On paper, Tom Herman and Lincoln Riley share a myriad of similarities.
Both are offensive gurus. Both are in their third year of coaching at a Power Five school, but, most notably, both have won the Red River Showdown once in their first two seasons.
This season, the hype for Texas (4–1) and Oklahoma’s (5–0) annual meeting at the Cotton Bowl is the largest it’s been since 2008, when No. 5 Texas upset No. 1 Oklahoma in a Red River classic.
But this year, they’ve arrived at this point by two very different paths.
In 2016, Tom Herman, fresh out of two spectacular seasons as the head coach of the Houston Cougars, appeared to be the perfect fit for a Texas program desperate to return to success after three losing seasons under Charlie Strong.
Since Herman took over the program in 2017, it’s been a whirlwind. After the “Is Texas back?” question surrounded the 2017 and 2018 seasons, the Longhorn faithful can rest easy. Texas is back, and Texas means business – McCombs School of Business pun not intended.
But it’s important to note that Texas didn’t miraculously rise from the grave overnight.
Herman’s first season in 2017 was filled with question marks, doubt and a lack of results. In Herman’s first game against Maryland, the Longhorns allowed a whopping 51 points, the most points allowed under Herman in his 58 games as head coach. The team ultimately finished 7–6 and won their first bowl game since 2012.
2018 was a completely different script.
The Longhorns stumbled out of the gate, (again), with another loss to unranked Maryland, but the team rebounded with six straight wins, including a 48-45 thriller over Oklahoma in one of the best Red River Rivalry games ever.
Nearly three months later, Texas knocked off No. 5 Georgia in the Sugar Bowl to win its first New Year’s Six bowl in a decade behind an MVP performance from Heisman hopeful Sam Ehlinger.
Across the pond, or the Red River, Lincoln Riley focuses on maintaining excellence.
Riley inherited a great program in 2017. The Sooners were fresh off their sixth 10-win season in seven years and touted a Heisman-caliber quarterback poised for a Tim Tebow-esque season.
Two years after assuming the reins from legendary coach Bob Stoops, Riley has transformed Oklahoma into a real-life Heisman House. Both of his quarterbacks in the last two semesters won the Heisman before being drafted No. 1 overall. In addition, the Sooners appeared in the College Football Playoff and won the Big 12 title in both seasons.
Under Riley, Oklahoma has remained a consistent presence in the national championship picture. Although it slid into the playoff under controversial committee voting and a dash of luck, Oklahoma has managed to claim the third-most playoff appearances, only trailing Alabama and Clemson.
Five weeks into the season, the Sooners are posised to do more of the same.
Oklahoma’s Sooner Schooner has been less of a wagon and more of a train. Jalen Hurts is the latest addition to Riley’s newfound tradition of producing Heisman-level quarterbacks, steamrolling his way into Heisman contention with Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa.
To put it simply, Texas wants what Oklahoma has.
And this year, the Longhorns have a legitimate shot of getting it.
Despite the stark contrasts in the beginning of their tenures, both Herman and Riley have brought their programs to the same elite platform.
For Herman, this year’s meeting is an opportunity to prove that Texas has made it. For Riley, it’s about affirming that Oklahoma isn’t going anywhere.
These questions will be answered – and many more will arise – Saturday, Oct. 12 at 11 a.m.