Tom Herman’s debut season hasn’t gone the way many may have expected entering the 2017 slate, yet there’s still plenty of time for a positive finish.
That opportunity begins on the road on Saturday against West Virginia.
The word opportunity actually describes the Longhorns Week 12 meeting with the Mountaineers perfectly. Currently ranked No. 24 in the Associated Press poll, West Virginia doesn’t quite present the chance at a corner-turning win for Texas, but a win would check several boxes for Herman and the ‘Horns, nevertheless.
After garnering plenty of praise for his 6-0 record against ranked competition at Houston, Herman is 0-4 at Texas this season. West Virginia will serve as the final opportunity to assure Texas doesn’t remain winless against ranked foes this season. Far more significantly, though, while a win would give Texas its first against a ranked opponent this season and push the ‘Horns back above .500, bowl eligibility is at stake, as well. After a pair of 5-7 efforts each of the last two seasons, Texas is at a fork in its 2017 campaign with the threat of yet another replicable finish looming. On the other hand, an 8-5 mark with a bowl win is still well within the realm of possibility, as well, but for Texas to reach such heights, it must first steal a road win over the Mountaineers in Morgantown.
It’s been a familiar theme throughout the entire season, but if Texas hopes to come out on top on Saturday, the ‘Horns will be tasked with slowing a high-powered offense orchestrated by an elite gunslinger in Will Grier.
A junior transfer from Florida, Grier has bene nothing short of remarkable for the Mountaineers through 10 games. His 3,440 yards through the air are the third-best in college football, behind only Baker Mayfield and Mason Rudolph, while his 34 touchdown passes rank No. 2 in the nation. And although his video game-esque stats are quite indicative of the talent that Grier is, as he’ll quite possibly be the best quarterback in college football in 2018, Grier benefits from an abundance of weapons around him.
Although they may not generate the kind of hype that the receiving corps in Norman or Stillwater do, there’s a convincing case to be made that the wide outs Grier gets to play pitch-and-catch with each week are the best in the Big 12.
In fact, the Mountaineers may even boast the deepest and most productive pass-catching core in the entire nation, as detailed by Shehan Jeyarajah of DieHards.com:
“The Mountaineers are the only Power Five team in America with three 800-yard receivers heading into Week 12 of the college football season. In fact, just 16 players in the entire Power Five have reached 800 yards; nearly 20 percent play in Morgantown.
Gary Jennings leads the way with 82 receptions for 938 yards. He ranks No. 11 nationally in receiving yards. Ka’Raun White is close behind with 907 yards on 51 catches. Highly-touted receiver David Sills brings up the rear with 55 catches for 856 yards, though 18 of his catches have gone for touchdowns.
To put that in perspective, just two other programs in America have even two 800-yard receivers: Oklahoma State and Syracuse. For comparison, the Cowboys’ third-leading receiver Jalen McClesky has 557 yards. Syracuse’s Devin C. Butler has just 261 yards.”
To make matters more concerning for Texas, as if the ‘Horns secondary won’t already have its hands full attempting to slow a passing attack that’s as potent as any its seen this season, Justin Crawford provides a balanced dimension out of the backfield as the Big 12’s third-leading rusher with 899 yards. Meanwhile, Texas doesn’t pose anywhere close to the same threat, as its top three leading rushers — Chris Warren III, Sam Ehlinger, and Toneil Carter — have combined for just 794 yards on 36 more carries.
Package this small army of explosive weapons into one offense and the result is a unit that ranks No. 7 in yards per game (513), No. 5 in passing yards per game (352.1) and No. 10 in total first downs (254) en route to 39 points per game.
Quite unlike the quarterback situation in Morgantown, Texas is still searching for a solidified starter with just two regular season games remaining. After a Shane Buechele injury in the season opener against Maryland opened the door for Sam Ehlinger to start five of the next six games, a concussion suffered against Oklahoma State thrust Buechele back into the starting lineup for the past three games.
The result is each quarterback owning five starts this season and courtesy of an offensive line that’s been dismantled by injuries, itself, 3.1 sacks allowed per game has made it virtually impossible for either quarterback to find some semblance of comfort in the pocket when they’re healthy. And as noted, the Longhorns lack of a respectable running game hasn’t hasn’t helped what’s proven to be a considerably one-dimensional offense rise from the ranks of sub-mediocrity.
To that end, sub-mediocrity in Morgantown will mean sub-.500 on the trip back to Austin.
At this point in the season, the offense is what it’s been on a weekly basis and expecting the Longhorns to walk away with a win in a shootout with be a bit too far fetched. The defense, however, has proven plenty capable of keeping the ‘Horns in games and in a position to win, but Saturday may very well be Texas’ tallest task of the season considering its secondary is banged up and devoid its headliner, cornerback Holton Hill.
With the odds stacked against it, can Texas overcome its seemingly never-ending offensive woes and numerous absences?
Unless the ‘Horns want to fight for a bowl bid yet again during the season finale, it will have to.
Prediction: West Virginia - 31, Texas - 20