LSU and Texas are not rivals. Saturday's game in Austin is just the 18th between the two, and the first on one another's campus since 1954. It's hard to build a rivalry when you only play in the other team's stadium once every 65 years.
And yet, off the field these programs behave every bit like rivals. These two superpowers have been locked in a Cold War that's been waging for years.
Let us count the ways.
-- For starters, the two pursued the same coach, the one wearing orange on Saturday. When LSU fired Les Miles and Texas did the same to Charlie Strong, Tom Herman was the hottest coach on the market. The then 41-year-old was in the midst of producing a 22-4 run as Houston's head coach and not far removed from helping coordinate Ohio State's 2014 national championship run with a third-string quarterback.
The search played out over a surreal Thanksgiving weekend in 2016.
The weekend began with LSU beating Texas A&M in College Station on Thanksgiving night. The game was broadcast on ESPN, and as the network's crawl showed the breaking news that LSU was in deep talks with Herman -- broken, by all people, by Horns247 reporter Chip Brown -- the network's cameras caught LSU AD Joe Alleva looking like the loneliest man in the world in the Kyle Field press box.
That report seemed strategically timed to bring Texas to the table, and LSU people certainly believed that at the time and still believe it now, nearly three years later.
Ross Dellenger, who wrote the definitive story of the search for Sports Illustrated, wrote that LSU believed it had a deal with Herman's camp on Friday, Nov. 25, but learned by Saturday, Nov. 26 that Herman was going to Texas.
“The agent,” says Joe Alleva, referring to Armstrong, Herman’s representative. “He was working both sides of the deal. I’m not stupid. I knew that was a possibility. That’s what agents are supposed to do, but Herman was playing that same game too.”
Oregon was announced as LSU's head coach at 11:59 a.m. Central time on Saturday, Nov. 26.
Herman was announced four hours later.
-- The links don't end there, either. Herman and LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda attended Cal Lutheran together in the mid-90s. Beyond that, the pair were teammates and roommates at the Division III school -- Herman says he believes he hosted Aranda on a recruiting trip -- and the two have remained in touch.
“I remember when I was named special teams coordinator at Sam Houston State, he was (a graduate assistant) at Texas Tech, and I drove all the way from Huntsville to Lubbock and spent a couple of days trying to learn special teams drills and whatnot,” he told Horns247. “He was nice enough to have me stay at his apartment, all that stuff.”
Saturday is not the first time the friends have squared off in the ring. The pair were Big Ten opponents twice. Herman, then Ohio State's offensive coordinator, scored two victories over Aranda, Wisconsin's defensive coordinator at the time; the first was a 31-24 Buckeye win in 2013, and the second a 59-0 Ohio State drubbing in the 2014 Big Ten Championship -- a blowout so decisive it lifted the Buckeyes from No. 5 to No. 4 in the final College Football Playoff rankings, allowing the scarlet and gray to win that season's national championship.
Aranda is also indirectly responsible for Todd Orlando's placement as Texas' defensive coordinator. Aranda spent the 2012 campaign as Utah State's defensive coordinator under head coach Gary Andersen; when Andersen got the Wisconsin job that winter, Aranda went with him and Orlando, then Florida International's defensive coordinator, joined the new Utah State staff under Matt Wells.
Orlando helped Utah State got 19-9 in his two seasons on the job, a string of success that caught the eye of newly-hired Houston head coach Tom Herman, who got his job in part because of how decisively his offense dissected Aranda's defense.
Oh, and the links don't end there, either. Former LSU quarterback Brandon Harris is now on the support staff at Texas.
-- While LSU indirectly got Tom Herman and Todd Orlando hired at Texas, Tom Herman indirectly found LSU its quarterback. Burrow, of course, did not begin his career at LSU. He arrived to the Bayou via a graduate transfer from his original school, which was Ohio State. He was recruited to Ohio State out of Athens, Ohio, by the Buckeyes' offensive coordinator, which was Herman.
Herman took the Houston job before Burrow arrived on campus, but, as Brody Miller writes for The Athletic, Herman was Burrow's champion in the Ohio State staff room throughout the recruiting process.
