After three short years, Steve Sarkisian has done what seemed impossible since the likes of Mack Brown by bringing the Texas Longhorns back to the promised land — ranked No. 7 in the nation, with an 11–1 record, and a trip to Arlington for the 2023 Big 12 Championship game against the No. 18 Oklahoma State Cowboys at AT&T Stadium, kicking off Dec. 2 at 11 a.m. Centra on ABC.
“We’re headed to Arlington Saturday, 11 a.m. competing for a Big 12 championship,” Sarkisian said Monday. “That’s been our mission and that’s been our focus all year was to be champions and we’ve earned that right. To think in the last 27 years here at Texas, there’s only been three conference championships and so we don’t take this lightly. We know the challenge it is to make it to the game and then to ultimately win that game. So to be the fourth to do it here in 27 years would be a heck of a deal if we could get it done.”
Texas fans across the nation were likely pulling for Oklahoma State against BYU this last Saturday. Although beating the Sooners would be a perfect storybook ending for the two programs’ final season in the Big 12, the Cowboys seemingly offer the path of least resistance. A strong running game, a good but not great quarterback, and a defense allowing an average of 27 points per game? Sounds a lot like that Red Raiders team the Longhorns just beat 57-7.
With the fourth-best run defense in the nation that has shut down opposing offenses to an average of 85 rushing yards per game, Texas is matching up against the nation’s best running back in Ollie Gordon, who lead the country with 1,580 rushing yards this season.
“They’re 2.9 yards a carry, which is tough for the guys running against them,” head coach Mike Gundy said of the Texas run defense. “They’re a 35-point team scoring and they’re only giving up 17. They’re 25 percent third-down conversion defensively. I mean, there’s a reason they are where they are. They don’t have to overload the box to stop the rush.”
Gundy has become a staple of the Big 12 and Oklahoma sports with 19 years as the head coach of the Cowboys, a two-time Big 12 Coach of the Year, 165 wins, 11 bowl wins, Oklahoma Sports Hall of Famer, and formerly the mullet, but only one conference championship. As he looks to add another to his resume entering his second conference championship in the last three years, he has a Texas team firing on all cylinders standing in his way.
Kasey Dunn enters his third year as the offensive coordinator of the Cowboys and is currently the longest consecutively-serving OSU football assistant since 1962. In his 12 years with the Cowboys, his receivers have earned All-Big 12 honors 12 times and OSU has had at least one All-Big 12 receiver in all but two of Dunn’s years on staff. This year, his receivers aren’t the focal point of their offense — the running game is carrying it.
The Cowboys primarily run a spread offense, but also implement a lot of pistol sets to highlight Gordon behind a talented group of offensive linemen and tight ends that create holes for the rushing attack.
In addition to their running game, Oklahoma State has a veteran quarterback in Alan Bowman, who doesn’t wow anybody with his arm, but has the ability to make smart decisions at the line and facilitate Dunn’s offense to average 30 points per game and 41.2 points per game in their last two against Houston and BYU.
A sixth-year senior, Bowman has found success with the Pokes after bouncing around the nation to start his career. Starting at Texas Tech in 2018, Bowman played three years with the Red Raiders before transferring to Michigan to further develop his skills under Jim Harbaugh. After two years with the Wolverines, the Grapevine native returned to the Big 12 to finish out his career with the Cowboys, leading them to the Big 12 Championship game in his first season.
After fighting for the starting spot against freshman quarterback Garrett Rangell and Gundy’s son, sophomore quarterback Gunnar Gundy, Bowman cemented his spot as the Oklahoma State’s starting quarterback after their big upset against Kansas State in Week Five.
After starting a concerning 2–2, dropping back-to-back games against South Alabama and Iowa State, Bowman and the Pokes went on to win seven of their last eight games, including statement wins over Kansas State, Kansas, and their in–state rival Oklahoma in Bedlam.
Since Week Four, Bowman has totaled 2,573 yards for an average of 285.8 yards per game, and 10 touchdowns. Interceptions have been an issue for the seasoned vet, as he’s turned the ball over 11 times this season, with six coming in the last three games.
