I've spent a lot of my analysis this season focusing on whether and how this team/program is developing to set up trophy runs in the next two years, and while in my view that's certainly the most important thing to watch this season, there's plenty of time after the season to evaluate where we are in that process. Let's pivot, then, to an analysis of the remainder of this season alone: what's happened thus far, what we know, and what remains ahead.
The bye week and scrimmage against Kansas certainly helped to restore some confidence following the back-to-back losses to the Oklahomas, but to close the season Texas now faces five quality opponents, all of whom are capable of beating Texas, and some of whom may well be favored to do so. The Longhorns close out the 2011 season with a home tilt versus Texas Tech on Saturday, followed by a road trip to Columbia, a home game against Kansas State, Thanksgiving at College Station, and a season finale in Waco against Baylor.
There's a reason that Oklahoma State is ranked No. 1 in the computer rankings: the Big 12 is damn good this year. Big 12 teams dominated their non-conference schedules and while each of the remaining teams on Texas' schedule has one or more impressive wins on their resume, the Big 12 conference this season has proven to be as deep and cannibalizing as is often seen in the SEC's best years. Texas Tech defeated Oklahoma in Norman one week, then lost to Iowa State at home the next. Texas A&M beat Baylor and Iowa State, but choked away wins against Oklahoma State and Missouri. Hell, Texas looked like a JV team trying to compete with Oklahoma, and nearly played well enough to beat Oklahoma State a week later.
The first thing that we should acknowledge, then, is that it's plausible that Texas goes 5-0, or 0-5, or anything in between across its remaining schedule. And no team more perfectly encapsulates that point than Texas Tech, who pulled out a win in Norman -- where OU has lost exactly twice since Stoops arrived -- and then got walloped by Iowa State at home the very next week.
What else do we know at this point in the 2011 season? We know that Texas is quickly developing into a legitimately potent rushing team. I'm content to set aside the OU game, when our young team took its first real hit in the mouth and completely fell apart, and am more interested in the success we saw the past two weeks against Oklahoma State (49 rushes for 231 yards, 2 TDs) and Kansas (72-441-5), despite lacking any semblance of a downfield passing threat. Whether we can sustain that success down the stretch will say a lot about how many of the next 5 games we win, but there's no doubt that we're a strong-and-improving rushing team. That's important -- and legitimately encouraging, considering the pathetic rushing capabilities we demonstrated in recent years.
The complementary point there, of course, is that we are a below average passing team, and drastically so as compared with the rest of the Big 12. Setting aside the bigger picture goals related to developing Ash for seasons ahead, at present our passing attack is deeply limited, and if we find ourselves in deficits against any of these explosive offenses remaining on the schedule, we're in trouble. This year's team can win if it gets ahead, can control the ball, and put both its offense and defense in positions to do what they do well. And on the flipside, it's hard to see this year's team mounting any big comebacks.
Taking everything together, that's probably what the rest of this season comes down to -- whether we're able to start strong (or at least avoid falling behind), allowing us to do what we do well, and avoid having to play from behind. Looking at Tech, after the last two weeks, it's anyone's guess how they'll play, but there are certainly plenty of reasons to feel good about our chances to run the ball effectively. The Red Raiders defense has been gashed for over 200 yards on the ground in 5 of their 7 games (including 368 last week against ISU) and is allowing 4.9 yards per carry on the season.
The Red Raiders are underwhelming along the defensive line and their linebackers are young, and Texas should be able to churn out yards on the ground on this unit. It's fair to expect Tommy Tubberville to sell out to try to stop the run, which means our offensive effectiveness will in part depend on David Ash's ability to pick up a few first downs through the air via comfortable, manageable stuff, and on avoiding turnovers. Accomplish both of those modest goals and Texas should be able to churn out yards, points, and clock on offense.
On the other side of the ball, the Texas defense will need to repeat its performance against Oklahoma State, minus the two devastating big rushing plays. We want Doege to be firing the ball quickly, and we're going to be best off allowing some yardage while forcing Tech to score touchdowns on sustained drives. We can live with 400 yards passing allowed if it takes Doege 70 attempts to get there. The more passes Tech has to throw to put points on the board, the more opportunities we'll have for takeaways (the Red Raiders had 7 total turnovers in their losses to KSU and ISU). Doege and the Tech offense thrive when they're able to pick up some scores on big plays/short drives, and struggle when they have to put up points through sustained execution.
That pretty much captures what this game is likely to come down to for Texas: On offense, if we avoid turnovers and are able to pass just enough to allow our running game to bowl over Tech, we'll put enough points on the board to win absent a defensive meltdown. And on defense, if our offense (and special teams) avoids giving Tech short fields and our defense tackles well, avoids big plays, and forces the Red Raiders to score on sustained drives, we increase our chances of finding ourselves the beneficiaries of some turnovers and should succeed in preventing Tech from putting up the kind of points that puts uncomfortable pressure on our offense.
Your thoughts on the game Saturday against Tech? Do you feel comfortable about wins against any of the remaining opponents? How many of Texas' five remaining games do you think they'll win?