Conference play arrives in a big way this weekend for the No. 12 Texas Longhorns as they travel up to Stillwater, the hostile home of the Oklahoma State Cowboys. Plenty of storylines to watch for in this game that could determine whether Texas goes 4-0 for the fifth time in six years.
Neither of these teams are short on mystery heading into this heavily anticipated tilt. Oklahoma State's head coach has yet to rule out freshman Wes Lunt (knee) in favor of dual-threat quarterback J.W. Walsh. And Texas head coach Mack Brown has been mum on whether he'll be starting RB Joe Bergeron (shoulder) or if leading-tackler Jordan Hicks (hip) will be ready to go come Saturday.
What is for certain is that these are two very talented teams on both sides of the ball and the result will give us our first fair assessment of either team's postseason aspirations.
Here are the keys to Texas pulling out a road win over the Cowboys and putting them one step closer to re-establishing themselves as a national power.
Following less-than-great performances in its first three games, the Texas defense has been under fire for missing tackles and giving up big plays. But in actuality, these two issues are one in the same.
Thus far, the Texas defense has given up three touchdowns of 45 yards or more. One was a 75-yard pass to Wyoming's Robert Herron, the next was an 82-yard catch and run by Ole Miss' Donte Moncrief, and the last was a 48-yard touchdown run by Ole Miss running back Jeff Scott.
While this is very disappointing to see from a defense that was so highly touted in the offseason, the problem is fixable. On both Herron's and Scott's long touchdowns, Texas defenders had arms around them and simply did not make the tackle. On Moncrief's, who will be playing on Sunday, he simply beat struggling Txas corner Carrington Byndom.
If Texas simply made the tackles that they were supposed to make, they would've given up 14 points less than the 48 they have surrendered thus far. There has been a well-documented effort to improve in this department during the bye week, with the coaches going as far as to recreate situations in which tackles have been missed to see what went wrong.
Let's hope this attention to detail pays off for the 'Horns against the nation's top-scoring offense because the Texas offense is not built for shootouts the way the Cowboys are.
Texas has already proven against inferior competition that it can dominate the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. But can the Longhorns do it against Big 12 competition?
David Ash may have gotten most of the credit for Texas' throttling of Ole Miss on the road because of his career performance (326 yards, 4 TD), and rightly so. However, the real stars of the game were in the trenches on the defensive and offensive lines where they have been remarkably effective.
The two groups have been so good thus far that you cannot definitively say who has been better. Sure the offensive line has only allowed two sacks in three games, but the defensive line has 18 tackles for a loss (seven sacks) and 22 hurries. Yes, defensive ends Jackson Jeffcoat and Alex Okafor have been unstoppable, then again so has the Texas run game thanks to the offensive line paving the way for 776 yards on the ground.
Both units have done their job to a tee, and they will have to continue to do so against the Cowboys. The OSU offensive line has outdone the Longhorns production in not allowing a single sack so far and blocking to the tune of nearly 1,000 rushing yards already on the season. And the Oklahoma State defensive linemen are fairly effective as well, though the Texas offensive line should be able to hold them at bay.
We have seen how good this team is when these units win at the line of scrimmage. David Ash looks like an All-Big 12 talent. Huge running lanes open up for bruisers Joe Bergeron and Malcolm Brown and opposing quarterbacks are peeling themselves off of the turf.
Doing it against Wyoming, New Mexico and Ole Miss is one thing. Doing against a conference foe like OSU easily pushes this team into the top-10.
Bergeron's ability to wear down a defense will be missed.
This may sound incredibly trite and cliche, but for Texas to beat the Cowboys, they must not turn the ball over.
This same statement could be uttered for every football game ever played, but is especially so when playing a team like Oklahoma State for two reasons. The first being that the Cowboys are the reigning kings of the turnover, finishing first in both turnovers forced and turnover margin in 2011. The second reason is that had David Ash not turned the ball over three times against this same Cowboys team a season ago, the Longhorns might have been able to pull off the upset.
