Couldn’t we all have been Texas A&M fans last night? I’m not saying this simply because yesterday I picked the Aggies on texasmonthly.com to score the upset. And no, I’m not an alum (far from it, in fact, given a disastrous appearance at Midnight Yell practice in the early nineties as the guest of a friend who lived on campus). The truth is, A&M’s heartbreaking, last-second loss to Oklahoma State only closed out an unsettling September for most Texas teams. Houston’s Case Keenum, a Heisman Trophy candidate, is now out for the season after wrecking his knee. Texas got annihilated by UCLA at home (again). TCU remains undefeated but lost a bit of championship luster after Oregon State, one of only two ranked opponents on the Horned Frogs’ schedule, flamed out against Boise State. And North Texas is building a $78 million stadium that will open next year but may dump its head coach before the end of the season? Oh, well. Maybe October will be better, starting with …
#21 Texas (3-1) v. #8 Oklahoma (4-0)
I refuse to rehash the worst home loss in Mack Brown’s tenure at Texas, which came last Saturday against UCLA (though I am willing to bet that DeLoss Dodds won’t be scheduling the Bruins in Austin for, say, the next fifty years). No, far better to look ahead to tomorrow’s Red River Rivalry at the Cotton Bowl. So what if ESPN’s Chris Fowler immediately pronounced that the Horns will “fall away as a contender” for a national title. Or that Kirk Herbstreit, whom a certain spouse I sign a federal income tax return with claims is easy on the eyes, opined, “It finally caught up to Texas. A lack of identity with their running game, not being able to make plays downfield in the passing game.” Wait, I’m rehashing, aren’t I?
Well, that’s because I think the story runs deeper than a five-turnover, 22-point loss. During his post-game interview, Brown looked surprisingly tired. “It was not fair to Texas fans; it was not fair to the players,” he said dejectedly. “And I’ve got to do a better job.” That made me think for the first time that the Mack Brown era could be ending earlier than 2016. If UT can win on Saturday, the Longhorns will still control the Big XII South; if they lose, the entire season goes into a tailspin. The good news is the Longhorns haven’t dropped back-to-back games since 2007. The bad news is that the defeat that season to Kansas State was followed by a loss against—you guessed it—Oklahoma. As for a possible coaching change, it didn’t ease the pressure this week that head-coach-in-waiting Will Muschamp was being talked about as a potential replacement for Mark Richt at Georgia, which has limped off to a 1-3 start.
So how dire are things for Texas? Consider that in the first four games of the year, UT has had three different leading rushers, none of whom has gained more than 62 yards. Or that starting quarterback Garrett Gilbert is ranked 11th in passing efficiency in the Big XII, ahead of only Iowa State’s Austen Arnaud. Or that the vaunted number one rushing defense in the land gave up 264 yards on the ground, proving that early season stats are often accurate but not true.
If there’s a silver lining, it’s that the undefeated Sooners haven’t looked so Bud Wilkinson—like themselves. They needed a gift to beat Cincinnati on the road last week, squeaking past the Bearcats 31—29. A week before that Oklahoma slipped by Air Force by only three points. For as unnerving as the entire month of September was, the second day of October will make things a whole lot clearer.
#5 TCU (4-0) at Colorado St. (1-3)
There is no doubt in my mind that TCU is the best team in the state right now. Which is why it’s such a shame that the Horned Frogs don’t have a chance to prove it outright. Sure, Saturday marks the start of conference play against the Rams, a team TCU thumped 44—6 last year. But the Mountain West is littered with cupcakes. Gary Patterson will continue to get his wins; Andy Dalton will continue to rack up the yards (see below). But it is all so predictable, particularly if Boise State can win the rest of its games, effectively blocking TCU’s upward lift. An undefeated season will end without a shot at the national title. A one-loss season eliminates hope for a BCS bowl. Who wants those options?
If there was any unexpected excitement at all in Fort Worth this week, it came when the New York Post “broke” the story that the Big East hoped to invite the Horned Frogs to join the conference, according to “a source close to the league who requested anonymity.” (Quick, how many Big East teams are currently ranked in the top 25? Answer: The same number of teams that are ranked from the Sun Belt Conference.) Sure the automatic bid for a BCS bowl is enticing, but this is a match that’s better for the Big East than it is for TCU. So how did Patterson respond to the news? “Surprised,” he texted. “I have been working on CSU.” Patience may be hard to come by for now, but TCU is no stranger to conference hopping since the dissolution of the Southwest Conference. The Horned Frogs know that the Big XII can’t survive with only ten teams. Who knows? If everything works out, it won’t be too long before TCU really can prove how good it is.
Baylor (3-1) v. Kansas (2-2)
Kansas hasn’t won in Waco since the formation of the Big XII, making the Jayhawks a welcomed addition to the Bears’ schedule. And it won’t make Baylor head coach Art Briles sad to know that Kansas will be starting a freshman quarterback. On the other hand, Robert Griffin III (or “RG3” if you’re eating at George’s), the outstanding sophomore quarterback from Copperas Cove, appears to have responded well to last year’s season-ending ACL surgery. He’s completed nearly 60 percent of his passes with a 4:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio. He’s also rushed for 3 touchdowns and averaged 4.4 yards a carry. And though he connected on some deep balls against Rice, his arm strength and form were called a bit into question. He may be able to get away with that against the Jayhawks, but the defense will be much tougher the following week in the Cotton Bowl against Texas Tech. But are six wins—or, dare I say it?—seven wins and a certain bowl berth out of the picture? That depends on two things. First, can Griffin stay healthy? Second, can the Bears catch a break in a brutal four-game stretch to finish the year? If the answer to the first question is yes, things look very positive on the second.
