The Texas Longhorns may be ranked No. 23 in the BCS following a 56-50 win over the Baylor Bears, but fans are not convinced as this team is desperately clinging to its Big 12 relevance. Luckily the 'Horns are headed north to Lawrence to face the lowly Kansas Jayhawks and their current six-game losing streak.
For the third straight season, Texas is just not an elite team in the college football landscape. The defense has been historically bad as it is on pace to allow 1,300 more yards than any other defense in Texas history, and the rest of the team is not good enough to make up for that.
But there is hope.
In a classic example of perfect timing, the Longhorns face the Jayhawks this week, who are riding a six-game losing streak and have been the Big 12's punching bag so far this season. This is great for the Longhorns, who could use all the confidence they can get before the grueling schedule they face to close out the season.
And a win in Lawrence makes them bowl eligible, which is apparently now an achievement for this program.
But this is college football and teams can never afford to take an opponent lightly, especially this Longhorn team. Here are the five keys for the Longhorns as they look to put away the last "gimme" on their schedule.
Plagued by injuries and mind-numbing inconsistency, the Texas Longhorn defense would be well-served to keep things simple on defense on Saturday against Kansas.
We have all heard about defensive coordinator Manny Diaz and all of his trademark exotic blitz packages, but it is time to throw that notion out the window. This defense has only two senior starters and the rest of the upperclassmen are mostly playing two-hand touch. Meanwhile underclassmen regulars like Steve Edmond, Demarco Cobbs and Mykkele Thompson are all playing positions that they have had to learn since becoming Longhorns.
The remedy? Keep things simple.
When guys are running the wrong direction, misreading the play, blowing coverages and missing tackles because they are late getting to the spot it is time to stop trying to win with scheme. All of these blitz calls and complex coverages just do not work for a team that is starved for leadership and lacks true experience.
This is especially true for this week against freshman quarterback Michael Cummings who cannot beat Texas with his arm, but has a running back in James Sims that can run all over this group. All the defense has to do is make sure the gaps are filled and do their job for Texas to win this game. Anything that will require extra mental and physical process to accomplish will just lead to what we have seen through the first half of this season.
The defense continues to be a headache, but if there is anything Longhorn fans can get really excited about this season it is the performance of the 2012 freshman class. Hopefully this is just a sign of more to come.
Every knew about top recruit Johnathan Gray. If you did not know about Daje Johnson, you definitely do now. Which freshman will be the next to prove that the 2012 class arrived on campus ready to play?
Aside from Gray and Johnson, that freshman could be highly touted defensive tackle Malcom Brown. The big-bodied freshman has really arrived the last three games in consistently getting into the backfield and making plays from the inside. And, given the rampant inconsistency we have seen from the committee of Longhorn defensive tackles, Brown could be carving himself quite the role on this Texas front.
Shiro Davis, another top freshman on the defensive line, is another guy to keep your eye on.
Reggie Wilson was ineffective when given his shot to take Jackson Jeffcoat's spot opposite Alex Okafor, and the speed-rusher Davis took advantage in limited action by hurrying Baylor quarterback Nick Florence. Davis' speed is a good complement to Okafor's physicality on the right side, and he should see a decent share of the snaps as the season progresses.
Look for linebackers Dalton Santos and Peter Jinkens to see more action on Saturday given the well-documented struggles the Longhorns have experienced at the position.
It is pretty safe to say that Santos has already begun convincing the fans and coaches that he is the future at middle linebacker with his physical play, but do not overlook Jinkens. He is very fast for the position and has a high motor, as evidenced by his playing both running back and linebacker in high school.
Gray and Johnson will certainly continue to be heavily featured in the offense as Mack Brown and the coaches are beginning to realize exactly how useful they are. If Brown, Davis, Santos or Jinkens can find a way to make similar strides on the defensive side of the ball, these coaches can point to them as reasons for optimism on the Forty Acres.
I know every week I complain about one Texas offensive player or another not getting the ball enough, but sophomore wideout Jaxon Shipley is one Texas player that should never, ever be part of that discussion.
Whether it is the result of getting lost amongst the plethora of weapons Texas has on offense, the resurgence of junior Mike Davis as a downfield threat, a case of the sophomore slump or a combination of the above, Shipley is not getting the ball enough right now.
Since recording five catches for 82 yards and three touchdowns, Shipley has been a ghost in Bryan Harsin's offense. He has only two receptions over his last two games and only four total touches over that same span, which is unacceptable for the team's best route-runner who also happens to have the best hands on the team.
The part about this that is so maddening is that Shipley is a great complement to the deep-threat Davis, who is having a great junior season. Shipley's strengths as a possession receiver are ideal for freeing Davis up on the other side, not to mention the value of having somebody that can consistently move the chains in the passing game.
Find a way to get Shipley more involved on Saturday and good things will happen for this offense. It is that simple.
The Longhorns' ability to slow down Sims will determine the course of this game
Yes, Kansas is the worst team in the Big 12 and, yes, this is probably the one of the worst teams Texas will face all season. Does that mean Texas can take this foe lightly? Absolutely not.
The Jayhawks may be a bad team right now but they are a bad team that is good at running the ball, which is where Texas has been shredded all season. Charlie Weis' team will have elusive runner James Sims, who ran for 115 yards against the 11th-ranked run defense of Kansas State, on the field Saturday and you know he will be looking for a big one against the 107th-ranked run defense in the country.
Sims is probably the only Jayhawk that is capable of leading Kansas to victory as no Kansas quarterback has been able to get anything accomplished for the first-year coach Weis. But despite what you may think about Weis as a head coach, he is still a brilliant offensive mind and will test this embattled Texas defense all day.
Texas needs to avoid thinking about what is on its way next and focus on the task at hand. If the Longhorns do that, they should have no problem taking care of business in Lawrence. If they do not, however, Sims is a good enough running back to gash this team and send it into a total downward spiral.
With a brutal four-week schedule following this game, the Longhorns need to leave no doubt in beating the lowly Jayhawks and build some confidence with which to close out the season.
This game, with what is waiting on the other side, is not one that Texas head coach Mack Brown can afford to lose.
His team needs as much momentum as they can get before they head up to Lubbock to play the surging Red Raiders, and a loss to a team that is playing like Kansas may enrage fans even further than the blowout loss to OU.
As discussed, it is not hard to figure out that Charlie Weis is going to try to ride James Sims to victory in this game. And if that comes even close to happening, things could get very ugly for this team and the stretch run could turn out to be a total disaster.
As long as Texas does what it needs to and is capable of doing, everything should be fine. That means establishing the run against the nation's 87th rushing defense and keeping Sims at least somewhat in check. If Texas can do those things and avoid making stupid mistakes, this should be an easy victory for the 'Horns and something from which to build off of moving forward.
Imagine the wonders a shutout, or even holding a team under 20 points, would do for this defense. Well, this is that group's shot to get things turned around at just the right time.