Steve Sarkisian and Brent Venables have their differences.
Sarkisian is an offensive guy who played quarterback; Venables is a defensive guru who played linebacker. Sarkisian is on his third head coaching stop; Venables in his second season as a head coach. One is a West Coast man (Sarkisian) who spent almost his entire life there before recently; the other a Florida-born guy who played college ball and coached in the Midwest and East Coast.
But there is something similar about them: They are the sharpest minds in the game of football in their respective units, according to their own peers.
That’s what makes Saturday’s Red River Showdown in Dallas all the more interesting.
“It’s going to be a masterminded chess match,” says one former college coach who played against both.
For only the second time in 12 years, Oklahoma and Texas meet with both ranked inside the top 12. They are undefeated, each possess a top-20 offensive unit and have their respective fan bases salivating over a return to championship form.
As the two teams gear up for what is the final Big 12 version of the Red River Showdown, Yahoo Sports spoke to more than a dozen current and former college coaches as well as a handful of NFL scouts to get their impression on the collision in the Cotton Bowl.
“I’m so tired of when Texas wins a big f****** football game and people say they’re back,” said one coach. “Texas hasn’t done anything since Mack Brown. Are they back? I’m not going to say that yet, but they are damn good.”
Who’s calling the plays?
We know this answer for Texas. It’s Sarkisian. He’s called offense now for more than 20 years of a coaching stint that has spanned coordinator stops at USC, Alabama and the Atlanta Falcons, as well as head coach stops at Washington and USC.
As for the Sooners … well, it’s complicated. Venables, previously the defensive coordinator at Clemson and Oklahoma, is “completely involved” in the Oklahoma defense, he said earlier this season. Ted Roof, OU’s defense coordinator, said in August that he calls the plays but that Venables can “override” the calls.
Their colleagues don’t really agree.
“BV has called plays the last two years,” said one current college head coach.
Said another: “Brent calls the plays.”
Believe what you want, but either way, the Sarkisian-Venables chess match is a real thing.
“They are both very good at what they do,” said one Group of Five head coach. “The pressure’s on those jobs and the expectations… they do such a good job of mixing it up.”
Both are unpredictable play-calling minds who want to dictate the terms, coaches say. One SEC assistant describes Venables’ schemes as “exotic” and expansive, with a wide variety of front formations, blitz packages and secondary coverages.
“You see a different picture from the OU defense every down,” said one head coach. “They run every defense known to man.”
His defenses are complex, intense and, for an opposing quarterback, confusing. While at Clemson, Venables’ defenses were known to complicate matters by changing calls within milliseconds of the snap. After the quarterback surveyed the defense’s positioning, Venables had players shift as the QB glanced down to take the snap.
It happens that fast.
“They’ve got every front and every blitz,” said an SEC assistant coach. “They’re not having a ton of busts like last year.”
In Venables’ first season, the Sooners suffered through their first losing season since 1998, mostly because of a struggling defensive performance: They ranked No. 122 in total defense and surrendered at least 40 points four times.
What happened? Two coaches contend that Venables didn’t simplify his defense enough for players in their debut season.
“This year, Brent is familiar with calling it and he’s doing it himself. It makes sense,” an SEC staff member said. “The familiarity on both sides of it has allowed them to be more controlled chaos versus chaos.”
“You can tell that Brent has the guys he wants,” said a Group of Five head coach. “They know his system and how he does things. No. 28, the linebacker [Danny Stutsman], is an absolute stud. He runs the show.”
Sarkisian, meanwhile, has the Longhorns as one of the country’s best offensive units. They are 17th in total offense, have scored at least 31 points in all five games and QB Quinn Ewers has tossed six completions of at least 40 yards.
Sarkisian prides himself on run-pass balance. He uses formation and motions to dictate the defense.
“Some people do that stuff and there’s no plan. They just pick plays,” said one coach whose team played against Sarkisian this year. “He does it as part of his plan to force you to play certain defenses that gives him an advantage to get his best players in position to have explosive plays.”
‘They just have bigger bodies’
The difference in the Texas of this year versus the Texas of the last decade is not in skill players or the quarterback, experts say.
“It’s at the line of scrimmage,” said one NFL scout.
“They have just bigger bodies,” said one Big 12 assistant coach. “They are athletic. You see them in person and wooooo!”
Sarkisian has spent the last three recruiting classes rebuilding the Longhorns on both the defensive and offensive lines, and it’s showing. In fact, Texas has signed five offensive linemen ranked inside the top 20 at their position over the last two years.
It comes at a perfect time. The Longhorns move into the SEC next season. A year before the transition, they look the part, coaches say.
“They are huge and engulfed us,” said one coach whose team played Texas this season. “Just the overall thickness of them, they look like an SEC line now.”
It’s not just on offense.
“Their front four is about as good as I’ve seen in a long time. They are an SEC defense,” said one Power Five coordinator. “They are so good in the front that they don’t have to take a lot of chances. They play a soft Cover 4 and give you stuff underneath because they know know you’re not going to hit big plays.”
Coaches who have played at least one of the teams say the determining matchup in the game is the Texas receivers — which many agree is the best wideout unit in the country — against an Oklahoma secondary that has its hiccups.
A lingering question is the health of tight end Ja’Tavion Sanders, a 6-foot-4, 245-pounder who’s been nursing an ankle injury. He’s caught 13 passes for 278 yards and a touchdown. Coaches rave about his size, strength and receiving ability.
“Is the tight end playing?” one coach asked. “He was the difference in the Alabama game.”
Sanders is expected to play but it’s not clear if he’s 100%. Texas has plenty other receiving options, like Xavier Worthy and Adonai Mitchell. The two have combined for 48 catches and 666 yards (that’s right: 6-6-6).
“Texas can let it rip,” said one Big 12 staff member. “They have the best receiving corps in college football and one of the best quarterbacks.”
Because of their struggling defense, OU always had a “ceiling” under coach Lincoln Riley, said one Big 12 assistant coach. Does this team have a similar ceiling?
“Maybe not. OU is better on defense than they’ve been in a long time,” the coach said.
One coach expects OU offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby to let it rip offensively in an effort to keep pace with the Longhorns. QB Dillon Gabriel, a UCF transfer, is eighth nationally, averaging 318 yards a game. He’s tossed 15 touchdowns and two interceptions.
“They are going to have to open it up with Dillon in a game like this,” said one head coach.
The key to Texas defensively: Get a pass rush, said one ex-Big 12 coach.
“Their strength is the front six,” he said. “Texas’ weakness is the secondary and that’s what Oklahoma does best — throw the football. If they can get pressure, it evens it out.”
So who wins?
Most coaches give the edge to the Longhorns.
“Texas is way better,” said one. “They’ve reached the point where all the guys they’ve been recruiting have developed.”
“I think Texas is the better team, but can [the Longhorns] handle prosperity?” said a Big 12 head coach. “Texas may be the most talented team in the country. I do think Texas wins the game.”
“This Texas team, they are so much more complete this year,” said another head coach. “We couldn’t hang with their line on either side of the ball. You spend all the time talking about the weapons but the better teams are … it comes back to line play.”