As the passing game certainly facilitates the rushing attack, Bowman is still able to stretch the field with 447 yards, four touchdowns, and only one interception coming off balls thrown 20-plus yards. PFF gives a grade of 80.4 on deep balls, his highest ranking on all throws.
Bowman’s struggles seem to occur in the intermediate game with seven of his interceptions coming on throws between 10 and 19 yards and a completion percentage of 54.4 percent. Granted, nine of these incompletions were drops.
Despite their strong running game, Bowman and the Oklahoma State offense only attempt 33 percent of their passes out of play action, often using four wide receivers. Screen passes aren’t a large part of the Cowboys offense, either, with only 10.6 percent of their passing plays on screens.
Bowman also does not present much of a threat with his legs with only 24 carries for 20 yards and two touchdowns on the season.
They run a fairly straightforward offense — no tricks, no window dressing. They line up four wide when they want to pass and in the pistol when they want to run. And with this offensive line and arguably the best running back in the nation, they can run at will.
Gordon has cemented himself as one of, if not the best running back in the nation. In addition to leading the nation in rushing yards with 1,580 and rushing yards per game with 131.7, the Forth Worth product is second in the nation in rushing touchdowns with 20, and ninth in yards per carry with 6.4.
Putting up Barry Sanders numbers in only his second year, Gordon has a rushing score of 89.1 from PFF. He also is great at protecting the football, putting the ball on the turf only twice this season. Gordon is able to find holes and gaps in the defensive front easily and is explosive in the second level with 42 explosive runs over 10 yards this season.
He is elusive and shifty, almost guaranteed to break his first tackle with 925 of his 1,580 yards this season coming after contact. At 6’1, 211 pounds, Gordon runs like an angry bull, able to pick up tough yards and burst for big gains after. The majority of his runs come through designed holes created by the offensive line, with almost 70 percent of his rushes coming through the gap.
Gordon can also present a threat as a pass catcher out of the backfield, however, it’s not primarily his game with 33 receptions for 272 yards.
In Oklahoma State’s last game of the regular season against BYU, Gordon was noticeably banged up. The announcers commented on it multiple times, saying he didn’t look 100 percent, and while Gordon was not listed on the injury report, if he’s not fully healthy, it’s a big blow to the Pokes.
Senior wide receiver Brennan Presley is Bowman’s most reliable and seemingly favorite target. Leading the team in all receiving stats, Presley has totaled 76 receptions on 109 targets for 746 yards and five touchdowns.
Standing at only 5’8, 175 pounds, Presley uses his speed and quickness out of the slot, where he lines up 92.4 percent of the time. He doesn’t have the height to high-point balls over taller defensive backs, but is utilized in many different ways in the short game and behind the line of scrimmage to use his speed to pick up yards after the catch with 469 of his 746 yards this season coming after the catch with an average YAC of 6.2.
The most talented receiver on the team would seem to be junior wide receiver Rashod Owens — the 6’2, 219 pound Owens is the Poke’s primary deep-threat option, lining up out wide 87.6 percent of the time. With 49 receptions on 78 targets, Owens has totaled 646 yards and one touchdown on an average of 13.2 yards per reception.
Oklahoma State’s pass protection has been able to keep Bowman clean on 80 percent of his dropbacks this season. According to PFF, the unit received a pass block grade of 74 and a surprisingly low run blocking grade of 57.2. Meaning Gordon has been this effective despite the ineffectiveness of his offensive line as run blockers.
This is a veteran unit with fifth-year seniors at every position but left guard Jason Brooks, who is a redshirt junior.
The unit however has been great at protecting the quarterback this season, allowing the ninth-fewest sacks in the nation with 12 this year, mainly thanks to their fantastic fifth-year senior right guard Preston Williams (6’5, 295 pounds), who finished the regular season with the 17th-highest pass protection grade in the nation of 85.5. He has yet to allow a sack all season and has given up only seven pressures on the year.
