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Texas simply must be better to contend for Big 12 title

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An embarrassing loss to Oklahoma and an embarrassing win over Kansas leaves some cause for concern surrounding the Big 12 title aspirations in Austin.

NCAA Football: Kansas at Texas Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

There’s a saying about taking one step forward, two steps back.

Well, in regards to the Big 12 title aspirations for the Texas Longhorns, the expression certainly seemed to prove true on Saturday evening, as Texas needed a last-second field goal from Cameron Dicker to simply survive and avoid a disastrous home defeat at the hands of the Kansas Jayhawks.

While a win is a win and Texas did improve to 3-1 in conference action, the Longhorns didn’t exactly look the part of a legitimate conference title contender. That humbling reality isn’t lost on Tom Herman, who on Monday said his team didn’t play up to their standards and that Texas fans are right to be upset by the effort.

And while it was unquestionably the worst showing of the season, the win over Kansas wasn’t some underwhelming one-off display in which a superior team simply overlooked its opponent a bit. Just one week earlier, despite the score suggesting a close contest, Texas was largely overmatched and out-muscled from whistle to whistle in a 34-27 loss to Oklahoma, in which an increasingly-criticized defense’s struggles to tackle were nearly overshadowed by the offense’s worst performance of the year.

The exact opposite was true last week, as Todd Orlando’s defense sacrificed 569 yards and 48 points to the Jayhawks, which made every bit of the 638 yards and 48 points the offense produced (excluding D’Shawn’s Jamison’s two-point conversion on a blocked extra point) necessary to simply survive and escape with a win.

It would be fairly accurate to label that as unsettling inconsistency, especially beyond the season’s mid-point.

“We didn’t get better at very much of anything two weeks ago, I can tell you that,” Herman said.

The struggles didn’t begin against the Sooners, though.

The previous week on the road against West Virginia, Texas played catch-up early and ultimately wasn’t able to create any separation until the fourth quarter against a WVU team that’s now 3-4, and that’s despite the defense stiffening up and forcing four interceptions following some first-quarter woes. Prior to that performance, Texas opened its conference slate with a back-and-forth affair against Oklahoma State, in which Texas trailed early in the third quarter and needed a third-down conversion from Sam Ehlinger in the final minutes to fend off a late Cowboys comeback attempt.

All this to say that Texas hasn’t quite looked like its non-conference self for some time.

It wasn’t just avoiding disaster against Kansas behind a completely mind-boggling defensive performance — again, Texas was essentially embarrassed on a national stage against Oklahoma and even looked underwhelming against West Virginia and Oklahoma State.

All things considered, whether it’s the general inconsistency, a suddenly-overwhelmed offensive line that’s leading to its own set of issues on that side of the ball, or the defense continually inching towards what may statistically prove to be the worst season in school history, the Longhorns have hardly looked like a team worthy of being ranked since the start of Big 12 play.

The obvious excuse would be to place blame on the injury bug bitting one Texas starter after another, especially on defense — cornerback Jalen Green (shoulder) and safety Caden Sterns (ankle) have each been out since the Oklahoma State game, defensive back B.J. Foster missed the Rice and Oklahoma State games with a hamstring injury and since his return, has clearly favored a shoulder ailment, Rover linebacker Jeffrey McCulloch suffered a dislocated shoulder against Oklahoma, while safety Chris BrownSterns’ replacement — fractured his forearm against the Sooners.

Other key contributors such as safety DeMarvion Overshown and nickel back Josh Thompson have missed extended time with injuries, as well — Thompson is likely done for the season with a fractured ankle.

Yet, despite how injury-plagued the Horns have been this season, and Orlando’s defense, in particular, the injuries, as unfortunate and inconvenient as they may be, are largely irrelevant in regards to whether the Horns make a December appearance at AT&T Stadium.

The college football world won’t quit spinning while the Longhorns lick their wounds, so, as Herman noted, it’s on the staff to figure out what works with the pieces they have on hand.

“It’s on [the coaching staff] to figure out, with the personnel that we do have,” Herman said. “What do they do well and enhance it; where are they deficient and either improve it or eliminate that from the game plan.”

And Texas will need to figure it out in a hurry.

The Longhorns somewhat surprisingly opened as underdogs for their next outing against the 3-3 Horned Frogs. As far as other Big 12 title contenders are concerned, an undefeated Baylor squad just leapfrogged Texas to No. 14 in the polls and until proven otherwise, the Bears fit the description of the second-best team in the conference.

Beyond that, if the Big 12 slate is the measuring stick, Iowa State has a case as the conference’s third most dangerous team at the moment, as the No. 23-ranked Cyclones are 3-0 with a plus-58 point differential since falling on the road to Baylor, 23-21.

Texas will travel to meet both Iowa State and Baylor on Nov. 16 and No. 23, respectively, and at this point, ESPN’s FPI places the Longhorns’ win probability at only 31 percent against the Cyclones and 40 percent against the Bears.

As is, Texas can hardly afford another loss in hopes of advancing to Arlington for the second time in as many years, especially if that loss comes at the hands of a Baylor team that’s currently projected to drop only one of its five remaining games to Oklahoma.

“When families are hit with adversity there’s only two possible outcomes: You either come together more and become stronger, or you splinter and you separate and you fracture,” said Herman.

Neither outcome would come as much of a surprise.

On paper, even with the numerous injuries — an issue that should begin to clear up as Green, Sterns, and Jordan Whittington near their respective returns — Texas boasts more than enough talent to run the table. Prior to the Kansas game, that was probably the expectation. But considering their recent efforts against Kansas and Oklahoma, and to a lesser extent, West Virginia and Oklahoma State, it also likely wouldn’t shock too many if the wheels completely fell off.

Tom Herman mentioned during both his post-game and Monday afternoon press conferences that Texas will figure things out and be better. His team won’t have much of a choice if they truly hope to contend for a Big 12 title.