In the aftermath of dominating the Oklahoma Sooners on Saturday in the Cotton Bowl, the Texas Longhorns sit at 3-0 in Big 12 conference play, one of only three teams that remain undefeated in league play, along with the Texas Tech Red Raiders and the Baylor Bears.
The win over Iowa State was completely unsatisfying, as Texas arguably didn't deserve to win that game, and it highlighted the fact that this team can't count on any conference road wins this season. And then Saturday morning at the Cotton Bowl happened and the team started to flash some unexpected upside amid the resiliency and flashes from the running game that were the most positive takeaways from the last two wins.
Suddenly, there's some cause for optimism again as the hopes for winning the Big 12 remain alive.
Here's a look at the rest of the schedule and how the Longhorns match up with their remaining opponents as they continue their pursuit of the school's first Big 12 title in football since 2009.
At the TCU Horned Frogs, October 26
This week is a bye, allowing the team another opportunity to continuing recovering its health, including the injuries sustained by safety Adrian Phillips and linebacker Dalton Santos against Oklahoma, neither one of which is expected to be serious. The prognosis is less clear on quarterback David Ash and offensive tackle Josh Cochran.
But without quarterback Casey Pachall and star defensive end Devonte Fields, the struggles of the TCU offensive line and lack of development from current starting quarterback Trevone Boykin and the wide receivers have severely limited the team as a whole despite the defense performing at the levels now expected every year from Gary Patterson.
The Horned Frogs have also been oddly poor at home early in the Big 12, failing to pick up their first win in conference play at home until yesterday against lowly Kansas. And Texas has been a better team on the road in recent seasons than they have been in the friendly but not exactly hostile confines of Darrell K Royal-Memorial Stadium.
This game looks much more winnable now than it did last week and much more winnable than it did at the start of the season when the consensus was that TCU would compete for the conference championship. What happens next week against Oklahoma State will provide some key perspective on where both of those teams are right now, but Texas may be the favorite going into that game if the Horned Frogs lose to the Cowboys. And even if they don't, unless TCU can turn in an unexpectedly dominant performance.
Kansas Jayhawks, November 2
The Jayhawks are 2-3 and don't look much improved from their winless Big 12 campaign of 2012. The current conference losing streak sits at 23 games now, Jake Heaps hasn't really been the answer for an offense that hasn't run the football as well as it did last season, and while the defense hasn't been hemorrhaging points (sixth in the Big 12 at 25.6 points per game), it has been quite bad against the run (4.6 yards per carry allowed).
Were this game on the road, the danger of another Iowa State game -- basically what happened last year in Lawrence -- would loom as a legitimate threat. Since it's at home? It would be a disappointment for the game to be close much past halftime.
At West Virginia Mountaineers, November 9
Assessing the Mountaineers right now has to be done within the context of the upset victory at home against Okahoma State a couple of weeks ago, although the biggest lesson was probably how flawed the Cowboys offense is right now with JW Walsh's lack of high-level arm talent rather exposed recently. However, it's almost important to understand that Dana Hologorsen's defense is much improved this season with the infusion of some junior college talent and growth from returning players.
Call them Bizzaro West Virginia -- a good defensive team that struggles to score points (24 points per game). Weird, right?
The problem for Holgorsen as a growing contingent of Mountaineer fans appear past the honeymoon stage of their relationship with him is that the offense hasn't had players step up at the wide receiver position and the quarterback situation has been unstable, resulting in an offense that hasn't been able to take advantage of the talent at running back and ranks 97th offensively in the S&P+ rankings.
The other lesson from the Oklahoma State game, though? The team is dangerous at home, despite an offense that is pretty clearly flawed because it doesn't do anything well or even most things at a mediocre level, including producing explosive plays.
Still, the Longhorns should enter this game as the favorite and leave Morgantown as winners.
Oklahoma State Cowboys, November 16
Projecting the games a month and more into the future gets increasingly difficult because of how much can change about how a team is playing, most particularly in terms of injuries.
The Cowboys weren't exactly convincing in beating the Wildcats by four points at home last week despite gaining five turnovers (three interceptions of Daniel Sams) and lost the aforementioned contest to West Virginia, with the result of having reduced expectations somewhat, even though they may still be the conference's second-best or third-best team.
JW Walsh's play has been steady in avoiding interceptions, having thrown only three this season (1.8% interception rate, which is quite exceptional), but his overall efficiency has dropped greatly from last season's small sample size (No. 59 in passer rating, No. 38 in adjusted QBR). and his completion percentage of 60.9% stands out as quite inaccurate. He's also been facing those aforementioned questions about his arm talent and there are a large number of Oklahoma State fans who are selling on him right now.
