This weekend marks the first weekend of Red River’s 2018-19 season. During its five-month hiatus it has seen some major changes. The changes range from conference restructuring to institutional, all of which will shape Red River for one of its most equally competed seasons yet.
In the Spring, Red River announced that it would be adding the services of The University of North Texas to its mix. However, what was not known until later was that the University of Houston and Texas Christian University (TCU) would be leaving the conference. This reduction from nine to eight teams meant restructuring needed to take place within the North and South pools. Below are the newly formatted pools:
Each year the Red River strives to improve itself as a conference, setting lofty standards, and according to conference commissioner, TeShay Flowers, this year proves to be no different.
“One of our goals each year is to grow our competition and make the Red River Conference special,” noted Flowers. “We’ve aimed for playing on TV and Live Steams, playing in stadiums, to make an event out of our Championship Weekend and to strike partnerships with local MLR teams. We have achieved all of these, and this year we want to strengthen and perfect what we have achieved.”
2017-18 was a season that the Arkansas Razorbacks would like to have back, going 2-5 on the year. While, the results may not have been what the Razorbacks were hoping for, they showed plenty of promising signs and Flowers, thinks they are a team that has a legitimate shot at the title. “Alex Rees returning will be big for them. They could be knocking on the door this year. It will be interesting to see if they take the next step.”
The newest member of Red River, North Texas, will be the most unpredictable. While they have a strong familiarity with many of the teams playing in their conference, having taken them on in out of conference fixtures, it remains to be seen how their translation from D1AA to D1A will pan out.
For Flowers, he doesn’t have any concerns. “Competitively North Texas has been on par with the teams in Red River,” said Flowers. “They’ve worked hard on getting into D1A and we worked with them to get them ready. I expect them to challenge for the North Division Championship and there is a big opportunity for them to get to the top immediately.”
Flowers’ confidence stems in part from North Texas’ coach, Mike Engelbrecht, and his ability to prepare his teams for any occasion.
Oklahoma’s Sooners, have been a bit of enigma in previous years. They seem to be a team of two seasons. In 2017-18 they started the year at 0-3 and then ripped off five consecutive wins, before falling to LSU on the Championship weekend. The year before that they went 4-1 to start the year before falling to 5-3 overall. This year they will be hoping to tap into the tail end of last year’s results and string together some consistency. If they are able to achieve that then anything is possible for the Sooners this year.
It’s been a tumultuous off season for the Red Raiders, they’re head coach, Phil Terrigno stepped aside and is now working with as an assistant with Army. Their replacement for Terrigno only lasted a few weeks before he too had to resign. While there has been a tremendous amount of turnover in Lubbock, Texas Tech is a resilient team and it will undoubtedly be on show this year. One of their biggest advantages will be their home field advantage. The Red Raiders are located 5 hours away from their closest opponent. Making teams travel such arduous distances, makes Texas Tech a daunting side. If they can capitalize on their home fixtures, and snag a couple of away wins they could sneak away with the North title.
The last two Red River Championship matches have seen the Baylor Bears make an appearance. However, that could change this year, as there has been a change in leadership within the Bear’s program. Mason Herring, the former head coach, has now stepped into the director of rugby role. While, Ron VanArmburgh has stepped in to fill Herring’s shoes. This certainly is a step forward for the program, with Herring’s new role focused at growing the program. The worry from this move may cause a slight to disconnect during the transition period and in a pool as competitive as the South, you can’t afford to lose a step.
Flowers noting, “They’ll push towards growing the program, but it’s a big challenge losing a coach like Mason, who has worked so hard to get them to where they are. Luckily they’ve kept a lot of key players and could keep their current trajectory.”
Baylor will be one of the favorites to take the conference title, but their early games will, perhaps, give the greatest indication of what lies in the cards for them.
One of the most consistent teams in Red River since its inception has been LSU, who has only lost one regular season game since 2015. However, with a mass exodus of key seniors, it remains to be seen whether they will be able to dominate at the same level they have previously. However, the biggest challenge for LSU may not be replacing the players but rather keeping pace with the sweeping improvement taking place throughout their division.
“LSU lost a lot of guys. When you lose your 8, 15, 10 and 7 it’s tough to overcome,” Flowers mentioned. “I suspect Scott and Ray will have these guys ready to compete.” Replacing players has never been an issue for the Tigers, nor has developing them. Last year the Tigers saw three of their players find their way onto MLR rosters.
A team on the rise last year was Texas. They are a team that, after a couple of years lingering around the bottom of the ladder, seem to have begun to turn the page. They started 4-1 but dropped three of their final games including two losses to LSU. However, they rebounded from this to take apart Arkansas during the championship weekend.
Flowers is very high on Texas and likes what they are doing both on and off the field to improve their program. “UT last year were surging. They throttled Arkansas during the championship weekend…They’re jumping out of conference to play games and get better.”
They will open their season against the Texas A&M Aggies on September 22 and this game could very well be one of the deciding factors in who wins the conference this year.
Last Year’s champions return looking to do what has become a nearly impossible feat in the Red River- repeat. The Aggies took the Red River by storm last year, and will look to do the same once again this year. Led by coach James Lowery and a deadly backline the Aggies scored over 300 points and conceded a hair over 10 points a game. This year the bulk of their starting backline returns with standout flyhalf and outside center Seth Robinson and Braeden Hood, respectively, returning. The biggest return will come from their leading try scorer Reuben Mikeska, whose electrifying pace and excellent finishing skills make him a nightmare to contain.
Lowery’s Aggies are shaping up to be one of the best teams in Red River, and after bowing out in the Round of 16 during last year’s playoffs, they’ll be keen to search for a deeper run this year.