The Cowboys have not been as prolific in the turnover department as they were in 2011, but they are still plenty dangerous. Corners Justin Gilbert and Brodrick Brown are both top tier corners who will make David Ash pay for the bad throws he got away with in the first three games. And safety Daytawion Lowe led the Big 12 in forced fumbles last season.
These guys are going to be aggressive in trying to create turnovers for defensive coordinator Bill Young, so the best thing to do is establish the run early. If the Longhorns can find consistent success on the ground on first and second downs, the OSU defense will be forced to pack it in, which will give Ash more open throwing lanes.
This is where Texas will miss having sophomore RB Joe Bergeron if he is, in fact, held out because of his shoulder injury. He is the more punishing back of the duo he forms with leading rusher Malcolm Brown and would-be tacklers start to get tired of him come the second half.
In any event, expect Texas to run the ball very frequently in this game in featuring the inside-outside talent on the offensive side of the ball. Also, expect the jet sweep to be employed often to keep the OSU defense on its heels.
There is no certainty that leading-tackler Jordan Hicks will be out Saturday, but if he is, his absence leaves a gaping hole on a defensive unit that is already lacking for depth.
Hicks is the lone returning starter at the linebacker position and has been instrumental in getting the right defensive calls communicated to his teammates, as well as covering for his inexperienced running mates. Senior safety Kenny Vaccaro will likely fill the communication void if Hicks is out with his hip pointer, but his replacement at linebacker is a much stickier situation.
Alongside Hicks for the first three games have been first-year starters Steve Edmond and Demarco Cobbs. Edmond has proved his worth and has improved on a weekly basis. Cobbs, on the other hand, has had a very tough time adjusting to his role and has been repeatedly burned by opposing offenses.
That leaves Texas in a tough position as far as getting the best talent on the field. Tevin Jackon, Kendall Thompson and Dalton Santos will probably all see playing time, but some players will have to play out of position in order to get the right mix on the field. For example, both Edmond and Santos play middle linebacker, so one of them will have to move over to make room for the other.
This position switching could cause some confusion, especially among the more inexperienced players like the freshman Santos and Cobbs. This is especially problematic if J.W. Walsh is the starter because dual-threat quarterbacks place added pressure on opposing linebackers to keep an eye on the backfield.
The other solution to this issue is for Texas to play out of its nickel package more often, which would allow safety Kenny Vaccaro to play closer to the line of scrimmage. In this scenario, one of the formidable backups, Josh Turner or Mykkele Thompson, would take Vaccaro's spot at safety. Vaccaro is capable of playing inside and is a very good blitzer for a DB, so we could see a lot of this if the linebackers continue to struggle.
The best-case scenario is that Hicks is in the lineup, but it seems like the 'Horns are preparing for him to be on the sideline. The measures are in place and the bye week certainly helped this team prepare for Hicks' absence, though whether this team can adjust without him remains to be seen. After all, this defense struggled mightily against Ole Miss after he got hurt.
Playing in a hostile road environment against an explosive offensive team means that things could get bad in a real hurry. Should that happen to the Longhorns on Saturday, their ability to weather the storm will be very indicative of the type of team they will be in 2012.
The Longhorns have been down big in the past against Oklahoma State in Stillwater. The 2005 national championship team was down by as many as 19 points in the first half before Vince Young did his thing and led his team to a 47-28 victory. A similar scenario unfolded in 2007, as the 'Horns spotted the Cowboys 21 points before Colt McCoy and Jamaal Charles unloaded in the second half en route to a last-second 38-35 win.
The point is that the Cowboys have historically gotten off to very hot starts at home, even against the most talented of Texas teams. Should that happen this weekend, will a Texas team that has yet to trail by more than a field goal be able to respond?
I am almost hoping Texas gets punched in the mouth early and has to pull together to gut out a win. That would show us what kind of team we have and whether or not these guys are the real deal.
No matter what, we will find out much more about this 2012 squad than we have through the first three games. The Cowboys will test the 'Horns ability to stop explosive Big 12 offenses and their corners will give us an indication of whether David Ash's hot start is legitimate or simply a product of inferior competition. My bet is that Ash will show some vulnerability, but the defense is going to step up for its quarterback and Texas will come out on top.
Prediction: Texas 30, Oklahoma State 21