For the Texas Longhorns to beat the No. 11 Notre Dame Fighting Irish for the first time since January 1, 1970 in the Cotton Bowl, a variety of factors will have to come together in an almost ideal way to come out with an unexpected victory.
If the Horns could pull it off, it would represent the first truly signature win for second-year head coach Charlie Strong and provide a strong early indication that the youth movement and offensive changes will result in an even more competitive season than most expect heading into the game. It would raise expectations from the modest hopes of making a bowl game and winning some key swing games to visions of challenging Baylor and TCU and Oklahoma for a place in the Big 12's top tier.
Here's what Texas needs to accomplish to make that upset a reality:
1. Win the first and third quarters
It was no secret that the Longhorns struggled to open games and coming out of halftime last season, notably against BYU, when Texas went into halftime down 6-0 and promptly gave up four touchdowns in the space of just over 10 minutes of game time. To start the game against the Horned Frogs, the Horns went punt, interception, fumble return for touchdown and it was essentially over by the time the second quarter started.
Some of the blame falls on assistant head coach for offense/quarterbacks coach Shawn Watson and offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Joe Wickline, as the two script the first 20-25 plays and then consistently failed to make the right adjustments after halftime.
Since the offensive line is so far ahead in run blocking right now than it is in pass blocking, avoiding long down and distance situations and an early deficit are extremely important to protect the freshmen starters and right tackle Kent Perkins. And as much more confidence as this team gained during the offseason, it could all dissipate quickly in a hostile environment when facing some adversity.
2. Avoid turnovers
Playing on the road against one of the college football's most prestigious programs in a primetime game magnifies any change in momentum, especially when it favors the home team.
Like most teams, the Horns had a huge difference in turnover margin between wins and losses -- Texas gained 17 turnovers in victories, while losing eight, but gained only five and lost 17 in losses.
The defense has to create a short field or two for the offense and show off some playmaking ability while replacing six starters from last year's team, while junior quarterback Tyrone Swoopes in particular has to protect the football, something he did much better during fall camp. If he doesn't, it will provide some early perspective on his supposedly improved mental toughness -- can he keep an early mistake or two from spiralling?
Even if he does, the odds of the Longhorns winning without a positive turnover margin are extremely low.
3. Create explosive plays
The Horns struggled mightily in this department last season, proving incapable of breaking off many big runs behind a suspect offensive line and relying almost exclusively on wide receiver John Harris to plays downfield in the passing game.
There is some cause for optimism though -- true freshman John Burt is in the starting lineup because of his combination of track speed and reliable hands. In fact, he's probably better than Harris in both of those areas and seems to have a rapport with Swoopes. Meanwhile, sophomore Armanti Foreman is stronger and faster on the outside, which could make him a major challenge for Notre Dame's field corner. Then there's senior Daje Johnson -- knock on wood -- who finally emerged to become a more consistent playmaker during fall camp.
Don't forget senior running back Johnathan Gray, either. The offense should create more seams for him since the quarterback will be a threat to run. Late last season, Gray's elusiveness finally looked elite for the first time in college and since he dropped a few pounds in the offseason, he could be even faster this year, too.
4. Win the special teams battle
From the blocked field goal returned for a touchdown against Baylor to the kicoff return touchdown by Oklahoma to the key punt return that led to the game-winning touchdown pass for UCLA, Texas struggled mightily on special teams last season, finishing No. 114 in special teams efficiency and no higher than No. 84 in any individual special teams categories.
This year, the hope that a greater emphasis on special teams by head coach Charlie Strong and new special teams coach Jeff Traylor will produce better results. To do that, however, place kicker Nick Rose will have to be more consistent inside 40 yards, Australian punter Michael Dickson will have to avoid big mistakes in his first live game action, the return units need to change field position, and the coverage units need to more consistently limit return yardage.
Sounds simple, right?
5. Contain Notre Dame QB Malik Zaire
On Wednesday, defensive coordinator Vance Bedford compared the 6'0, 222-pound juior to Seattle Seahawks star Russell Wilson, though Zaire may be even more difficult to bring down in the open field because he's 16 pounds heavier than Wilson.
While the Fighting Irish may target guys like redshirt freshman cornerback John Bonney and sophomore cornerback Antwuan Davis as they make their first collegiate starts, Texas will probably try to crowd the box, take away the run and easy throws, and force Zaire to beat them over the top.
The most critical part of the game, however, may be in keep Zaire from getting out of the pocket and creating off-schedule plays with his feet. Bedford may send blitzes from Zaire's left to pressure his arm side, while the defensive linemen while focus on being cognizant of their rush lanes and collapsing the pocket into Zaire without leaving wide escape lanes. Zaire took his first collgiate run 56 yards against Rice and ran for 96 yards and a touchdown against a good LSU defense in the bowl game he started.
Containing Zaire is a tall task, but the Ohio product is also making his first start at home and has thrown only 35 passes in college, so there's no guarentees that he will show the poise of an experienced player.