There's a slim, albeit encouraging, chance that Texas and TCU will meet in the Fiesta Bowl this season.
The most conceivable path to this game involves Texas losing to Texas A&M at Kyle Field, but still winning the Big 12 Championship game, while TCU wins out, but falls short of making the national championship because of being hopped by Cincinnati or a one-loss team like Georgia Tech.
The Aggies have held a strange power over Colt McCoy in his four-year career with the Longhorns. Along with the Kansas State Wildcats, A&M is the only Big 12 team against whom McCoy has a losing record (1-2).
The Aggies have upset the Longhorns twice: once during McCoy's freshman year (during which Colt McCoy suffered the most egregious late hit I've ever seen, resulting in the ejection of Kellen Heard) and again in Colt's sophomore year, when the 12th-ranked Longhorns were absolutely steamrolled at College Station.
In TCU's case, as I've argued elsewhere, there's no way the voters allow the Horned Frogs into the title game, with or without their blowout wins over ranked opponents.
There's just too much time and too few signature games for the Horned Frogs to play between now and Selection Sunday. Matchups against 5-5 Wyoming and 0-10 New Mexico can't compare with the attractive, late-season rivalry and conference championship games that spring up at the end of November and the start of December.
Plus, these voters know if a non-Big Six team gets into the championship and has the nerve to win, it will undue the presumption of superiority on which the Big Six BCS structure is based.
TCU will have to be content to beat whomever they're matched up against in the BCS bowls.
And if it's the Longhorns, we can settle the burning question this season has proposed: who has the best program in Texas?
From a recruiting standpoint, Texas should have a clear lead. Mack Brown has run a clean, competitive recruiting machine, bringing in flawless recruiting classes that consistently rank in the top 15 in the country.
The Longhorns currently possess the no. 1 overall projected recruiting class in 2010. And Brown has named his successor in defensive coordinator Will Muschamp, all but guaranteeing uninterrupted recruiting dominance in the toughest state in the country.
Meanwhile, Gary Patterson recruits the guys passed over by the big schools. His classes don't even crack the top 60 in the nation. The 2006 and 2007 classes that are currently coming to fruition were 61st and 80th in the country, respectively, and had one four-star player, total, among them: ATH Jeremy Kurley, who currently leads the conference in punt return yardage and is second on the team in receiving yards.
The meme floating around is that Patterson takes high school quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers with few scholarship offers and moves them to defense, where their physiques can be altered while their innate speed can provide for an effective pass rush. Senior defensive end and Outland Trophy candidate Jerry Hughes, currently third in the nation in sacks, was a running back in high school.
So while one coach relies on innate ability, the other uses the slight of being underestimated to fuel his players.
That's not to say Mack Brown doesn't coach his players up, or that Patterson relies only on converts. Andy Dalton was a three-star player and the no. 23 pro-style quarterback in 2006, so he'd had plenty of experience throwing the ball.
And Colt McCoy was himself a pedestrian three-star quarterback to Rivals and the no. 15 quarterback overall, though he now holds almost every significant passing record at UT. There's clearly been some outstanding coaching done on Greg Davis's part.
I'd have to call this one about even, given the results. TCU should be getting blown off the field by the likes of Clemson and outlasted by the marginally superior athletes at BYU and Utah. Yet Patterson has found a successful formula in the fuel of revenge.
When you consider the two recruiting classes reaching maturity, it's unbelievable that TCU can come close to rivalling Texas. Yet though the stars and recruiting rankings might tip Texas' way, TCU has coached up its athletes to go toe to toe with the four- and five-stars. Really, the only advantage to stockpiling talent is depth.
The Texas Longhorns' best win is probably over 8-2 Oklahoma State, which they did in blowout fashion on the road. The Cowboys showed they're a resilient bunch by beating a good Texas Tech team in Stillwater this weekend, improving the quality of the win.
