The TCU-Texas Thanksgiving game is becoming quite a fun tradition. Like some of the FoW readers, I have strong ties to Texas--and if they don't have ties to Texas, perhaps another Big 12 school. So having this game on Thanksgiving means a lot to me. It means that I get to have a Thanksgiving with both my family and friends. And then we all get to watch the same football game together.
I view this rivalry as a friendly one, and I don't think I'd ever want to play Baylor on Thanksgiving. In an ideal world, these schools would swap locations every year. But I'm a realist and I know that won't happen for quite some time, if ever. All I can hope is that the TCU-Texas Thanksgiving matchup has a little more magic than the Texas-Texas Tech Thanksgiving matchup. So in the spirit of Thanksgiving, and a mostly friendly rivalry, I sat down with Barking Carnival and did a little Q&A.
Congrats on the win against Oklahoma State. What does it mean to get to that 6th win and become bowl eligible in Charlie Strong's first year?
Bowl eligibility doesn’t sound like much, but somewhere between the start of Week Two (when we found out that David Ash, Dominic Espinosa and our starting offensive tackles were all off the table) and the end of the K-State road shutout the simple idea of a postseason berth became a fanciful chimera. It’s a massive credit to Strong, the staff and the players that they were able to rally mentally and emotionally as well as build around an elite pass defense and developing run game to fight their way back.
The Big 12 has had three different Champions the past three years. And four if you count Oklahoma's "shared" title. Needless to say, this is a very different, wide open Big 12. This is as much as I'll toot our horn--but with our offensive finally finding a groove, Baylor likely to be good for awhile, Tech likely to rebound, West Virginia headed in the right direction, and Kansas State being Kansas State, the Big 12 will likely have 7 or 8 competitive teams a year. Do you think this hurts the 3-5 year plan, or will Texas, and possibly Oklahoma, return the dominance they had in the 2000s?
The Big XII is a really interesting league – outside of the fertile recruiting grounds of the state of Texas it’s a league with little to no geographic/demographic advantages, but its per-capita coaching acumen has dominated any other league in the nation. If you’re projecting the ten- or twenty-year future of a league then you have to consider coaching acumen a shaky foundation rather than, say, sitting athwart the rich talent veins of the South or the West Coast.
But with top coaches like Patterson, Briles and Snyder unlikely to uproot for the next half-decade (we’ll assume that whatever dark forces sustain Snyder will continue to flow over that time period) you’re looking at a league that should be very, very competitive in the near term. It’s hard to imagine that over the next decade, Texas will hit the win percentage that it did in the heyday of the early-mid 2000’s or that OU will replicate its conference championship percentage that it’s enjoyed over Stoops’ tenure to date. What Texas fans are hoping for is to contend for conference titles in every season once Strong’s program is fully up and running, bag them at a 40% clip or so and then make noise in the playoffs. We’ll expect to face a tougher road in the conference as a whole, but the simple fact that we won’t be shitting the bed, walls and ceiling fan in the Cotton Bowl in early October any more gives us a lot of optimism in terms of bagging some more conference crowns.
I have to say, it's been fun watching y'all. I'm not anti-Mack Brown, but the new, more defensive-minded, Texas has something very likable about it. From your perspective, are Texas fans all in on Strong? Have they accepted that this is a 3-5 year plan?
By and large, Strong’s approach seems to be winning people over. There are some die-hard Mackolytes who, unsurprisingly, have the same understanding of football context and cause/effect that Mack did (which is to say not much) and think in wildly simplistic terms like, "We almost won the (pitifully, absurdly weak) Big XII last year and now we’re struggling – Charlie sucks! Bring back Mack!" There are also a dedicated collection of Sabanistas, Morans and other folks who are convinced they had the perfect coaching candidate to put Texas in playoff contention Year One, and who petulantly poor-mouth Strong at every opportunity.
But for the most part, the fans who wanted a real football man who would instill a culture of toughness, accountability and maximum effort are getting exactly what they hoped for. A lot of us are still taking a wait-and-see approach as to our offensive ceiling under Shawn Watson, but given the absurd upheaval he’s had to fight through at the OL and QB positions he’s won some admiration from folks who know what they’re looking at. Our ceiling over the next couple of seasons will be determined by how well Watson can coach up a QB depth chart that was absurdly mismanaged under Brown as well as bringing in a couple of difference-making dudes at the skill positions, but we’ve got a ton of faith that the run game under Joe Wickline and the defense under Strong and Bedford will be rock solid.
Last question on this. Texas A&M, despite two fairly mediocre seasons, is still killing it on the recruiting end. The generation of kids wanting to be Vince Young may be done, can Strong give the fans what they want doing it his way, with his recruits? He produced some of the best defenses at Louisville and Florida, are Texas fans 'okay' with the idea of maybe never having another Colt or Vince as long as they're winning?
