Big 12: Brett Hodges

Longhorns need resounding victory to prove national-title mettle

November, 30, 2009
11/30/09
12:02
PM ET
Texas approaches the Big 12 championship game with its first 12-0 regular-season record in history and momentum from a strong sprint through the Big 12.

And still, something appears to be missing as the Longhorns attempt to claim their first conference championship since 2005.

If Texas can beat Nebraska Saturday in Arlington, Texas, the path appears set for the Longhorns to make their second trip to the BCS national title game in five seasons. A potential matchup with Alabama or Florida beckons in Pasadena -- just like it did for the Longhorns to higher-ranked USC in the 2006 Rose Bowl.

Even with that historical parallel in place, these Longhorns aren’t approaching the conference championship with a lot of national buzz. Most are seeing their Big 12 championship game with little excitement compared to the SEC championship game earlier on Saturday. It is causing the Longhorns to suffer in comparison to both the Gators and Crimson Tide as “Super Saturday” approaches.

[+] EnlargeJordan Shipley
Aaron M. Sprecher/Getty ImagesJordan Shipley has 99 receptions and 11 touchdowns heading into the Big 12 title game.
Texas’ performance in its 49-39 victory over Texas A&M appeared to raise some questions that the Nebraska game could be more of a challenge than expected. The Longhorns struggled on defense against an A&M team that came into the game as the Big 12’s most inconsistent team. Earlier in the season, the Aggies had lost games by 28, 48 and 55 points.

The Longhorns have benefited from a series of favorable breaks throughout the season. Oklahoma was missing tight end Jermaine Gresham from the start of the season. Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford made it through only nine snaps in the Longhorns’ 16-13 victory over the Sooners earlier this season.

Some of the difficulty of the Longhorns’ trip to Oklahoma State diminished when Dez Bryant was suspended by the NCAA. The Cowboys also lost 2008 Big 12 rushing leader Kendall Hunter for most of the season. Hunter had one carry in the Texas game.

Even their toughest nonconference game against UCF featured a favorable break. The Knights opted to sit starting quarterback Brett Hodges and starting running back Brynn Harvey in their game in Austin earlier this season. UCF coach George O’Leary’s strategy appears to have worked as his team has won its last three games. But it still diminished the challenge the Longhorns faced.

The Longhorns have lost three tight ends during the season, including projected starter Blaine Irby. So it’s not like their rivals are alone in injury losses. But Texas appears to have gotten its fair share of breaks.

The Longhorns have relied on Colt McCoy’s short passing as their major offensive weapon – mainly to wide receiver Jordan Shipley. Their running game has been sporadic, but appears to be coming on as the season continues with the recent emergence of Tre’ Newton.

Texas’ defense had been the Longhorns’ major strength before being gouged by the Aggies for season-high totals in points and total yards. Before that game, the Longhorns had given up 37 points combined in their last three games and had allowed more than 21 points only once this season -- in a 34-24 victory over Texas Tech on Sept. 19.

Before that stumble, Texas had produced a remarkably consistent statistical season. The Longhorns still rank among the top 16 teams nationally in 13 of the 17 categories tracked by the NCAA. Included in those are first in rush defense, third in scoring, sacks, tackles for losses and kickoff returns, fifth in total defense, eighth in scoring defense and ninth in scoring defense.

Critics contend those numbers have been swelled by playing in a weaker-than-expected Big 12 and against a nonconference schedule that featured no opponents from conferences with automatic bids into the BCS.

Their margin over fourth-place TCU eroded from 114 points to 98 points in Sunday’s Associated Press poll. While it doesn’t appear that Texas is in danger of being lapped by TCU or Cincinnati, it still is indicative that the Longhorns’ status as a legitimate title contender could be called into question by some media members.

Texas should be a heavy favorite in the championship game. But it always hasn’t benefited them, especially in a game with similar circumstances eight years ago.

In that 2001 title game, Texas had a similar open path to the national championship game. All the Longhorns had to do was beat Colorado to qualify for a chance to meet Miami for the title.

Instead, the Buffaloes jumped all over them in a surprising 39-37 victory that sent the Longhorns spinning to the Holiday Bowl after their BCS title game hopes had appeared set with a victory.