One day Herman would be in California. One day it would be Georgia. And each quarterback he’d see, he’d send a text to Burrow and his father, saying, “Hey, I just saw this guy in Los Angeles. Joe’s still my guy,” or, “You can throw better than this guy.”
-- The programs frequently bump into each other on the recruiting trail. LSU boasts 15 Texans on its roster, and when the Tigers cross their western border to go cherry-picking, they tend to pick only the ripest cherries. All-American safety Grant Delpit hails from Houston, as does team captain and All-America candidate outside linebacker K'Lavon Chaisson. In fact, Chaisson picked LSU over Texas (and Florida) on Singing Day in 2017 and played against Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger in the Texas Class 6A Division 1 state championship game in 2015. Chaisson's Houston North Shore squad beat Ehlinger's Austin Westlake in overtime, and clearly Chaisson is still feeling it.
Texas doesn't head East often for obvious reasons, but when they do it's because they're hunting for defensive linemen. All four Louisianans on UT's roster play along the defensive line, including team captain and Baton Rouge native Malcolm Roach. Texas would have a fifth Bayou native along its defensive line in 2018 signee and Baton Rouge native Mike Williams, but he left the team and transferred... to LSU.
Texas is using Saturday's game as a major recruiting event, hosting a number of prospects from the 2020, '21 and '22 classes. Obviously, the plan is to use a raucous atmosphere and a victory over a top-10 SEC opponent to springboard those respective classes. But, if LSU wins, you can bet Orgeron and his staff will do their best to make all that effort backfire on the Longhorns.
-- Part of the reason Texas doesn't recruit Louisiana as much as LSU recruits Texas is that it's extremely difficult to get a Louisiana native that LSU wants. Another part of the reason is that LSU simply won't let them. In 2017, Texas was set to appear at a satellite camp in Baton Rouge until the in-state program leaned its considerable weight on its smaller neighbors until they got the picture, and suddenly Texas was no longer welcome.
“We want to thank you for keeping the satellite camps in the state of Louisiana. I mean that. I appreciate that,” Orgeron told Louisiana high school coaches that summer. “I know a lot of you guys were approached by other teams, a lot of our competitors, and you didn’t let them in. I appreciate that. It means a lot to us. Keep our players in the state of Louisiana.”
-- Both programs claim to be the top producer of defensive back talent. LSU has produced five first-round defensive backs this decade, including the likes of Jamal Adams, Patrick Petersen and Tyrann Mathieu. Their 2019 team boasts Delpit, a Thorpe Award favorite, plus 5-star recruits Kristian Fulton and Derek Stingley, Jr., at cornerback.
Texas, meanwhile, claims six first-round DBs since 2002 and claims three 5-star safety recruits on its 2019 roster: senior Brandon Jones and sophomores Caden Sterns and BJ Foster.
In the 33-year history of the award, only Texas and LSU have produced back-to-back Jim Thorpe Award winners as the nation's top defensive back. Texas did with Michael Huff and Aaron Ross in 2005 and '06, while LSU equaled the feat with Patrick Petersen and Morris Claiborne in 2010-11.
Texas wore these shirts in pre-game warmups against Louisiana Tech and plans to bring them back on Saturday.
-- More than anything, it's a clash of cultures. This is the part where, up until this season, I would write about how Texas vs. LSU is really Big 12 speed-in-space against SEC strength and power, but that's not really true anymore.
Both teams want to spread people out to get the ball to their talented receivers in 1-on-1 matchups, and quarterbacks can take and deliver punishment like few in college football.
But the beauty of college football is that it isn't always about the game on the field, but what the game represents. Texas and LSU is a game, but it's also a clash of cultures. It's the SEC against the Big 12. It's brisket versus gumbo. It's Bevo against Mike the Tiger.
Saturday's game will go a long way toward determining which of these two ascendent programs are serious in joining Georgia, Ohio State and Oklahoma as serious challengers to Alabama and Clemson for college football supremacy. But in a way, Saturday's game will decide nothing.
Though they rarely meet on the field, LSU and Texas have been competing against each other on a daily basis for years, and that competition will continue no matter what happens Saturday night in Austin, at Tiger Stadium on Sept. 12, 2020, on the recruiting trail and in both fan bases' Twitter mentions, and the last two competitions continue forever.