They come from every whistle stop within a stone's throw of the Red River, good people intent on being mule-headed and surly and loud, and invade this fancy cow town of dance halls and $1.98 steak houses with two very separate and distinct voices.

One hollers for Texas, the other Oklahoma. Whether fans of the Longhorns or the Sooners, they stand by their love grudgingly and scream not to be heard so much as to evoke a sense of controlled chaos.

This noisy affair, in its 79th year, is less a football game than a tribal duel with incalculable consequences for the sons and daughters of these Big Eight and Southwest conference schools. Surely, the No. 1 Longhorns (3-0) will have more at stake than the top ranking in college football when they play the No. 3 Sooners (4-0) in the Cotton Bowl today at 3:30 p.m. EDT (WJLA-TV-7). The game carries with it a great weight of tradition.

Texas, the defending SWC champion, won last time out, 26-16, and ended up in the Cotton Bowl with Georgia, which made hayseed of the Longhorns' unimaginative offense in winning, 10-9.

Oklahoma, on the other hand, went 7-4 last year and did not play in a postseason bowl. Last year, the Sooners also lost Marcus Dupree, the brilliant running back whose talents influenced Coach Barry Switzer to scrap the wishbone for the I-formation. Now, the Sooners are running the wishbone again and Dupree, who transferred to Southern Mississippi during the 1983 season and later chose to leave school, is playing for the New Orleans Breakers of the United States Football League.

The best thing to happen to the Oklahoma football program last season was the emergence of Spencer Tillman, the halfback who replaced Dupree in the wishbone offense and ran for a totally unexpected 1,047 yards.

Tillman, a sophomore last year, drew comparisons to Greg Pruitt, Joe Washington, Billy Sims and several other former great Sooner running backs. But three days before the season opener against Stanford, Tillman pulled a hamstring while running wind sprints. He has worked out this week and has had no trouble running straight ahead, although making cuts was a different matter.

Switzer said Tillman's playing time will be "very little; maybe one or two plays. He definitely will not be the difference in this game."

Tillman's initial replacement at left halfback was Earl Johnson, a sophomore from Dallas, but he cracked a kneecap and was moved to fullback. Johnson, who rushed for 945 yards and eight touchdowns last year, will play against the Longhorns.

But the offense will probably feature fullback Lydell Carr, a freshman who has started every game this year and gained 292 yards on 66 carries, and rookie left halfback Patrick Collins, who has carried the ball only five times in his college career and gained six yards.

With Tillman out, quarterback Danny Bradley is the Sooners' biggest threat running from the wishbone. He has completed 47.7 percent of his passes and has run and thrown for a combined 711 yards and nine touchdowns.

For Texas, quarterback Todd Dodge has been remarkable all season, throwing for 488 yards and four touchdowns. He has completed better than 61 percent of his passes, which ranks him second nationally behind Doug Flutie of Boston College.

There was, however, much concern when Dodge hyperextended his knee last week against Rice and Coach Fred Akers declared him the "probable" starter against Oklahoma. After a week of work and therapy, his status has since been upgraded to "likely."

When Akers replaced Darrell Royal as head coach after the 1976 season, he canned the wishbone for the I-formation and employed the pass more than his predecessor had. Under Akers, Texas has relied on the strength of its defense to bolster an offense that has never been explosive, except when Earl Campbell was the tailback.

Dodge said, "People think Texas' offense is dull. If they just really knew some of the stuff that we had. All around the country, people think we're an option type of team. Basically, we've got a pro-style offense. We run the one-back set a lot. We just come into a game and try to feel things out and do what we feel we can do."

Texas often boasts of its offensive line strength. Center Gene Chilton, who weighs 290 pounds and can bench-press 520 pounds, is "the strongest football player in America," according to his strength coach, Dana LeDuc. They call the junior from Houston, "Gene, Gene the Coke Machine," because upperclassmen used to push his barrel chest and say, "Dr. Pepper, please."