Since then, Texas coach Mack Brown has learned to trust his coordinators more and become more of a delegator of authority. It has resulted in one national championship, a five-game bowl winning streak and seven consecutive finishes inside the top 13 at the end of the season.

That recent surge has helped change the national perception of his team from some of his earlier Texas squads, which always had trouble beating Oklahoma. In those days, Brown was known as “Mr. February” because his strong recruiting didn’t always translate into on-the-field success against the Sooners. Brown didn’t claim his first Big 12 title until 2005.

That image has changed. But the Longhorns still need a convincing victory Saturday to prove their legitimacy to much of the country heading into the national title game.

Big 12 predictions, Week 10

November, 5, 2009
11/05/09
9:00
AM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

After last week, I have the opportunity to savor a rare perfect week.

And is it ever rewarding.

And the best part, I finally got on the right side of Texas A&M after struggling with picking incorrectly on the Aggies the previous four weeks.

But as Mike Sherman’s team watches fight films the night before games and receives carabiners a few days before they upset teams, their confidence is growing.

Even for me.

Here’s a look at this week’s games. Hopefully, another 6-0 week is in store this time around, too.

Texas 45, UCF 7: This rare November nonconference game shouldn’t be that much of a challenge for the Longhorns, although George O’Leary’s team is feisty on defense and will make the Longhorns sweat as they try to run the ball. But with Colt McCoy and Co. in the passing game, that shouldn’t be a concern as Texas should be able to pass at will. And the Texas defense should harass UCF quarterback Brett Hodges throughout the game.

Kansas State 28, Kansas 24: Bill Snyder improbably brings his Wildcats into the Sunflower Showdown in first place in the North Division. Even in a loss at Oklahoma, the Wildcats showed pluckiness as they were competitive despite falling into an early 21-0 hole. But Snyder always seems to get up for the Jayhawks, whom he beat 12 of the last 13 times before his sabbatical. Kansas arrives mired in a three-game losing streak. And with Mark Mangino’s team reeling after the surprise benching of Todd Reesing, along with a sputtering offense, don’t be surprised if the Wildcats claim an upset in this one. Kansas State must dominate time of possession and win special teams with a key play or two from Brandon Banks in order to win the game.

Texas A&M 38, Colorado 27: The Aggies have traditionally struggled in Boulder, but arrive with a lot of confidence after their two-game winning streak. With Jerrod Johnson, Jeff Fuller, Uzoma Nwachukwu and an emerging running game, A&M looks like the same kind of team that has troubled Colorado all season long. And the defense is appearing to make progress after a strong effort last week against Iowa State. Colorado will have trouble matching those weapons.

Missouri 34, Baylor 14: Two teams going in different directions will meet at Faurot Field. The Tigers still have legitimate hopes for a North Division title if they can sweep the rest of their games -- an amazing statement considering their 0-3 start. Baylor’s bowl hopes were derailed as soon as Robert Griffin hurt his knee against Northwestern State. Missouri will have a healthy Blaine Gabbert, an improved running game and a developing pass rush. Baylor will be challenged to contain any of those huge Missouri advantages.

Oklahoma State 33, Iowa State 27: It will be interesting to see how Mike Gundy’s team rebounds after the turnover-filled loss to Texas last week. And the Cowboys will be tested by an Iowa State team that has all of its weapons healthy with Austen Arnaud returning to the lineup after missing two games with a bruised hand. The Cyclones need only one victory for bowl eligibility, but it will be tough to get against the Cowboys. Look for Zac Robinson to bounce back after his struggling game against Texas as the Cowboys should be able to exploit an Iowa State secondary that has allowed 18 touchdown passes this season.

Oklahoma 21, Nebraska 17: It will seem just like old days when Oklahoma and Nebraska meet and the defenses for both teams will be their key strengths. The team that wins will be the one that gets the best play out of their quarterback. Landry Jones leads all freshmen with 17 touchdown passes and has an expanding receiving corps with a bevy of playmakers. It still won’t be easy against a Nebraska defense that has limited its last seven opponents to 280 yards or less. But the Cornhuskers don’t have the offensive firepower -- particularly with top rushing threat Roy Helu Jr. struggling with a bad shoulder -- to keep up with the Sooners.

Last week: 6-0, 100 percent

Season total: 56-18, 75.7 percent

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