TCU's best win is definitely Clemson. The Tigers can lock up a berth in the ACC championship game by beating Virginia this weekend in Death Valley. TCU beat the Tigers on their home field, 14-10, stopping two late drives on downs in the fourth quarter to remain unbeaten.
The second-best win for each team is where it gets tricky.
You could say Texas' second-best win is Oklahoma. But BYU beat Oklahoma (the same Bradford-less Oklahoma that Texas beat), and TCU beat BYU (handily, I might add). Also, Miami beat Oklahoma, Clemson beat Miami, and TCU beat Clemson.
Texas' third-best win is over 6-4 Texas Tech. TCU's third-best win is over a ranked Utah team last weekend.
But the Red Raiders have beaten more than one team with a winning record, unlike the Utes, who needed overtime to beat Air Force and lost to Oregon, their two toughest games of the season.
The rest of the two teams' schedules are a wash. It is probably true that a bad Mountain West team is better than a bad Big XII team (take Colorado's win over Wyoming, for example). Thus, TCU's wins over the middleweights and bottom-dwellers of the MWC count for slightly less than what Texas has done to the detritus of the Big XII.
Ultimately, both teams will have ended up playing the Wyoming Cowboys in Laramie. Texas struggled for a quarter or so before rolling to a 41-10 lead. The Horned Frogs play the Cowboys this weekend. We can compare scores (if you dig this sort of thing) once that game concludes.
But for the time being, the quality wins tip somewhere between a TCU lean and a tie.
Now that we can consider Texas's and TCU's schedules roughly similar, let's take a look at the teams they've fielded so far.
Texas has an outstanding rush defense, good for best overall in the country for allowing 50 yards per game. That includes wins over solid running teams like Oklahoma State (which, for all the passing prowess, is a run-first team under Mike Gundy) UTEP, and Oklahoma, who put up 5 total rushing yards after eliminating sack yardage.
TCU is sixth in the country in rush yards allowed with 84 per game. Stellar efforts against Clemson (117 yards), Virginia (57 yards) and SMU (-16 yards) are what kept TCU in the game.
But for all the gaudy stats, run defense could also arguably be TCU's greatest weakness. The undersized, speedy defenders that proffer a great pass rush also could get pushed around by an offensive line that outweighs them and by big running backs that can take contact.
In TCU's closest game to date (a 20-17 win over Air Force), the Falcons rushed for 220 yards and a touchdown, averaging five yards per carry. Granted, the Air Force offense is almost strictly a rushing attack (they run an offshoot of the triple option), but the close numbers are not an aberration. If a team could move some of those undersized TCU linebackers around, the Horned Frogs might find themselves facing a rare deficit.
TCU counteracts this problem by remaining gap-sound—again, it all goes back to the outstanding coaching. But if they encounter trouble in their bowl game, it will probably be because they haven't been able to stop the rush and rely on their terrific pass defense, which produces sacks and turnovers and creates favorable field position.
And it is terrific. Better than Texas's, at least statistically. At sixth in the country, TCU's pass defense is allowing less than 160 yards per game through the air, and has put up almost as many interceptions (9) as it's allowed passing touchdowns. And that's against prolific passers like Max Hall of BYU (against whom TCU had an interception and forced a fumble) and Kyle Parker of Clemson.
Along with their pass rush bread and butter—Jerry Hughes is putting together an All-American, Bronko Nagurski-style season off the end, even though teams ought to be more than ready for him—the Horned Frogs play a very disciplined zone coverage-to-man scheme.
What this means is that defenders drift to players in their zone instead of remaining too staid, much like players would step up and engage a player in a basketball game if they were playing zone.
This is a basic concept, but it can well disrupt a quarterback's first and second reads, and that means a lot of coverage sacks. That it's drilled well by the TCU coaches is evident by the numbers.
As long as TCU run defense holds up its end of the bargain, TCU's pass defense will continue fielding those terrific numbers.
