When the 2012 Texas football schedule was released, the season cut neatly into a four three-game series. The season's first quarter (Q1) opened with a trio of comfortable non-conference games against opponents that played three different styles. Defensively, Texas faced a group of offenses with talented skill position players that provided plenty of learning opportunities. Wyoming brought a spread passing offense similar to what Texas will face through the bulk of the Big 12 schedule, followed by New Mexico's spread triple-option attack, and wrapping up with Ole Miss's Texas circa-2005 zone read offense. While the results for the defense were mixed, ranging from a bend-don't-break shutout of New Mexico to the big play prone headscratcher against Ole Miss, Texas at least knows what the defense does well and what areas need work.
The opening trio of games played out quite differently for the Texas offense. Each game had a clear plan laid out. Open against Wyoming and set the baseline: establish a power running game and build David Ash's confidence and touch in the screen game. Against an overmatched New Mexico: open up the offense for David Ash and give him the chance to make play calls at the line of scrimmage. And to wrap up the opening stretch against Ole Miss, roll out what the offense looks to be moving forward: a dominant run game that attacks a defense in a variety of ways, and pair it with a passing attack that demands honesty from a defense. Coming off that stretch, the results show that the offense is improving exactly as it was hoped. The QB play is improving and the running game is taking the next step.
Now Texas moves into what is likely to be the season-defining stretch. The schedule's second trio of games (Q2) opens on the road against defending Big 12 champion Oklahoma State, then welcomes Big 12 newcomer West Virginia to Austin, and wraps up against nemesis Oklahoma in Dallas. With the stretch containing what I would argue are three of Texas's four toughest games, the 2012 season's successes and failures will in many ways hinge on the team's Q2 results.
A Glance at the Opposition
Oklahoma State: Texas travels to Stillwater for the first time since 2009 riding a two game losing streak against the fightin' T. Boone Pickens. The Cowboys' opening three games are highlighted by a pair of offensive explosions, the first against FCS punching bag Savannah State and the second against the other other Louisiana school, Louisiana-Lafayette. But the lone game against a team with a pulse, a road trip to the desert, had OSU giving up 59 points to Arizona. The Cowboys have QB questions with Wes Lunt down with injury, and JW Walsh as a probable starter against Texas on September 29th. It's a team that isn't the same after losing offensive talents Brandon Weeden, Justin Blackmon, and Josh Cooper, but still presents a threat.
West Virginia: Texas welcomes West Virginia to DKR for the first time as a Big 12 member, and the matchup could be a game between two top ten teams. Geno Smith leads Dana Holgorsen's high output passing offense, complemented on the outside by WR threats Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey. WVU hasn't been tested in a non-conference schedule featuring Marshall, James Madison, and Maryland. Despite the dominance of the Mountaineer passing attack, questions about the running game and defense make this a winnable game.
Oklahoma: Despite the well documented issues with Oklahoma this season (to recap: injuries, attrition, and injuries), the annual Red River Shootout in Dallas is always one of the toughest games of the season. This isn't Landry Jones's first rodeo against the Horns, and he still has some weapons in Kenny Stills and Penn State transfer Justin Brown, but the Texas defense will have to capitalize against a depleted OU offensive line and lackluster running game. And of course, the Texas offense will have to excise some demons from its terrible performance in last year's edition of the rivalry.
Projecting the Possibilities
Texas goes 0-3.... It hits the fan
How it happens: Jordan Hicks misses a lot of playing time with his hip injury, and the defense does not recover. Assignment busts, poor alignment, and spotty tackling lead to big plays for the dynamic Oklahoma State, West Virginia, and Oklahoma offenses. The Texas offense regresses, most notably QB David Ash. After remaining turnover free to start the season, the offense commits a few untimely turnovers. With the passing game disappearing, the opposing defenses are able to load the box to slow the Texas running game.
What it means: Trouble. A 0-3 result in this stretch piles pressure on offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin to make a change at quarterback, and yields plenty of boos from the home crowd when things go poorly. But the biggest damage comes in the need to rebuild the offense, again. Poor showings by Manny Diaz's defense likely burn through whatever credit he's built amongst the fan base. Mack Brown retirement talk heats up, and snippy Mack from 2010 makes his return. An 8-4 or 7-5 regular season is likely on the way, and Mack Brown's overhaul of his staff is deemed a failed experiment.
