Regardless of the logo on the helmet, the defining faces of any college football program belong to the head football coach and the starting quarterback.
That means a seismic shift from established precedents is likely in Saturday’s Texas-Oklahoma series, where three of the four most visible individuals in the Cotton Bowl will be handling those roles for the first time in the Red River Showdown.
The lone constant from last season is Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops, whose 11th-ranked Sooners (4-1, 1-1 in Big 12) are coming off last week’s 37-33 loss to TCU and seek to avenge last year’s double-digit loss to a Texas team that entered as a double-digit underdog.
But these Longhorns (2-3, 1-1) feature a new coach (Charlie Strong) and a new quarterback (Tyrone Swoopes). Swoopes, a sophomore, is 1-3 as a starter since taking over for David Ash, who retired in September because of chronic concussions.
Swoopes completed a career-low 44.4 percent of his passes in last week’s 28-7 loss to Baylor (16 of 34), a reason for concern heading into a rivalry matchup. But it’s still a higher completion rate than OU quarterback Trevor Knight posted in his team’s loss to TCU (40 percent, 14 of 35). Knight, like Swoopes, is slated to make his first start in an OU-Texas matchup.
But Knight, also a sophomore, gets more benefit of the doubt from his coaches and his fan base because he directed last year’s 45-31 upset of Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. Stoops acknowledged issues with Knight’s efficiency and accuracy against TCU but expressed confidence in his quarterback’s ability to rebound and play well in the Cotton Bowl.
Stoops said Knight’s intangibles include “everything you want in a leader,” from punctuality to work ethic.
“To me, the best leaders do it by example. He has been very positive in that way,” Stoops said of Knight, who is 9-1 as an OU starter.
Contrast that to Strong’s take on Swoopes, a player he described as “a young quarterback that you’re still developing. We’ve got to get other guys to make plays for us.”
That, in a nutshell, sums up the difference between the quarterbacks preparing to make their first starts in the emotion-charged atmosphere of the Red River Showdown. OU is comfortable that Knight can handle it; Texas still wonders about Swoopes, who has overseen an offense that averages 13.5 points per game in his four starts.
A case could be made that even Swoopes still wonders about Swoopes, based on his breakdown of last week’s struggles against Baylor. Swoopes, who played Class 2A football in high school at Whitewright, said he was “a little bit nervous” facing the Bears’ pass rush.
“I got hit a couple of times. So that kind of made me a little bit nervous,” said Swoopes (6-foot-4, 245 pounds), adding that offensive coordinator Shawn Watson calmed him down by explaining that all college quarterbacks get hit, on occasion, after delivering the football.
Asked about the issues where he struggles on game day, Swoopes said: “It’s usually just simple things, like not reading things right. Sometimes, they’ll just give me the same looks over and over again and I just don’t decipher them like I’m supposed to. And I do the wrong things. Just kind of simple things like that. It’s nothing major.”
Major or not, those shortcomings have contributed to a significant shortfall of offensive production. Texas ranks No. 114 among the nation’s 125 FBS schools in scoring (18.4 average) and total yards (319.2 per game). The yardage total is last among Big 12 schools, trailing Kansas (322.4).
That is why Texas’ best chance to win rests with a stellar defense that has been a Strong staple throughout his coaching career. Strong was the defensive coordinator for two national championship teams at Florida (2006, 2008), where he spent 15 seasons during four separate stints with the Gators’ coaching staff.
In each of those seasons, he dealt with the neutral-site chaos of the Florida-Georgia game, played annually in Jacksonville, Fla. with the crowd split 50/50, just as it will be for Texas-OU. That is why Strong, as a coaching newcomer to this rivalry, considers himself well-prepared for what he is about to face in the Cotton Bowl.
“I like to embrace the emotions. You have to play on it,” said Strong, who considers the first five minutes crucial to setting the tone for the contest. “You’ve got to be a step faster in this game. You’ve got to hit a little harder in this game.”
Stoops said he expects Strong’s team to be “motivated and ready to play.” That thrusts the spotlight back to the newbies at quarterback, which Knight embraces.
“It’s exciting for me,” Knight said. “Watching that game growing up, it’s a huge game. But it’s just like any other game in the fact that I’m going to have to prepare.”
Swoopes, Texas’ fresh face under center, understands he and his team have much to prove as 14-point underdogs. But he plans to draw on positive vibes from last year’s upset in a comparable setting.
“It showed us what we could do if we pulled together and played as a team,” Swoopes said. “It gives anybody motivation when somebody tells you that you can’t do something. It gives you more motivation to go out there and show them you can.”
Texas (2-3, 1-1) vs. Oklahoma (4-1, 1-1)
11 a.m. Saturday, Cotton Bowl
TV: WFAA/Ch. 8
|3rd down %||32.1||41.1|
|3rd down %||34.9||40.5|
Tale of the tape
|Category||Tyrone Swoopes||Trevor Knight|
|High school||Whitewright||San Antonio Reagan|
|Record as starter||1-3||9-1|