoma's offense, defense and special teams, which had given up three touchdowns to Kansas, were all in shambles.
"In '96, we were sitting where Texas is this year," Allen said. "Everyone had really given up on us. The OU fans were going to the game just for the tradition.
"No one gave us a shot in the world."
Especially after the 25th-ranked Longhorns jumped to an early 10-0 lead after blocking a punt and returning it for a touchdown.
But just like Texas seven years before, the Sooners hung around. Then they caught their break, too.
Down 24-13 in the fourth quarter, true freshman Jarrail Jackson, who had nearly been left in Norman after jumping offside during Oklahoma's Friday walk-through, fielded a punt, then followed Broderick Simpson's ferocious block that took out two Longhorns down the sideline for a 51-yard touchdown.
"That was the play like, holy Sooner Magic," Allen said. "We knew then we could beat them."
With momentum on Oklahoma's side, Allen took over the rest of the way. Following a Texas punt, he spun through defenders for 36 yards to set up the tying field goal, sending the game to overtime.
After the Longhorns settled for a field goal on their overtime possession, Allen took a pitch right on Oklahoma's fifth play, then cut inside and dove across the goal line.
Oklahoma 30, Texas 27.
"The Texas game gave us that chance to come together as a team," Allen said. "Gave us a chance to hit the reset button."
This weekend, Texas has the opportunity to hit the reset button on what has been a disastrous season. The Longhorns can't play for a national championship. But in one day, they can pump life back into their program by knocking off the Sooners.
"I obviously don't want this to happen," Allen said, "but they have a good chance to really do a great thing for their program. Right now, they're on life support. But they can show they still have a heartbeat."
The Longhorns haven't shown much heart in this game the past two years. Texas rolled over in the first quarter last year. And the year before that.
But the Longhorns can take a cue from two past underdogs in this game.
"If they keep it close through halftime, that'll put pressure on Oklahoma, because they're supposed to kill us," said Gardere, who was an underdog in four games against Oklahoma, yet went 4-0 against them. "Then you're just a special-teams play or something away."
That recipe worked for Gardere's Longhorns. And Allen's Sooners.
Who knows, maybe it could work Saturday, too.
"You can't count no team out on OU-Texas," Allen said. "We proved that."