Fifth-year senior left tackle Dalton Cooper (6’7, 311 pounds) is the best overall lineman of the unit with a run block grade of 73.6 and a pass block grade of 72.6. Cooper is able to use his large frame to dominate pass and run defenders. Naturally, lining up at the left tackle he has allowed the most hurries on the line.
Fifth-year center Joe Michaelski (6’4, 303 pounds) mans the middle of the line and uses his veteran knowledge to coordinate this offensive front. He has yet to allow a sack all season and has only allowed seven pressures on the year.
Fifth-year seniors Jake Springfield and Cole Birmingham act as filler across the line, with Birmingham recording snaps at left tackle, left guard, and right guard this year, and Springfield lining up at both tackle spots this year, cementing his spot as the team’s right tackle as the season continued.
Finally, the Pokes use their two tight ends Josiah Johnson and Braden Cassidy as extra blockers in the pistol with 12 and 13 personnel formations to aid Gordon with limited use in the passing game.
Bryan Nardo enters his first year as the defensive coordinator for the Cowboys after 15 years of experience as a college football coach at smaller schools. He previously served as the defensive coordinator at Gannon University in 2022, the linebackers coach at Youngstown State from 2020-21, and the eight seasons before that as the defensive coordinator at Emporia State.
Not the most incredible resume for Nardo, and in his first stint as a DC for a Power Five program, things have not been great under his command.
The Pokes currently rank 72nd in the nation in sacks with 24, 79th in defensive third-down conversion rate at 40.2 percent, 40th in interceptions with 11, 111th in passing yards allowed with 3,014 and 251.2 per game, 102nd in rushing defense with 2,064 on the year with an average of 172 rushing yards per game and 4.62 yards per carry, 60th in red-zone defense with an average conversion rate of 82.1 percent, and 112th in total defense allowing 423.2 opponent yards per game and 43 touchdowns on the season. And the defense has only scored one touchdown this season.
Long story short, this defense hasn’t played well. The most interesting aspect of this defense is that the have one stud at all three levels of the defense — edge, linebacker, and corner.
The Pokes, like many Big 12 teams, primarily run a version of Iowa State’s 3-3-5 defense. The three down linemen are fifth-year senior Anthony Goodlow (6’5, 283 pounds) at edge, senior defensive end Nathan Latu (6’4, 265 pounds), and sophomore nose tackle Justin Kirkland (6’4, 346 pounds).
Goodlow is the most difficult matchup for Longhorns on this defensive front as a powerful run defender who is also able to get to the quarterback with 36 tackles, 20 pressures, and two sacks on the year.
The strength of this defense definitely stems from their linebacking corps. The Pokes like to send a variety of different blitz packages, including sending the linebackers who have had the most success getting to the quarterback this season.
Sophomore linebacker Nickolas Martin has been an impressive standout for the Pokes this year, leading the team in tackles and sacks on the season with 120 total tackles and six sacks and 29 pressures on the year. He is great in the open field with 69 solo tackles on the year and a low miss percentage of only 11 percent. Martin is fast and hits hard with one forced fumble on the year.
Martin is also effective in coverage with one takeaway and a opponent reception percentage of 68.2. He can sometimes get burned by speedy receivers when covering routes, allowing two touchdowns in coverage.
Martin is flanked by junior linebacker Collin Oliver, who PFF has as the highest-graded pass rusher on the team at 88.7. The Oklahoma native has impressive play-recognition skills and is able to find holes in pass protection at an elite level. Standing at 6’2 235 pounds, Oliver has great speed for his size and is able to make his way into the backfield effectively.
This season, Oliver has totaled 68 total tackles, 37 pressures, and six sacks, along with four forced fumbles on the year. Oliver also struggles in coverage, however, allowing 13 receptions on 16 targets for a total of 111 yards. Oliver acts as a hybrid defensive lineman, splitting his snaps down the middle either on the line or in the box.
Korie Black is Oklahoma State’s main outside cornerback, lining up out wide on 81.8 percent of his snaps. The 6’0, 185-pound senior can be a lockdown corner on opposing team’s best receiver, allowing only 14 receptions on the season for an opponent reception percentage of 42.4 percent. Black has the second-highest coverage grade on the team according to PFF at 77.2. However, he struggles to create takeaways, with only one interception on the season.