There may never be another Vince or another Colt, since those were two dudes with absolutely unique skill sets. It’s possible that Texas goes through a ten- or twelve-year run under Strong and never has a true Heisman finalist at QB (and both dudes were phenomenally jobbed in ’05 and ’08, btw.) The good news on that front is that Texas will no longer be operating under the QB-as-all-encompassing-savior mode on the offensive side of the ball.
After 15 years of Greg Davis calling a 100% stolen selection of run plays and showing zero understanding of how to effectively operate a run game outside of built-in constraint from an all-time QB or an NFL All-Pro (Jamaal Charles) outrunning everyone to the corner, a high-functioning OL-driven run game is eagerly, eagerly anticipated. A capable, competent trigger man and at least one difference-making wideout will be key ingredients, but fans will come around to more of a smashmouth ball-control style if it’s scoring efficiently while teeing up a Top 5 defense to play rested and on the right side of the 50 yard line.
I'm not saying Swoopes won't be great. He's improved tremendously this year. Do you think Swoopes will have that gear next year to start winning big games? The fans?
Swoopes’ growth has been slow, halting and frequently frustrating in some respects. But when you consider that he could barely complete a pass in the Spring and was frequently mentioned as a conversion candidate to tight end, his growth can also be seen as borderline phenomenal. Coming out of a 2A program, undergoing an unforgivable shirt burn as a freshman and getting thrown into the fire this season have all combined to put Swoopes behind the developmental eight ball. He’s already got great size and strength, decent long speed and a pro-caliber arm, and he’s taken great strides in areas like short/intermediate accuracy and pocket management.
He still struggles when you show him unfamiliar pictures in coverage (which doesn’t bode well with Patterson coming to town), has a first three steps that look like Treebeard and extremely inconsistent production in the Read Option game. Most of that is coachable, and given the strides he’s made this season I wouldn’t bet against him coming out and putting up a second- or third-team All Conference season in 2015. But that’s far from a certainty – right now with a talented true frosh in Jerrod Heard waiting in the wings, what I’m hoping for is a best-man-wins QB competition in the spring and summer that pushes both guys to raise their games.
What does Swoopes have to do Thursday win?
Far and away the most important will be avoiding crippling turnovers – he’s done a pretty good job of taking care of the ball this season, but if he blows reads and gets some balls jumped by one of Patterson’s patented robber looks then things are going to go downhill in a hurry for Texas. He’ll have to win the rollout game that’s been his bread and butter this year while also being accurate on his downfield shots and giving the run game some help with some effective Read Option keeps. That’s a lot on his plate against a really upper-echelon defense, but the hope on this side is that some elements of the game are slowing down for him and the variety of zone coverages that beat him in Manhattan have at least moved him up the learning curve for what y’all will throw at him.
What's the general perception of this game and of TCU? It drew the lowest crowd for Texas two years ago--even less than the New Mexico and Wyoming games--will it be different this year given where both teams are?
The Athletic Department has already been sending out discount ticket notices, so the overall gate may not be…robust. I think that has less to do with the perception of TCU – or even Texas – and more to do with the fact that it just doesn’t make sense to play on Thanksgiving every year at home. The NFL has fully conquered the football landscape on Turkey Day, and fighting that tide just doesn’t make sense. A Friday game against a rotating set of opponents would be great – or hell, even a home-and-home on Thanksgiving night would be an improvement. But there are a ton of Texas fans who simply aren’t willing to give up their family time EVERY YEAR and make it to Austin for anything less than a true marquee matchup (i.e. Notre Dame caliber) or an undefeated season on the line.
How does Texas win this game? How do they lose it?
Texas can certainly win this, but there are a lot more scenarios where they lose it. Losing it could happen if Texas’ linebackers fail their dual-threat QB test against Boykin the way they did against BYU and K-State, if Swoopes gets baffled by coverages and turns it over, if our kickoff man gives y’all any chance to bring it out against our incredibly poor kick coverage, or if Texas misses too many steps in coverage against TCU’s elite speed at WR.
The winning formula for Texas pretty much goes A) continue to grind out chain-moving runs against six-man fronts and break two or three long runs with Johnathan Gray and Daje Johnson, B) have John Harris win in the air while getting plus production from Jaxon Shipley and (faint hope here) Marcus Johnson, and C) confuse Boykin with an array of coverage looks and frustrate him by keeping him in the pocket.
And finally. The great American Pastime comes into play. Care to give a score prediction?
If this game was played ten times I don’t think Texas wins five of them, but I’m going to go with my winning formula and say Texas 24, TCU 23 as our long-awaited revenge for 1961 finally comes to fruition.