The Kansas Jayhawks haven't won a Big 12 conference game in roughly a decade (this is only a slight exaggeration) and come to Austin with a history of beatdowns handed to them by Mack Brown teams during his tenure.
Given the current state of the team under head coach Charlie Weis and the overwhelming history that suggests this game shouldn't be close, is there anything to worry about for the Longhorns as they return home for the first time in 42 days?
"I see improvement on defense," Mack Brown said this week. "One thing that hurts them is they don't have a lot of depth and it's hurt them in the latter part of games. They've played good quarters, good halves, they've been in games for three quarters, they finished more games this year than they did last year. They're giving up some big scores; it's usually been late when they run out of steam because they don't have enough depth."
Brown is right -- Kansas went into halftime against TCU tied at 10 courtesy of the JaCorey Shepard pick six in the first half that was a result of TCU wide receiver Cameron White missing the check by quarterback Trevone Boykin at the line of scrimmage. Then the long David Porter touchdown catch as two Kansas defenders missed tackles on the short pass and a subsequent seven-play, 53-yard drive effectively put the game out of reach.
It was a similar story against Texas Tech, as Kansas raced out to a 10-0 lead by halfway through the first quarter. And then the Red Raiders ripped off 54 straight points and turned the game into a route by early in the third quarter.
Against Oklahoma, two touchdowns gave Kansas a 13-0 lead before Oklahoma scored 25 straight. A fourth-quarter score got the Jayhawks back with a score at 25-19, but the blocked extra point led to two points for Oklahoma and a touchdown run ended the Kansas threat.
Of those three games, only TCU was on the road, where the Horned Frogs got their first Big 12 home win -- the atmosphere at the start of the game last weekend notwithstanding, the new Amon G Carter Stadium is not an intimidating venue based on the results.
The Kansas secondary is actually a solid unit, the best on the team, in fact. Granted, offenses haven't had to throw the ball against the Jayhawks a great deal because the rush defense ranks No. 93 nationally in S&P+, but the pass defense ranks No. 25.
The aforementioned Sheperd is probably the best of the bunch, adding nine pass break ups to that interception return for a touchdown. A product of Mesquite Horn High School, the former three-star prospect with offers from Iowa and Wyoming also has 34 tackles, two tackles for loss, a sack, and a forced fumble.
Texas wasn't afraid to take some shots at TCU star Jason Verrett and probably won't be afraid to challenge Sheperd, but know that he is capable of making plays.
In all, six of the top seven tacklers are members of the secondary, both of a sign of the competence of Kansas defensive backs and a sign that a large number of plays are getting past the first two levels of the defense.
The non-defensive back in there is linebacker Ben Heeney, perhaps the best player defensively for former Cowboy coach Dave Campo. Unfortunately for the Jayhawks, Heeney injured his knee against TCU and has missed the last two games. It's not yet clear whether he will play, as he's been listed as day-to-day since the injury.
When healthy, Heeney was a playmaking force in the mold of old Kansas linebackers like Nick Reid, racking up 43 tackles, seven tackles for loss, two sacks, and two passes broken up before being forced out of the lineup.
In terms of the defensive line, there's nothing particularly notable there, as the group has accounted for only 3.5 sacks all season.
Offensively, the biggest positives are running back James Sims and offensive weapon Tony Pierson. Mack Brown believes that both are NFL talents and while that is probably true of Sims, Pierson is a little bit more questionable because he's generously listed at 5'10 and 170 pounds. Still, opposing defenses underestimate Pierson at their own risk, as his Draft Scout page lists a low 40 time of 4.34, though it's hard to verify the circumstances surrounding that timing.
The good news for the Horns is that Pierson is not listed on the Kansas depth chart this week and may not play after he suffered dizziness three plays into the team's last game in his return from a concussion suffered earlier in the month. Sound familiar?
The Jayhawks have had problems getting Pierson the ball in space at times, but he has averaged more than 12 yards per touch this year and is the leading receiver for the Jayhawks.
Poor offensive line play hasn't resulted in an inordinate number of sacks (14), although Kansas ranks No. 100 nationally in overall pass attempts. The bigger problem has been the play of BYU transfer Jake Heaps at quarterback, who has completed 50.0% of his passes this year, continuing a trend of mediocre completion percentage that sat at 57.1% in his last year in Provo.
The former five-star prospect from Washington was supposed to be an upgrade over Dayne Crist, which wasn't a lofty task, but Heaps has mostly failed at it and hasn't even really managed to attain mediocrity -- his adjusted QBR is 23.4.
Heaps has given way to freshman Montell Cozart at times in recent games, a quarterback who is a run threat in the mold of MIchael Cummings, the starter last year against the Longhorns who completed only three passes. Cozart is a raw passer, hitting only 4-of-14 this season. His forte is supposed to be running the ball, a skill that hasn't transferred to success yet, as his 11 carries have gone for only 27 yards.
Oklahoma transfer Justin McCoy hasn't stepped up at wide receiver as expected with three catches for 22 yards on the year -- the team's leading pure wide receiver is Rodriguez Coleman, who has 114 receiving yards. Total. Overall, the receiving corps has been a disappointment and Andrew Turzilli, who caught the deep pass against TCU over Jason Verrett, has been out after being injured on the play and is not listed on the depth chart this week.
At running back, a position that was supposed to be a team strength with the return of Darrian Miller, James Sims has been producing similar numbers to last season. He's not especially dynamic, as his 64-yard run last year against Texas was fueled by an end-tackle twist in which Alex Okafor failed to get into his interior gap in time, but he is a good runner who can pick up available yards and finish through contact.
The difficult task will be for the offensive line to open up holes against a defensive front four for Texas that has been playing at an extremely high level over the last several weeks.
The bottom line is that Kansas is a better team with Pierson and Heeney and Turzilli healthy. None of them are and with Heaps ineffective and a debate taking place about how much Cozart should play to assess his potential to hold the job down in the future, as well as head coach Charlie Weis taking a more active role in the offense, there aren't many positive trends for an offense that ranks No. 113 nationally in overall S&P+.
And the really bad news for Weis? Kansas is giving up 4.92 yards per carry, which ranks No. 105 nationally -- Texas is going to come out running the ball early and often in an attempt to assert dominance similar to the 2011 contest that produced 437 yards rushing.
South Dakota ran for more than 200 yards on 5.09 yards per carry, Rice nearly hit 200, and each of the last three opponents (TCU, Oklahoma and Baylor) have run for more than 200, culminating in the 306 yards against the Bears at almost seven yards per attempt.
Texas will have to work to avoid the type of quick start that the Jayhawks have produced early in some recent games against opponents that range from good (Oklahoma and Texas Tech) to mediocre (TCU) and some wrinkles in the running game could help there since Kansas will stack the box, as have previous opponents.
If the offensive line can maintain its edge, that might not matter, and if the Longhorns could find five big pass plays with a mostly conservative game plan against the vaunted Horned Frogs secondary that ranks No. 19 in pass defense S&P+, some success in the passing game should be available against Kansas.
As for the Jayhawk offense, anything more than limited success would be a disappointment and possibly represent a setback in the development of Greg Robinson's unit.
Texas needs to put this one away early and get some playing time for Tyrone Swoopes.