We'll continue our Big 12 breakdown with a look inside the South Division.
Is there anything we haven't said about Texas in this space before? As exhaustively as we cover the 'Horns, there's always more to discuss.
Texas is in a rather awkward position as it gets ready for Oklahoma and the meat of the conference season. Even though this year's offense under Colt McCoy can't sniff the record-level success that the Vince Young-led Horns achieved last year, the unit is producing solidly. The rushing game, in particular, has been dominant, giving Texas a critical edge in one of the game's most fundamental facets.
Still, all the doubts that surround this team revolve around redshirt freshman Colt McCoy. Can he throw the ball with enough zip? What happens to Texas in 3rd down and long? Why isn't he running the ball more?
The awkwardness comes about because of the position Greg Davis is in - one I might characterize as resting somewhere between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, fans are clamoring about the lack of a vertical passing game. On the other hand, fans are lamenting the potential doom that could accompany 3rd and long situations.
The truth of the matter is that, at this point, it's near-impossible to satisfy both of those concerns. Should Texas open up the vertical passing game with greater frequency early in the down count, the team would inevitably face more third down and long situations. If Texas game plans to avoid 3rd and longs as much as possible, there's not going to be much down-the-field passing.
The situation is further complicated by the fact that Texas has a stable of down-the-field threats playing wideout right now. Sweed, Pittman, Cosby, and Shipley are all deep ball threats, making the the decision not to risk deep throws all the more frustrating. Still, there's something to be said for Davis' decision to use an intermediate passing game. The strategy relieves the young McCoy of a lot of pressure and puts him in a position to make plays Davis knows he can make.
The real answer to this conundrum lies somewhere in between each extreme. Texas ought not waste time with downfield passing when they've got their opponent thoroughly licked in every facet of the game. Minimizing risk in those situations is not just prudent; it's effective. Still, when Texas faces teams with equal or near-equal talent, there has to be more innovation and willingness to open up the field - if for no other reason than to keep the defense honest. In the past, with quarterbacks like McCoy, Greg Davis has mastered the former extremely well, and bombed with the latter. He'll need to have a good day in Dallas to keep Oklahoma from sitting on what Texas tries to do.
The Sooners and Longhorns are remarkably similar on offense. Both rely on powerful running games to wear down opponents, using the pass as a complimentary piece as needed. Neither McCoy nor Sooner quarterback Paul Thompson is a world beater, but neither is asked to be, either.
The major difference between the two squads is that where Texas relies on an army of tailbacks to eat away at their opponents, the Sooners feature Adrian Peterson almost exclusively. His 117 rushes through four games is tops in the nation, and more than double the number of carries Texas' own leading rusher, Jamaal Charles, has (55).
For most tailbacks, that's too much to ask, but Peterson's proven himself to be a special kind of workhorse. It's a widely overused phrase, but in Peterson's case, it has proven true thus far in 2006: as the game wears on, he just gets stronger. In truth, of course, Peterson's not getting stronger as the game goes on - the defense is getting weaker. But the underlying point is accurate in Peterson's case. The man is a beast.
Peterson's effectiveness has indirect benefits to the Sooners, as well. The Sooners no longer feature the defensive machine that dominated the Big 12 in the first five years of this decade, making Peterson's drive-sustaining abilities all the more critical to the team's success. Oklahoma doesn't have a bad defense, by any stretch, but there isn't a swarm of game-changing difference makers biting at the bit to get back on the field.
The Sooners rest this week and begin preparations for the Showdown in the Cotton Bowl next Saturday, while Texas tunes up against Sam Houston State. There isn't any evidence one way or the other that an extra week of preparation is decisive; the game will come down to execution. And which team can run the ball better. The makings of a classic Red River Rivalry are in the works.
Texas Tech (3-1)
You'll forgive me if my attention this Saturday isn't with the 'Horns, right? Texas Tech and Texas A&M are set to do battle on Saturday in what's developed into one of the more interesting rivalries in college football today. What it lacks in historical relevance, it more than makes up for in psychotic drama. And that's worth something, goddamnit.
The Red Raiders are running their same crazy pass-happy schemes as before, but they're doing it for the first time with a highly sought after recruit in Graham Harrell. The sophomore is picking things up pretty quickly. Through four games, Harrell's completed 66% of his passes for 1,167 yards, with 11 TDs against just 2 INTs. Only TCU managed to keep the Tech passing game in check, limiting Harrell to 23 of 47 for 207 yards, with no touchdowns.