Texas' has faced more prolific passing attacks from Texas Tech, Oklahoma State, and Oklahoma, so their statistical distance from TCU won't be overstated. Their pass rush is fearsome, although I maintain that Sergio Kindle is no Brian Orakpo.
But Will Muschamp's defense is SEC-style. Take away the run, force the third and long, blitz, and let slip the dogs of war. No team in the country wants to face the Longhorns on third down.
Again, this one ends in a tie.
This one looks like the Longhorns in a rout. McCoy is an on-again, off-again Heisman candidate, a holder of almost every significant passing record at Texas, an All-American and a maddeningly efficient one at that.
Jordan Shipley is an outstanding wide receiver who should be generating more independent Heisman buzz (he has the extra dimension of dangerous special teams play). Shipley stretches the field on the go and the post route, but has also served his time as a dangerous slot receiver who can take crossing routes for gashing YAC.
After Shipley, it gets a little thin. The Longhorns have all but given up on running the ball, and the young wide receiving corps (with the exception of Shipley, naturally) has sometimes left McCoy high and dry.
Consecutive graduations or early departures by Limas Sweed, Nate Jones, Jermichael Finley and Quan Cosby and injuries to three of Texas' tight end options have aggravated this burden.
Sophomore Malcolm Williams has stepped up in a limited role, but in a way, this is as one-dimensional a four-wide pass-heavy spread as you're going to see. The running game plays off of the passing threat via draws and traps, but there's very little heavy-set, grind-it-out running going on, probably because of the lack of athletic tight ends on the roster and the loss of underrated RB Chris Ogbonnaya to graduation.
It almost makes me give the offensive edge to TCU. The injury to senior RB Aaron Brown last year resulted in the stepped up play of junior Joseph Turner, and the result is a three-pronged back attack of Turner, Ed Wesley, and Matthew Tucker, all of whom have rushed for 450+ yards. Turner has posted an impressive 9 touchdowns this season and is the go-to man in the running game.
For a supposed pro-style pedigree, Dalton has shown terrific athleticism at the quarterback position, and has himself rushed for 438 yards and eight touchdowns. Dalton is also the sixth-most efficient passer in the country (!).
Dalton has also done a better job distributing the ball than McCoy. The Horned Frogs field four receivers flirting with 500 yards—Kerley, Jimmy Young, Bart Johnson, and the downfield threat, Antoine Hicks, who caught the game-winner against Clemson. Senior running back Ryan Christian has come out of the backfield and caught three passes for touchdowns, adding another dimension to the red zone offense of TCU.
This is a tough one to call. The passing game is an elusive mistress—it's usually always better to establish the run—but the Longhorns have all but proved they can win without the rush in a backwards Big XII. This is fairly atypical of Texas; they've usually been stalwart proponents of TCU's formula is time-tested, and Dalton provides that extra rushing dimension.
But until I see a Big XII team take a pass-heavy attack—and a one-dimensional one at that—and make it work against a non-Bix XII defense, I won't be convinced it's a sustainable enterprise. Dalton has shown he doesn't have need of a safety valve, and in my mind, that makes him the better passer.
I'm going Horned Frogs.
I really, really want these teams to play each other. It's the only way to properly decide who has the best team in Texas right now, especially since from a pure statistical and predictional standpoint, they draw so even in almost every part of the game.
The Longhorns pack the recruiting muscle, but the Horned Frogs have shown they can coach up talent to unforeseeable heights. Texas' boasts the Heisman candidate, but the Horned Frogs field a more efficient passer who doesn't give opposing defenses a blueprint for shutting down the offense. And TCU has the advantage of fielding a running game that doesn't just play off the pass.
I loathe ties, but the good news is, the evidence indicates one program is superior to the other, at least this year. Until Texas beats the Aggies at Ryan Field, the best team in Texas has a mascot that shoots blood from its eyes. Let's just hope they get a chance to show it.
TCU Horned Frogs, in an upset.