Why it’s this high:
Because although I don’t live and die with college football, I recognize that it probably produces the most heated rivalries in the country. The NFL is obviously played at a higher skill level, but the constant player movement through free agency and trades just don’t allow for the type of attachment to a team that college football has. At a minimum, even the most incredible talents are on campus for two years, enough time to mature into star players, and more importantly meld into a memorable team.
Although it’s not the premiere college football rivalry, Texas and Oklahoma were the first two teams that jumped to my mind when I was formulating this list. Each team has been a fixture in the national championship conversation every year, with Vince Young’s all-time great performance leading Texas to one in 2005. Oklahoma’s last title falls just outside of the window considering they won it in 2001, but they have appeared in the finale 3 times since that game.
The game is essentially played in a vacuum. Everything is neutral from the venue (the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, which is exactly halfway between Norman and Austin), to the ticket sales (50% for each school), all the way down to dividing the fanbases at the 50 yard line. Assuming that both teams are healthy, there is no crutch for having to play in a hostile environment. The Red River Rivalry is truly a measure of which team is better during a given year.
What’s made the game so interesting year in and year out is how different it looks depending on how the teams are built. 2001 was a game dominated by the defenses, with Oklahoma prevailing 14-3 partly due to a superhuman play by Roy Williams that resulted in 6 points. By 2008, there were fireworks over the Red River as arguably the two best quarterbacks in the country took turns hanging numbers on the scoreboard. Colt McCoy completed 80% of his passes only to be upstaged by Sam Bradford’s 5 touchdowns on the way to the teams putting up a combined 80 points and 873 yards.
Despite the bevy of talent the Big 12 has had, both teams have been remarkably consistent. With the exception of the Longhorns’ forgettable 2010, and Mike Leach’s rise to prominence in 2005, Oklahoma and Texas have been 1-2 in the Big 12 South standings every other year.
A big roadblock that college rivalries often run into is the stars fading at the next level, like Christian Laettner and Ed O'Bannon disappearing after they shook David Stern’s hand. For whatever reason, despite two undefeated years during this decade, Auburn’s most well-regarded player in the NFL is Cowboys defensive tackle Jay Ratliff. Demeco Ryans carries that torch for the Crimson Tide, despite being injured all of last year.
When players have performed well in the Red River game, it has been a portent of things to come. Bradford and McCoy showed in their first years in the NFL that they have the talent to be starters for the next 10. It could be argued that the two most explosive running backs in the NFL right now are Adrian Peterson (225 yards vs. TEX in 2004) and Jamaal Charles (116 yards vs. OK in 2005). Brian Orakpo and Curtis Lofton are solid representatives on the other side of the ball.
I can appreciate programs like Boise State as much as anyone. Their ability to take marginal talent and win enough to be relevant on the national stage has an incredibly high degree of difficulty. But when Texas and Oklahoma are at their peak, this game represents the biggest confluence of pro-level talent of any game all year. Whether it's on defense or offense, this game has been the ultimate preview for Sunday's.
Why it’s not higher:
I was actually a good part of the way through writing in Auburn-Alabama for this spot before I deleted everything and switched Texas-Oklahoma. These two teams have produced some fantastic sports moments over the past 10 years, but for a number of reasons they can’t put a dent in the Iron Bowl.
Oklahoma not having a national championship in the past 10 years is certainly a factor, but not the nail in the coffin. A big issue is the wide gap between the second best football conference in the country (the Big 12) and the best (the SEC). There is no doubt that Texas and Oklahoma have produced some phenomenal teams in the past 10 years, but there is a legitimate question as to how they would fare in the deeper and more talented SEC.
A partial answer has been provided in national championship games. Oklahoma’s best team of the past 10 years was definitely the Sam Bradford lead Sooners that averaged an insane 51.1 points per game in 2008. But when they went up against Florida, Sam Bradford had his worst game of the year, and Oklahoma scored 37 points less than that average. Texas’ case is slightly more murky with McCoy’s unfortunate shoulder injury against Alabama, but the fact remains: the SEC has won the last 5 national championships, so by default the top SEC rivalry is the most relevant rivalry in all of college football.
The more pressing issue is where the rivalries stand at this time. I didn’t include Michigan-Ohio State in this list because it’s a borderline certainty both of these programs will be irrelevant in the national title picture for the foreseeable future. Abiding by that standard, some penalty needs to be allotted to Texas.
They finished dead last in the Big 12 South last year, and start 2011 ranked outside of the top 25 for the first time in school history. Will Muschamp, their coach in waiting (man that never seems to work) bolted for Florida this year, and left Texas with a major decision to make once the 60-year old Mack Brown rides off into the sunset. Auburn may have lost their once in a lifetime athlete, but they’re still in preseason top 25’s, and it’s a safe bet to say the Iron Bowl will be hotly contested.
Unless Mack Brown has something major up his sleeve, Oklahoma will do everything but carve Bevo into steaks and grill him. Overall, the past ten years this game has produced outstanding football, but the combination of the last three (Oklahoma out of the top 25 in ’09, Texas out for last year and possibly this year) leave the Cotton Bowl a little short of the Iron Bowl.