Assessing some of the key storylines that will determine the winner on Thanksigiving.
Can the Longhorns deal with the two star TCU defensive ends? Texas has gotten a little bit lucky this season. The departure of Texas A&M from the conference removed pass rushers like Sean Porter and Damontre Moore from the league, while Oklahoma's Frank Alexander and Ronnell Lewis are both gone, along with Oklahoma State's Jamie Blatnick. That's five of the top eight sack artists from the Big 12 last season.
All season, true freshman Devonte Fields has been one of the top pass rushers in the conference, currently sitting at second behind Kansas State's Meshak Williams in sacks with 8.0, the same number as Okafor. On the other side, Stansly Maponga has recovered from his foot injury earlier in the season to wreck shop against Kansas State, consistently putting pressure on Collin Klein.
The Texas tackles haven't faced a challenge of this magnitude yet this season. How well they can respond will help dictate whether the Longhorns can make those deep throws that have been producing big plays throughout the season.
Can Texas run against a stacked front? Just as the philosophy of Texas co-offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin is to establish the running game to make everything else work, Gary Patterson's defensive philosophy is to stop the running game, regardless of the cost.
The numbers back up the eyeball test on film -- TCU has only allowed one 100-yard rusher this season, when Oklahoma State's Joseph Randle went for 126 yards, but needed 32 carries to get there. Overall, the rush defense gives up less than 100 yards per game, which is tops in the Big 12 conference and seventh in the entire country, exactly the same ranking afforded by S&P+ for run defense.
Nickelback Sam Carter is an impressive athlete on film at a stacked 6-1, 220. In some ways, he's the key to the entire defense because he has so many run/pass responsibilities -- used often as a strongside edge player, the former high school quarterback has 6.5 tackles for loss this season because he's often slicing into the backfield from that position on running plays.
Texas will have to scheme to have a blocker for Carter in the run game and know where he is at all times. The new wrinkle using an H-back to trap block a backside defender on inside zone might be one solution. And Ash will also have to account for him on bootlegs to his side of the field, an action that TCU seems to deal with well by blitzing whatever edge run defender happens to be on that side of the field.
The offensive line is playing some of the best football Texas has seen there in recent years, especially on the edge in the pin-and-pull game, with the ability and open-field efforts of center Dominic Espinosa standing out, but the group struggled against Oklahoma and may do the same at times against a front that ranks right up there in terms of the best Texas has faced this season.
Will the group rise to the challenge?
Which offense can win on 3rd downs? The Longhorns are one of the top teams in the country on 3rd down, converting almost 53% of their opportunities to extend drives. Meanwhile, the TCU offense has been downright terrible, managing less than 36%, a number that has gone down to 25% in the last two games.
Just comparing the two offenses, it would seem as if Texas would have a major advantage, but the real match ups happen between the Texas offense and TCU defense. In that light, Harsin is facing a difficult task -- TCU is fifth in the country in getting opponents off the field, allowing a conversion rate of less than 30%.
Standing in stark contrast to the blitz-happy style of, TCU rarely blitzed on 3rd down against Kansas State, opting instead to drop seven in coverage and rely on the strong front four to create pressure. The 5-for-13 mark was close to as good as things have gotten for Horned Frog opponents this season, even as the strategy was mostly effective.
Consider as well that TCU is a capable team in zone coverage, reducing the opportunities for David Ash to scramble or for the Texas screen game to catch the Horned Frogs off guard, which is much more difficult when every defender has their eyes on the football.
Can Texas create turnovers? One of the best things that Casey Pachall did for TCU before his suspension was protecting the football, having thrown only one interception in almost 100 pass attempts. His replacement, Trevone Boykin, has not been as successful in that area, throwing eight in
More than just Boykin, though, the Horned Frogs have problems hanging onto the football -- the 15 fumbles lost rank tied for 112th in the nation.
Creating short fields for the offense was one of the few reasons Kansas State was able to score 23 points against the stout TCU defense. If Texas doesn't manage to do the same, it could be difficult to reach that same number.
Can Texas pressure Trevone Boykin? The two young starting tackles for TCU have experienced their share of growing pains this season. As a result, Trevone Boykin has suffered some pain himself, having been sacked 10 times in the last three games.
Boykin has been responsible for some of his recent dings, however, including the injury that he suffered to his throwing shoulder when used it to try to run over a defender. Probably not what Patterson and his offensive staff would like to see from the redshirt freshman. After the play, Boykin had to leave the game for some time and some of his arm strength was sapped when he returned.
The bye week should have him back close to full strength, but expect Texas to try to get pressure with extra defenders because that's what Diaz likes to do and why should he stop now? The loss of Jackson Jeffcoat has hurt the Texas pass rush, so it will probably be up to Alex Okafor to generate whatever honest edge threats the 'Horns generate, as Jeffcoat's replacements, Cedric Reed and Reggie Wilson, have combined for only two sacks all season.
The wide receivers are a dynamic group for the Horned Frogs with multiple playmakers, so Texas will be running a significant risk if they want to blitz and leave defenders in single coverage behind them. In the last several weeks, many of those blitzes haven't gotten home and quarterbacks have been able to find receivers open over the middle, even Steele Jantz.
Hopefully the blitzes result in sacks and pressures.
Who wins the special teams battle? The missed field goal by Anthony Fera last week apparently opened up the kicking competition again and the Frogs feature dangerous punt returner Skye Dawson, who is averaging nearly 12 yards per return this season, a number that actually sits below the team's season average.
The TCU kicker hasn't been much more reliable than Fera or Nick Jordan, so field goal kicking may be a wash in a game that could come down to field goals. That statement may seem a little shocking this deep into the Big 12 season most conference games are more about scoring touchdowns in the redzone, but with the TCU defense surging and offense staggering, points may be hard to come by for both teams.
If this is finally the game that comes down to a late kick, do Texas fans feel comfortable? Oh wait, that question was already answered against West Virginia. Ugh.
Don't look for DJ Monroe to go out with a bang on Senior Night with a long kickoff return either -- the Horned Frogs give up less than 18 yards per return this season, one of the best marks in the country, though they are average in returning kickoffs themselves.