What's most interesting about Texas Tech, though, is that they defy the conventional wisdom that a balanced offense runs and passes the ball a roughly equal number of times. To the contrary, a true balanced attack mixes passes and run plays - in whatever quantity - to maximize the output of yardage for both passing and rushing. When most folks talk about Tech, they talk only about the passing, but their fortunes have risen or sunk on their ability to run the ball effectively, too. And part of the effectiveness of their passing attack is that it's made their selective rushing attack an effective one. For the season, the Red Raiders are averaging 6.5 yards per pass play and 5.7 per rushing play. That's not a bad balance, and it's one of the reasons Tech's offense isn't a one-trick pony show that a solid defense can summarily dismiss.
Still, when the Red Raider's passing game is disrupted, the whole castle crumbles. TCU did a terrific job applying pressure with their front four, disrupting the timing of Harrell and the passing attack. The TCU line's dominance kept Tech from rushing the ball well, too, and the game was decided. Does anyone doubt that Dennis Franchione's spent some time on the phone this week with his old defensive coordinator Gary Patterson? You'd better believe it.
Texas A&M (4-0)
Back in August, we cautioned readers not to get carried away with a fast start from the Aggies. As expected, Texas A&M sits at 4-0 heading into this game, though Separation Saturdayists that stuck it out until the bitter end saw the Aggies all but lose to Army in the Alamodome.
A win's a win, though, and the Aggie faithful are experiencing an emotion they haven't approached in a while - hope. How long that lasts will be decided in the next two weeks. Along with their death match in College Station with Tech this Saturday, the Ags fly to Lawrence for what should be an interesting game against the Jayhawks, who are a tough as nails home team. Should the Aggies survive those two tests, they'll be 6-0 heading into two very winnable games at Oklahoma State and at Baylor. Win those two and we'll be all set up for the wickedly funny scenario we were calling for over the summer: Texas A&M could be 8-0 through October.
And then have to play through November. The eleventh month of the year is a nasty one for the Aggies, who draw Oklahoma, Nebraska, and Texas in successive weeks. The first two are at home, the latter in Austin. For all the cautious Aggie optimism we're seeing at 4-0 over the cupcakes, the euphoria over an 8-0 team would set up Maroon and White nation for a come down of historic proportions. I, for one, would enjoy seeing it. It's back to our dictionary game. You can use this example for "schadenfreude."
We're shameless, I know.
Oklahoma State (3-1)
Quick: name one Oklahoma State player besides whichever Woods brother is still on the squad. Still thinking? Me, too. The only reason the Pokies are making the news these days is because their boosters are spending more on the football program than the entire state is spending on the university as a whole. Technically, that's not true, but when Rick Reilly surveys the entire sporing landscape and decides that story is worth his weekly column spot in the sporting magazine with the highest circulation in the world... well, there's something to it.
As remarkable as Mssr. Pickens' donations to the football program have been, the team itself is a long ways from relevance. The Cowboys lost seven of their last eight games last year, by an average of 23 points. If they lose to Kansas State on October 7th, they'll probably finish the same way this year - and that's if they beat Baylor in November.
As a Longhorn fan, the only real question I have about this team is whether they can jump to a 30 point lead by halftime in Austin on November 4th.
Not that I'd be particularly concerned.
I'm trying to think of an appropriate word to describe the Baylor rushing attack so far this season. `Anemic,' `nonexistent,' and `pathetic' all seem to work, but I think I've settled on `embarrassing.' Baylor's best rushing game of the year came against Army. 62 yards.
It's not all doom and gloom for the Bears, though. Senior quarterback Shawn Bell has been decent so far this year, throwing for over 1100 yards and 8 touchdowns. If he can be a little more stingy with his interceptions (4 on the year), he'd be even better.
This is a mystifying 1-3 team. Other than rushing the football, they're not doing anything terribly. The defense has forced 15 turnovers and isn't giving up gobs of yardage. Baylor just can't put everything together. That, and they can't run the football. Just goes to show you how important ground yards are in college football.
The 1-3 start to the season makes a bowl berth, which would be the school's first since 1994, seem like a remote possibility, but they could do it they handle Kansas at home and stun the Aggies (also in Waco). More likely, another 5-7 or 4-8 year from the Bears.