Safety Cameron Epps protects the back end and can be a ball hawk when he’s on, recording the only pick six and overall defensive touchdown for the Pokes on the season and leading the team in interceptions with three on the year. The 6’3, 208-pound freshman has been a remarkable surprise for the Pokes with his physicality and high motor. Epps has the highest tackling grade on the roster at 84.4 with 23 solo tackles and four passes broken up on the back end.
Overall, the secondary has some nice pieces, but struggles against passing attacks, allowing 251.2 passing yards per game. They do not play terribly aggressive in coverage, playing behind receivers and not jumping passes. This could be the best area for the Texas offense to attack, challenging a secondary with their talented receivers against a back end that allows a ton of receiving yards per game and struggles to create takeaways.
Alex Hale handles the kicking duties for the Pokes this season. He’s no Bert Auburn, but he has been very efficient for the Cowboys in 2023, hitting 3-of-4 field goals of 50-plus yards and a season-long of 53 yards. The senior kicker has only missed two extra points this year and is hitting field goals at a clip of 81.3 percent on the season.
Presley and sophomore running back Jaden Nixon share the kick return duties for the Pokes this season. With longs of 33 and 40 respectively, ad no touchdowns, the Cowboys return team has not done anything particularly spectacular in the return game. However, they are aggressive in their decisions to return the ball with only two touchbacks on the season.
Presley is also the punt return specialist for the Cowboys. In the punt game he is more conservative, fair catching on 28 of his 37 punt returns this season. Also, muffs have been somewhat of an issue for Presely as he has dropped two so far on the season against West Virginia in Week Eight and South Alabama in Week Three.
Interestingly enough, the strongest aspect of this Pokes team behind their running game is their ability to defend against punt returns. The Cowboys are tied with Air Force for 13th in the nation in punt return defense, allowing only 38 yards on 16 returns this season. However, they have yet to face a return specialist as talented as Xavier Worthy. It will be interesting to see how aggressive Texas is in trying to break off big returns against a Pokes special teams unit that has been able to stifle the return game this season.
When evaluating this team, it is clear why Texas is favored by 14 points at a neutral site in a conference championship game. Their defense honestly presents minimal threats to this high-powered Texas offense that is getting more healthy and just dropped 57 points on Texas Tech. More than anything, the thing this defense struggles the most with is coverage against the pass.
Therefore, the game plan for Texas in the Big 12 Championship should be to exploit this secondary that ranks 111th in passing yards allowed and struggles to create turnovers. Get Worthy and AD Mitchell involved early and create a lead that forces Oklahoma State to abandon their run game that has been the catalyst of their offense this season.
Defense is where the prime matchup will be in this game. The No. 4 rushing defense in the nation against the best back in college football. This is where the game will be decided. If Texas can do what they did last week against another top-10 back in Texas Tech’s Tahj Brooks and force Alan Bowman to beat them with his arm, the Longhorns should be able to dominate another offense. Bowman has struggled all year with turnovers, so the game plan for Texas should be to establish an early lead, force the Pokes to abandon the running game, and bait Bowman into some easy takeaways.
After allowing 30-plus points in seven games this year, and 45 points against UCF three weeks ago, I would definitely take the over at 55. Expect Texas to put up big numbers through all three sides of the ball like they did against Texas Tech in the final game of the season where they scored 57 points. I expect the Pokes to be able to move the ball and score more effectively than the Red Raiders did last week, but not enough to keep it within 14 points, as Bowman will likely cough the ball up to this Texas secondary at least once.
Call me an optimist, but give me the Horns to cover the spread at -14.5 and over 56 points, finishing 49-20. If Sarkisian and the Longhorns are able to accomplish this in the Big 12 Championship, it would send a strong message to the college football playoff committee, and tremendously help Texas’ chances of squeezing into that fourth spot in the playoffs.
The Longhorns are favored by 14.5 points, according to DraftKings.
*Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details.