Texas Longhorns football is so close you can taste it now that USA Today has released its preseason rankings for the 2012 season with the 'Horns entering the season ranked No. 15. How will that affect their march toward a BCS bowl?
The Big 12 has six teams ranked in the preseason Top 25, which is second only to the seven boasted by the SEC. That says it all for the stiffness of the competition for this conference, and the door is wide open, as no team is complete enough to run the table.
That's good news for the Longhorns, whose somewhat middling ranking takes some of the pressure off heading into a season with the most expectations since the 2009 squad was picked to win it all. Not to mention a two-loss team could very well win the conference and therefore earn the conference's berth in a BCS bowl, meaning this team could very well be in the thick of it come December.
Here's how the Longhorns' ranking, as well as those of their competition, will alter their path to a BCS bowl in 2012.
One of the great things about being ranked in the middle of the pack to start the season is that nobody will have a cow if the Longhorns do not absolutely annihilate their first three opponents this season. This way, the proverbial preseason can be used as a learning experience for this team rather than an opportunity to flex its muscles.
Sure, the expectations are still there, but this team does not have to go out and embarrass these teams to avoid dropping in the rankings. This team has a young quarterback that needs all the confidence he can get, freshmen that need to go get as much experience as they can and a brutal run against three ranked teams following these tune-ups.
Texas is a much better team than these first three opponents, so there is no real danger here in letting Ash play with the offense a little bit, nor would it be a bad time to let Johnathan Gray and Daje Johnson get adjusted to the college game. Potential impact defensive freshmen Shiro Davis and Malcom Brown could also gain some valuable experience here.
With the Oklahoma State, West Virginia and Oklahoma games all taking place right after these early gimmes, any chance Ash and the freshmen get to make themselves more ready for the gauntlet the better. After all, it is almost risk-free since there's no way these teams will be able to do much against the defense. So the required double-digit victory should be no real task.
With matchups against No. 4 Oklahoma and No. 11 West Virginia immediately following, the Longhorns matchup against the No. 19 Cowboys up in Stillwater is the first big game of the season and will set the tone for this three-week gauntlet.
It may be easier said than done, but the Longhorns need to take care of business in their first conference game in a very hostile environment at Pickens Stadium. A loss here before Texas plays its two most talented opponents of the season in the following could deal a serious blow to the BCS goals this team has set for itself. But with a win, Texas can ride back to Austin on a wave of confidence for the following week's matchup against the Mountaineers and Geno Smith.
The good news here is that Texas should match up very well against Oklahoma State. The Cowboys start a freshman quarterback in Wes Lunt, so Manny Diaz and the defense should have no problem taking his lunch money all game long.
Even more encouraging is that the Longhorns should have no problem running on this team that gave up 231 rushing yards in last year's matchup, highlighted by a 135-yard performance from Malcolm Brown.
The line and the corners should make things miserable for the young Lunt, and the Cowboys will have an even harder time stopping the run, as quarterback David Ash should be much more effective this season.
If everything goes right, this could be the first key victory of the 'Horns' 2012 campaign.
Things only get harder after the Oklahoma State game with the first conference matchup against West Virginia in Austin and the Red River Rivalry game in Dallas. Winning one of these marquee matchups will be essential to the Longhorns' BCS chances.
It could happen, but the likelihood the Longhorns reach a BCS bowl if they are 4-2 after the Oklahoma game is slim to none. Obviously, winning both of these games would be ideal, but going 2-1 against Oklahoma State, West Virginia and Oklahoma still puts the Longhorns in a good spot come the end of the season.
OSU probably will not challenge for the Big 12 title, and both WVU and OU have the meat of their schedules after the Texas game, so it is a safe bet that each will lose at least twice.
It would definitely be nice to get some revenge after last year's humiliation against the Sooners, but the 'Horns match up better against the Mountaineers. Quarterback Geno Smith has a reputation for being turnover-prone, which could mean a field day for corners Carrington Byndom and Quandre Diggs. The running game should also be more effective against the West Virginia D than against that of the Sooners, as that unit gave up nearly 190 yards/game against ranked teams last season.
Not to mention that if the Longhorns handle both the Cowboys and Mountaineers leading up to the Red River Shootout, they could not have more momentum heading up to the Cotton Bowl if they were on a freight train.
The Longhorns are almost fortunate to have their two toughest tests of the season out of the way early on, as all they really have to do is beat who they are supposed to beat until their final matchup of the season against KSU.
If only it were that simple...
After the Oklahoma game, the Longhorns get a break with Baylor at home and Kansas, against both of which they should have no problem executing their normal game plan. After that, they have Texas Tech and No. 17 TCU bracketing an assumed win against Iowa State, where they could fall into some trouble.
The game against Tech is scary because weird things happen up in Lubbock, a la that heart-breaking loss in 2008. A loss there is more likely than at home against TCU, who is probably over-ranked in their first season in a major conference. Either way, there is no writing off either of these teams, and they will be fortunate to win both of these contests.
It is probably wishful thinking that the Longhorns go into the final tilt up in Manhattan with only one loss, in which case they should win the conference since West Virginia or OU will weed the other out in Week 10.
The Longhorns can afford to let one slip here without dooming themselves, but the ideal case would be to walk into the last game of the regular season with only one blemish.
The last game of the season for the Longhorns is against those damned Wildcats of Kansas State, who have given the Longhorns fits since 2006. Since there is no conference championship game, winning the last game of the season will be imperative to the Longhorns for getting to a BCS bowl.
By this point of the season, the Longhorns will have been lucky to survive Oklahoma State, West Virginia, Oklahoma and Texas Tech, in that separate dimension called Lubbock, and TCU with two losses.
Luckily, Oklahoma and West Virginia will need similar luck, so the 'Horns should be fine so long as they can beat the Wildcats up in Manhattan.
Easier said than done.
The 'Horns have always had trouble with the Wildcats and have not beaten them since 2003, when Vince Young was still the quarterback. This year will be no different, as the No. 21 Wildcats will have both the weather and the home crowd on their side. They also have Collin Klein at the helm, who has shown he can gut out a tough win.
The Longhorns will have to earn every inch of this game, and this game could come down to David Ash's ability to be a leader. Assuming the Longhorns have lived up to their potential to this point, a win here will put the Longhorns in as good a position as can be expected to play in a bowl game after the new year.