And the running game hasn't been good in any contest except for the opener Mississippi State, a surprising development given some returning talent at running back and the sterling reputation of offensive line coach Joe Wickline in developing often overlooked recruits into potent zone-blocking lines.
The defense, however, has made the improvements that Mike Gundy wanted when he fired defensive coordinator Bill Young and promoted Glenn Spencer to the position -- the Cowboys are giving up only 20 points per game and sit No. 6 nationally in rush defense S&P+ because they are giving up only 3.16 yards per carry.
If Texas doesn't have David Ash in this game and Case McCoy leaves some touchdown passes on the field or throws interceptions, the Longhorns could have a tough time winning this one if the run game doesn't have more success against the Cowboys than previous opponents have achieved. Even if Ash is healthy by that point, the BYU game illustrated just how badly things can go if the offensive line gets whipped no matter who is behind center.
Call this one a toss up at the moment, pending the outcome of this week's game, when things will become a little bit more clear.
Texas Tech Red Raiders, November 28
The Thanksgiving opponent for this season, the Red Raiders have been the biggest surprise of the conference, though some questions remain because the run game hasn't been great (No. 67 nationally in rush S&P+), in part because Texas Tech has already allowed 43 tackles for loss.
In spite of quarterback uncertainty originally created by the back injury to prospective starter Michael Brewer and a more recent leg injury to freshman walk-on Baker Mayfield, who won the job over Davis Webb after Brewer went down, Texas Tech is operating at a high level in new coach Kliff Kingsbury's passing scheme that currently has four of the top 12 receivers in the conference in receiving yards per game.
The bigger surprise is the defense, which took a bit of a hit for the performance against Iowa State over the weekend, but still ranks No. 26 nationally in S&P+ without the benefit of a great number of turnovers (11 forced so far this season).
It's harder to project the Red Raiders because of their weak early schedule, so it's hard to say how the game might shake out at this point. The schedule gets difficult quickly because after facing West Virginia this weekend, Tech will face a gauntlet that goes Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Kansas State, Baylor, Texas.
Contender or pretender? The next several weeks will be telling for Tech.
At Baylor Bears, December 7
The tarp will be off at a sold-out Floyd Case Stadium as the Longhorns shut down the Bears' old digs in advance of the new waterfront stadium's completion for the 2014 football season and Baylor may well be on their way to winning its first-ever Big 12 championship when that happens.
And if Texas somehow manages to win out until then, it could be a deciding game in that battle.
Baylor finally looked somewhat human against Kansas State on the road this week, as star running back Lache Seastrunk was mostly held in check and Bill Snyder was able to shorten the game by controlling the ball. Some uncharacteristic drops by the Baylor wide receivers also helped.
The continually scary thing about this offense, aside from the fact that the Texas run defense didn't have to deal with heavy doses of Seastrunk last year and that big back Glasco Martin is finally returning to health, is that the Longhorns have been getting by defending the run by exposing the secondary to big passing plays, which Iowa State was able to exploit on the 97-yard pass to Quenton Bundrage when there were two key mistakes.
And Baylor doesn't have any of the glaring offensive weaknesses that made it easy to outnumber recent opponents in the box. Since the Longhorns are now without their only highly competent linebacker, it's going to be hard to stop the Baylor rushing attack and avoid giving up big plays in the passing game, putting a great deal of pressure on the offense to score against an improved Bear defense.
Right now, the Bears are a better football team than the Longhorns, perhaps by a significant margin, so winning this game may take some critical injuries for Baylor, peak health by Texas, and a great deal of luck. Less likely are fatal flaws emerging for this Baylor team that Texas could exploit to pull out a victory.
In one of the reasonable worst-case scenarios, Texas could lose to TCU, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech, and Baylor -- all of those teams are good enough to beat the Longhorns on any given day if the defense reverts to its form from BYU, Ole Miss, and Iowa State and the offense turns the ball over.
And even the reasonable best-case scenarios, Texas loses to Baylor and probably doesn't win the conference or make a BCS game, a feat that would require winning out or two Baylor losses (a win in the finale would given them the tiebreaker over a one-loss Texas team in conference),
Neither of those possibilities seem especially likely at the moment, but if the conference has proven one thing so far this season, it's that it is consistently unpredictable and that conventional wisdom, to that extent that it exists at all with all the changing variables, changes from week to week.
Maybe Kansas even picks up a conference win at some point. Iowa State would be that unlucky this season.
Winning every game but Baylor and finishing the season with one conference loss would be good enough to land in the Cotton Bowl or Alamo Bowl depending on how the rest of the league shakes out and the season would at least be mostly saved at that point after the horrendous non-conference start and escape in Ames.
Our team, our time, our conference?
The Longhorns at least control their own destiny still with no league losses.