LAFAYETTE, Colo. – The Red River grew into a nine-team conference in the offseason. Additions of Arkansas and Houston have spurred a split in divisions – North and South. The four-team North Division includes: Arkansas, Baylor, Oklahoma and Texas Tech. Meanwhile, the South Division is made up of: Houston, LSU, Texas and Texas A&M, while TCU will be independent of either division.
Regardless of the conference’s additions and new-look divisions, the frontrunners for a Red River title remain the same. LSU went undefeated in its first season playing in the conference and won the Red River Championship. Oklahoma’s lone loss came against the Tigers and could very well upend LSU this time around.
Behind those two teams are sides like Texas A&M, which has climbed the top of Texas’ college rugby ladder before, and an improving Baylor program.
University of Oklahoma Sooners
The Sooners quietly had a very good 2015-16 season. The team spent some time in the D1A Rugby Top 20 and had its sights set on a Red River Championship before falling to eventual conference winner LSU, 43-12.
Entering Head Coach Doug Neubauer’s second full season at the helm, the team should see continued improvements given the growing familiarity between players and the coaching staff.
“We have made progress in all aspects of the program and are hoping that continues,” Neubauer said.
If the Sooners’ first Red River match of the season is any indication, then they could be on their way to an even better 2016-17 season. Last year Oklahoma beat TCU by 38 points at home. In September the Sooners went to TCU and shut out the Horned Frogs, 55-0. The early result was especially positive considering Oklahoma graduated two of its main ball handlers from a year ago. All-Conference back-line performers Tom Murphy and David Wallace were a big part of the Sooners attack. Wallace was especially troublesome for opposing teams. The fly half scored in each of Oklahoma’s matches but one and handled the majority of the team’s kicking duties.
Even with the return of First-Team All-Conference backs Jon Lucas and Manny Soto, Oklahoma’s strength could be in the forwards this season. Colton Grantham will captain the team and play open side flanker, while fellow flanker Logan Ronan and lock Logan Baker are difference makers, as well.
University of Texas Longhorns
Texas may have gone winless last season in the Red River, but the panic button has not been hit in Austin, Texas.
“Last year we had some unique challenges, but all years have that,” explained Texas Head Coach Chris Hopps. “You can’t throw away years’ worth of work because of one semester of unwanted results.”
Hopps points to the team’s success in sevens that led the Longhorns to a second-place finish in the conference as reason the team isn’t that far off from getting back near the top of the Red River standings. Additionally, Texas will have a much more veteran team leading the squad this season.
“We are pretty skilled and much more experienced,” added Hopps. “We can take chances and figure things out on the fly.”
While the team will need to find a leader to replace former captain and hard-nosed lock Wade Bennet, Hopps and his staff are pleased that some of their most skilled returning players are also the program’s hardest workers. Expect flanker Reed Hogan to be all over the park, and scrum half Eddy Caballero and outside center Carson Youman to be the team’s most dangerous back-line players.
The Longhorns’ conference opener against Oklahoma was postponed due to field availability, so the Red River won’t get its first look at this year’s Texas team until it takes the pitch against Texas A&M Saturday, Oct. 22.
Texas A&M University Aggies
No Red River team played Conference Champion LSU tougher than the Aggies did last year. After spotting the Tigers 24 points, Texas A&M stormed back and eventually fell, 32-30, on its way to a third-place finish in the Red River standings.
Looking at this year’s Aggies team, the program returns a lot of firepower in the forwards considering it won the Red River Conference 7s Championship in 2015. First-Team All-Conference lock Jacob Browning returns in the maroon and white kit. So, too, does another First-Team flanker in Braedan Hood. Now a senior, Hood has proven to be one of the best forwards in the Red River, and could be one of the very best in the country this season. Also returning to the forward pack is hooker Drew Keon.
There’s talent in Texas A&M’s back line, too. Scum half Justin Brown is both a game manager and weapon on attack, while center Seth Robinson was one of the best freshman in the conference last season.
Texas Christian University Horned Frogs
The 2014-15 season saw TCU go winless without putting up more than 13 points in a single conference game. So when the Horned Frogs concluded last season with a Red River win and tie under their belts, marked improvement was evident. The hope is that the program can take another step in the right direction this season.
“Coming into the season we had very high hopes with a strong returning group, and a few top-level recruits,” said TCU Head Coach TeShay Flowers. “We felt we could have really challenged for the top of the table.”
Unfortunately for Flowers and the program, a few key components to the roster haven’t been able to commit to rugby due to outside obligations, making for a less-experienced team prepared to take the field this fall.
“I am confident that these young men will work hard and fight for each other,” added Flowers. “That is all I can ask of them and really all I want.”
The lack of experience was on display when TCU began its season with a 55-0 loss to Oklahoma. The Horned Frogs feel they played the Sooners a lot tougher than the final score indicates. Still, they will need to correct their mistakes from a few weeks ago in a hurry.
“Going forward we will have to minimize the mistakes,” Flowers explained. “Oklahoma made us pay for everything we did wrong, whether it was turnover ball or missed tackles. Heading into [the Sept. 22 match against] Houston, we will need to make sure that they earn everything they get.”
Part of the early season struggles comes from losing the team’s two biggest leaders from a season ago. Scrum Half Dillon Thiele scored 51 points for the Horned Frogs last year and is described by Flowers as “the most talented rugby player I have ever coached.” Gone, too, is flanker Brandon Terrell, whose grittiness will definitely be missed.
The loss of those two players puts even more responsibility on this year’s captain, Zach Trigg. The senior fly half won’t be playing this weekend against Houston due to commitments with the university’s ROTC program, but the team is expecting a lot from him after making the Red River’s Honorable Mention All-Conference side last season.
Trigg’s roommate, Nick Larsen, will be vice captain and take over the No. 10 jumper. Larsen has battled injuries the past two seasons, but if he can stay healthy he’ll make an immense impact. So, too, should freshman Ryan Gochnour. The athletic prop is in just his first season playing rugby, but has incredible upside and should be an immediate force in the front row.
Texas Tech Red Raiders
The Red Raiders are only the Red River side to have already played two conference matches – neither resulting in a win. However, Texas Tech did see a lot of improvement from its 29-point loss to Arkansas in September compared to its three-point defeat to Baylor earlier this month.
“We have to make sure not to squander opportunities inside the opposition’s 22-meter line,” determined new Texas Tech Head Coach Phil Terrigno. “We must also improve on retaining possession, discipline and fitness.”
The Red Raiders will also find more success once they’ve properly replaced their two best players from a year ago who are now Texas Tech alumni – winger Wes Otto and prop Jake Hoffman.
In the meantime, the Red Raiders have a pair of exceptional backs to break the line and create space for others. Sophomore inside center Bobby Flinn was an Honorable Mention All-Conference standout last year, and senior fly half Mike McCabe scored his first of what should be several tries against Baylor earlier this season.