After finishing the non-conference part of the schedule, the Texas Longhorns are now entering the second phase of the season with the start of conference play on Saturday against Oklahoma State.
Even though the Cowboys dropped a contest to Arizona in the second week of the season, head coach didn't mince words talking about the strength of Mike Gundy's squad and the stakes at hand:
"Oklahoma State will be the best team we've played to this point," Brown said on Monday during his gameweek press conference. "Stakes are higher. Every week is like a playoff because we don't have a conference championship game. You can't afford to lose during the year and have that chance to win at the end.
Realistically, the time for talking about Texas as a national championship contender will be three and a half weeks from now if the Longhorns escape from this upcoming season-defining stretch.
The defensive and offensive lines of Oklahoma State will provide a more significant challenge than the ‘Horns have faced to date. Dominating out-matched groups, as evidenced by the more than 100 knockdowns against Ole Miss, won't be as easy against an Oklahoma State front seven that can at least come close to physically matching the Texas players across the ball.
Even so, Brown knows that continuing to win those battles despite having less of an advantage will be key to coming out of Stillwater with a victory.
"Right now we need to win on the lines of scrimmage to do what we're doing, opined the Texas head man. "We've been able to do that for three straight weeks. We've had better personnel than the three teams we've played."
Now the personnel gets very similar [to ours] this week. So we're going to have to block really good guys up front. We're going to have to take three seniors on the offensive line that average about 310 pounds. So it will be a great test for both of our lines of scrimmage in Stillwater this weekend."
It's a sentiment shared by junior offensive guard Trey Hopkins, who benefits from the credibility points gained by being one of the most well-spoken players on the team.
"I'm sure they're going to put up a good fight for us," said the former tackle, agreeing with his coach. "Definitely the biggest challenge we've seen so far on defense. They have a very athletic front. We've been watching them on film. Apparently the last few years they've done a good job. It's going to be a big challenge, an exciting game."
In particular, the Cowboys have registered 26 tackles for loss already this season, an average of nearly eight per game, which ranks among the top 10 in the country. Basically, Brown and Hopkins aren't just hyping their opponent this week, as Brown, in particular, is prone to do.
And it isn't the back seven making the majority of the plays either, as the Cowboys defensive line has accounted for exactly half of those stops. Additionally, Oklahoma State held Arizona to less than four yards per carry in the Wildcat victory.
Other than the opponent, Brown believes that the team will also have to battle itself, according to Brown.
"One of the question marks with this year's team, they've made progress each week: Can they continue to build on that progress and get better even with people bragging on them? Around here it's usually really high or really low, you don't get anything in the middle."
For the defense, that's clearly not a big concern, as they've no doubt been coached hard all season after the defining mistakes plaguing the group throughout the first three games, in spite of the shutout thrown against New Mexico.
Brown sees the increased emphasis on the run as a major change for Oklahoma State since the man known as Holgo was pulling the strings for his season in Stillwater.
"The biggest thing is, for a year or so they didn't run the ball very much," said Brown. "[Head Coach] Mike [Gundy] was going to run the ball. You can tell he's had a tremendous influence on this offense, because they've gone the spread concept that [former OSU offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach and current WVU head coach] Dana Holgorsen was running when he brought it from Houston to Oklahoma State. But Dana is even running it more watching him more at West Virginia. I think all the spread guys now understand that balance is a key, and it's making them so much more difficult to defend."
Indeed, Oklahoma State is fourth nationally in rushing S&P+, in large part due to the work of Joseph Randle and Jeremy Smith on the ground, as the two are averaging 6.7 and 6.9 yards per carry, respectively. Randle even showed off his ability to be a load back with 23 carries against Arizona for over 120 yards.
Offensively, however, Texas will have to respond the success against the Rebels in Oxford that was historically significant in comparison to production over the last two years. As Brown likes to say, the Longhorns need to avoid eating the poison cheese this week.
Hopkins believes that the current confidence isn't a cockiness borne out of arrogance, but rather the direct result of execution.
"You see a little more confidence around the offense. Everyone knows we know our assignments," sad the starting left guard. "We know when we're put in the fire, we can execute our assignments. They know we know what they're doing. We can complete the task put in front of us. So that is what they are expecting. And anything other than that won't be tolerated anymore."
Ash sees the same thing as the key to the Oklahoma State game, and any game, regardless of the opponent.
"You know, it comes down to execution. If we come into this game, 11 guys do their job, we're capable of doing anything."
It's an easy confidence held by Ash that was echoed by Hopkins on Monday.
"It helps a lot," according to the Galena Park North Shore product. "There's been a lot of talk about just saying that we're confident, saying we're a better team. Now that we're able to put it on the field, for us to see, to see we're able to do this, we do it in practice, now it's just not in practice but in the games. We can see the stuff correctly translating from practice to games. That's a big confidence booster. "
Last season and through the first two games, there were only flashes from the Longhorns. A big play here or there, often aided by some gadgets or the use of the Wildcat, but against Ole Miss, the offense seemed to finally put things together.
The fact Brown will sell the team on being humble, aided by better execution across the board offensively, should help ensure that the offense, at least, doesn't eat that poison cheese this week.
After that, it's all about continuing to execute against better athletes, while working on fixing those mistakes defensively.
Competition caveats end here.