It’s been a while since the identity of the Big 12’s best candidate for the College Football Playoff was up for debate. Oklahoma had separated itself from the rest of the conference by winning at Big Ten powerhouse Ohio State in Week 2, a result that should hold up as one of the most valuable data points any team brings into selection Sunday. The Sooners forfeited that status by shockingly losing at home to Iowa State on Saturday. Now they could be in danger of falling out of the playoff chase altogether.
To avoid taking their second loss of the season, something no CFP squad has ever overcome, the Sooners will need to vanquish a rival that seems to be hitting its stride after a shaky start. That rival, Texas, downed dark-horse Big 12 challenger Kansas State, 40–34, in double overtime in Austin on Saturday night to improve its conference mark to 2–0 and overall record to 3–2. Texas’s first Big 12 win came against the same Cyclones team that had a player spike a state of Iowa flag into midfield of Memorial Stadium after its win over Oklahoma.
The Longhorns have come a long way since their 51–41 loss to Maryland at home in the season-opener. Texas pushed Pac-12 South favorite USC to the brink in an overtime loss at the Coliseum in Week 3 and, last week, it grinded out a win over an improved Iowa State team. Todd Orlando’s defense has stiffened against tougher competition, and true freshman quarterback Sam Ehlinger, making his third start of the season in place of sophomore Shane Buechele, seems a good fit for first-year head coach Tom Herman’s offense.
On Saturday, Ehlinger accounted for 487 yards of total offense and two touchdowns with one interception against a Kansas State defense that entered Week 6 leading the Big 12 in yards allowed per play. The 6’2,” 230-pound Westlake (Tex.) High product put the Longhorns in position to win the game in regulation by leading a six-play drive into field goal range with only 32 seconds remaining, but junior kicker Joshua Rowland misfired from 45 yards out, his second miss on the night, sending the game to OT.
Ehlinger didn’t tremble in crunch time, finding converted quarterback Jerrod Heard on a 25-yard pass in the first extra session. Junior running back Chris Warren III punched in the winning score on third and goal from the two-yard line. Ehlinger is going to need some time to get his bearings in the college game. But whether or not he’s officially seized the top spot on the Longhorns’ quarterback depth chart (Buechele reportedly was limited in practice with an ankle injury this week), it’s clear they can win big games with him under center.
He could get another chance on Saturday against the Sooners. That loss to the Terrapins effectively eliminated Texas from the playoff, but it can still have a hand in determining which, if any, Big 12 teams earn a berth. A victory over Oklahoma would probably spell doom for the Sooners, and No. 15 Oklahoma State comes to Darrell K. Royal Stadium a week later. The Longhorns also travel in early November to face the squad that, after holding off West Virginia on Saturday, owns pole position on the Big 12’s CFP bid, if it gets one.
If the Big 12’s long-term survival depends, in part, on whether Texas can restore its place among the college football elite, the Longhorns’ short-term success may come at the conference’s detriment. Texas almost certainly isn’t getting an invitation to the Final Four this season, but it looks increasingly capable of thwarting other Big 12 squads that still have a realistic chance. Oklahoma belongs in that group even after falling to Iowa State. After facing Texas at the Cotton Bowl next Saturday, it may not.