Chance it happens: 10%
Texas goes 1-2.... Not quite good enough
How it happens: One of the Texas offensive or defensive units fails to carry its share in this stretch. One possibility is the offense continuing its growth and producing yards and points in spurts, but is unable to match offensive explosions in two of the games, likely against WVU and OU. The other is the defense shoring up the issues it displayed to start the season and containing the slate's dynamic offenses, but the offense stalling in fashions similar to the Missouri and Kansas State games late last year. One of those games is close, but the placekicking game comes up short with Anthony Fera continuing to miss time.
What it means: The two ways we get to 1-2 are different, and I find one more troubling than the other. If the defense struggles and the offense keeps the team in those games, I'm encouraged that the offense continues to grow and gives this team a shot in each game. Defensive struggles could be more indicative of opponent strength (the offenses on the back end of the schedule lack the strength of the offenses in this stretch) rather than systematic problems. If the offense struggles while the defense turns its performance around, offensive regression becomes a big concern, and we may find ourselves back in the woes of 2011. While a 1-2 stretch is not a disaster, it still leaves a lot to be desired. If a 10 win season and BCS consideration is the goal, it moves the team's margin for error from slim to 0. Considering Baylor and Texas Tech are still relative unknowns, Iowa State has a penchant for playing spoiler, and Purple Wizard looms to cap the season, maintaining some margin for error is preferable (to say the least).
Chance it happens: 30%
Texas goes 2-1.... Conference championship in reach
How it happens: Manny Diaz rectifies a lot of the big play problems the defense showed early on. With Jordan Hicks back and healthy, the defense has been simplified and assignments have been cleaned up. The defense doesn't quite live up to the elite expectations it had coming into the season, but it is no longer an area of concern. The offense continues along its growth path, with the running game coming up strong and the passing game providing some relief and a few big plays. However, the law of averages dictates that turnovers are inevitable, and will be a problem in one game. If the defense fails to keep the opposition under 30 in a game the offense commits multiple turnovers, a loss happens.
What it means: 2-1 happens if the offense continues to play the way it has through the start of the 2012 season and the defense improves on its sub-par start. Neither unit has to be elite to get to 2-1, but solid, synchronized performances set the team up for a run at a conference championship through the second half of the season. The 2-1 record represents optimism about the trajectory of the team: both units are improving, with the offense becoming the picture of balance Mack Brown has long since desired and the defense setting itself up for a finish similar to the 2011 defense. Challenges remain on the schedule, but the performance of the team sets up for a run that makes the season finale in Manhattan a likely de-facto conference championship game with a BCS birth on the line.
Chance it happens: 45%
Texas goes 3-0.... Dare to dream
How it happens: One unit becomes a solid, steady performer and the other makes the jump to elite. If it's the defense that takes the step to become an elite unit, its on the heels of a linebacker unit that figures out what the defense needs from the position, a defensive line that harasses opponent QBs on a weekly basis, and a secondary that begins to fulfill its potential. Pair that with an offense that continues to get tough yards, convert easy third downs, and remains mistake free, and you get 3-0. Or, the offense completes its transformation into a perfectly balanced unit that attacks in the run game with its stable of deep and talented backs and punishes overplay with complementary passes and deep throws to Jason Shipley, Marquise Goodwin, and Mike Davis. And there may even be an emerging threat at TE. With an elite offense, the defense only needs to turn in serviceable performances (read: don't give up 50).
What it means: 3-0 with wins over potential top 15 teams Oklahoma and West Virginia brings the team to 6-0 and a possible top 5 ranking. With the toughest portion of the schedule past and perfect season intact, a conference championship becomes the expectation, and Texas becomes an outside contender at a national championship. Help is needed in the form of Oregon, Stanford, and Florida State losses, but the possibility exists. Regardless of where Texas stands on the national scene, the team is winning and back to being one of the elite teams in the country.
Chance it happens: 15%
That about covers what possibilities exist for the 2012 Texas Longhorns entering this season defining stretch. As you can tell from the percentages, I expect 2-1 to be the result we see. I see Manny Diaz cleaning the defense up and getting it back to big play proof. It may yield a few long scoring drives, but that will happen when you face the quality of QB play we're going to see. I think the offense continues to grow and maintains its balanced play, continues to be successful on third down and in the red zone, and limits mistakes. I find it hard to believe that we get through the first six games with only one turnover on the fumbled snap against Wyoming, and the stretch would be difficult to go 3-0 without playing perfect. Entering the second half at 5-1 is just fine with me.
What do y'all think? Are the assessments about what you expect? Are the percentages about right? What do you expect the results will be?