Texas Tech (2-1) v. Iowa State (2-2)
The Red Raiders had to take some comfort in their off week after the loss to Texas in Lubbock on September 18 by seeing the Bruins beat up on UT. Now Teck takes its show on the road to play Iowa State for what should prove to be an easy win. What have we seen in the first three games of the Tommy Tuberville era? For one, he’s definitely not Mike Leach. For the Red Raiders to win a championship, he said in a press conference after the Texas game, “We’re going to have to learn to run the football, whether it’s this year or next year. If you abandon it, as we speak, then things will get worse.” Of course, the Red Raiders currently rank 116 in the country in rushing, so there’s nowhere to go but up. As for that passing game, Taylor Potts may not be Graham Harrell, but he’s no less important to the Red Raiders’ success. The senior from Abilene has been reliable, but his passer rating has been eerily the same: 137.33 in 2008, 137.14 in 2009, and 137.24 so far in 2010. Without improvement in either part of the offese, Tech will most likely stay right where it has been in recent years, with or without Leach: a game or two back from that elusive Big XII South title.
SMU (2-2) at Rice (1-3)
Rice has only won one game this year, a come-from-behind, last-ditch effort on the road against North Texas. In previous years, that kind of effort might be enough to eke out a win over SMU, but the Mustangs are a different squad under June Jones. Though SMU barely edged out a win over the Owls last season, QB Kyle Padron, yet another product of Southlake Carroll, finally settled in last year as a freshman, going 5-1 as a starter and guiding the Ponies to a bowl win over Nevada. In last Friday night’s nationally televised game against TCU, Padron had a solid if ultimately losing effort, but SMU did have the lead as late as the third quarter. In the end, Andy Dalton and the depth of TCU proved to be too much, something SMU won’t have to worry about against Rice. In fact, with Houston’s Case Keenum now out for the season, the Mustangs may have a clear shot at the Conference USA title. If that happens, the team might finally be able to put the words “death penalty” behind it.
UTEP (3-1) at New Mexico (0-4)
The Miners are off to a fast start this season, just one win away from matching their record last year. And a game against the Lobos ensures they’ll win again. New Mexico has lost its first four games by an average of 46 points (that’s not a typo; I ran the numbers twice). Though head coach Mike Price’s offense has relied heavily on the arm of Trevor Vittatoe, who is averaging 246.5 yards passing per game with 8 touchdowns and only 2 interceptions, last week’s win against Memphis came on field goals by Dakota Warren of 57 yards, 50 yards, and a game-winning 18-yarder as time expired. (Can you hear the voice of your high school coaches? “You must be sound in the kicking game! You must be sound in the kicking game!”) With range like that (57 yards!), the Miners can easily pick up three more wins in Conference USA play, despite a tough stretch toward the end of the season that includes Marshall, SMU, and Tulsa.
North Texas (1-3) v. Louisiana-Lafayette (1-2)
The time has come to admit my bias in writing about college football. Though I was born and raised in Texas, I decided not to go to a football university. Naturally, I chose UNT, in Denton. All of which helps explains the email I received from a journalist friend on Monday. The subject line was “misprint,” and the message read: “There is an unfortunate misprint in the paper today. It says that UNT actually won a game, with Riley Dodge at qb, no less.” (Yes, it’s good to have friends, as long as you don’t spend too much time with them.) Said victory, a 21—17 win over Florida Atlantic, did pull the Mean Green off Mark Schlabach’s dreaded Bottom Ten list of the worst teams in college football. But it probably did little to change the storyline of the season. Head coach Todd Dodge, who was 79—1 with four state titles in his final five seasons at Southlake Carroll, is only 6—34 at UNT. He has been told by athletic director Rick Villareal that he has to have a winning season this year or else. So can the Mean Green win six of its remaining eight games, when one is against a team from the Big XII? Common sense suggests that someone should begin sending out résumés. But having followed the team since the days of Hayden Fry, I have one question: If a coach as talented as Dodge can’t win in Denton, maybe the problem doesn’t rest entirely with the coach. Maybe the athletic director should spruce up his résumé as well?
In his excellent cover story in September on Texas quarterbacks, Bryan Curtis made the case that the state was enjoying a golden age at that position. As it turns out Dave Campbell’s Texas Football had been thinking the same thing on its cover, naming Houston’s Case Keenum, TCU’s Andy Dalton, and Texas A&M’s Jerrod Johnson as the best quarterbacks in their respective conferences. So how have they stacked up against one another so far? (Stats are prior to the A&M game against Oklahoma State last night).
1. Keenum: Rating of 159.26 with a 65 percent completion percentage (unfortunately he had season-ending surgery this week to repair the knee he damaged while trying to make a tackle in the Cougars’ loss to UCLA on September 18).
2. Dalton: Rating of 146.9 with 798 yards passing (his numbers should go even higher given the remaining strength of schedule).
3. Johnson: Rating of 139.23 with 7 TDs (this was prior to last night’s game; his numbers will go down as a result of the tough lineup ahead).
But Johnson doesn’t hold the highest rating among Texas quarterbacks in the Big XII. That honor goes to Baylor’s Robert Griffin III, with a rating of 140.9 and 8 TDs.