If you've been a TCU fan for a while, you know how much influence Texas has had in our sporting lives over the years. They were one of the focal points of the breakup of the Southwest Conference, they were one of the focal points of the breakup of the Big 12 (which almost led to a beefed up Mountain West/Big East, depending on your timeline), and of course, they were the program that had to rubber stamp TCU's admission into the Big 12. And of course, it was Texas superblog Burnt Orange Nation's owner that helps supervise the college side of SBNation, as well as scouting out one of the commenters over at Mountain West Connection to write for the new TCU blog they were putting together. And so now, here we are, fully established both in SBNation and in the Big 12, and we once more turn to the big dogs of both of them for information ahead of today's game against the Longhorns. Executive editor of Burnt Orange Nation Wescott Eberts was kind enough to answer some questions for us, as well as peppering me with a number of questions of his own which you can find here.
Hawk: Let's start with a bit of color. It's year three of the Texas-always-at-home-on-Thanksgiving experiment that replaced the home and home arrangement with Texas A&M. Though no current Big 12 team is likely to replace the Aggies (not a bad thing in many respects), would you rather see a new permanent rival in the Thanksgiving day spot (whether it be TCU, Tech, Baylor or even Notre Dame or someone) or do you like the current always home arrangement?
Wescott: While I do think that the intensity of the rivalries with Texas Tech and especially a TCU program that played in a different conference than Texas for so long has reduced the impact of the Thanksgiving game for Longhorns fans and on the national scene as Texas has struggled as a program, I'm happy with the current arrangement.
Hard to really complain too much about playing at home on Thanksgiving. I don't travel for the holiday any more and it's sometimes hard to find someone to host me for dinner, so at least for me, it gives me somewhere to be and people with whom to spend the day.
Hawk: Despite a bit of a shaky start against BYU, the Texas defense has acquitted itself quite well this year, playing at a high level while the offense slowly started to catch up. What went wrong against BYU, and do you think the new-and-improved Trevone Boykin can lead a similar offensive performance?
Wescott: Some of it was that Taysom Hill was simply playing at an unbelievable level in the second half of that game. Some of it was the team just generally not being ready to play. Some of it was the defensive coaching staff still searching to find the right coverages and fronts to use.
The Texas coaches have sounded pretty concerned about Boykin this week and I think it's for good reason. Other than Hill, he'll be the most athletic quarterback the Longhorns have faced this season and certainly possesses better speed. The BYU quarterback had 99 yards against Charlie Strong's defense in that game, but it's hard to see Boykin putting up as many because the group has improved so much since that game and because it's more unusual for the TCU quarterback to gain that many yards on the ground than it was for Hill.
Hawk: Quarterback Tyrone Swoopes has a ton of raw talent, but nothing I've seen from him so far has me particularly scared about him as a passer (yet). If the game comes down to Swoopes regularly having to make throws downfield to beat TCU, how confident are you that he can be successful?
Wescott: Much like the Texas team before the last two games, it's hard to say which Swoopes will show up. At times he looks like he can command the offense at a high level and stretch the field vertically, as he did during stretches against Oklahoma, Texas Tech, and Oklahoma State. At other times, he can suffer from miscommunication, poor pocket presence, and bouts of inaccuracy.
The Longhorns were able to get vertical in the passing game against pretty much the same secondary last year and the Horned Frogs have given up some big plays this year, so I think that there will be opportunities, but with where Swoopes is in his development right now, it's impossible for anyone to say which Swoopes will show up. I suspect that the coaches and the quarterback feel the same way.
And after taking a step forward against Oklahoma State, the trend this season has been to take a step back. Texas fans are hoping that won't happen because it will be extremely difficult to win if Swoopes played like he did for stretches against West Virginia.
Hawk: I'll admit it right now, DT Malcom Brown scares me -- his use of hands and explosiveness into the backfield are monstrous. How afraid should I be of the rest of the Longhorn defensive front, though? Are they mostly set up by Brown's initial disruption, or do they have a bit of scary talent in their own rights?
Wescott: Frankly, Malcom Brown should terrify you, the TCU offensive coaching staff, and the interior of the TCU defensive line. With all due respect to Paul Dawson, he's not among the finalists for the Butkus Award and Brown is a finalist for the Outland Trophy (best interior lineman) and the Nagurski (best defensive player). This wasn't really part of your question, but it's worth saying that Brown prepares and competes extraordinarily well for someone with as much raw talent as he has -- he's one of those rare players who has managed to maximize his incredible talent.
The other big name to know might be a little surprising -- sophomore defensive tackle Hassan Ridgeway, who is putting up similar numbers to Brown, but isn't getting the recognition and is doing it while playing out of position at nose tackle. The quickness and strength of the two players is similar as Ridgeway works to continue improving his condition so he can play as hard as Brown does every snaps.
And there's also senior defensive end Cedric Reed, who has had a rather quiet season other than a huge game against West Virginia. The numbers are down for him across the board, in large part because he isn't getting the same opportunities as a pass rusher since he works inside a lot in the three-down fronts that the Longhorns have been using. Still, he's a threat to force a fumble or get a big sack at any time.
The presence of Brown has been big for attracting attention, but it's not the primary reason that Texas is commonly regarded as having the best defensive front in the conference (Mike Gundy thinks so at least) -- these players are all talented in their own rights. One thing to watch, however -- when playing a running quarterback like Boykin who can be so dangerous when he breaks contain that the defensive line for Texas will have to be disciplined in their rushing lanes to keep him inside the pocket, a strategy that will reduce the ability to shoot gaps and go for quick sacks.
Hawk: Charlie Strong was the coach I least wanted to see in Austin this season, as I figured that even Nick Saban would never be able to live up to the expectations that a 9 million (or whatever giant number) a year contract would entail, and if Texas took Art Briles, Baylor would die -- there's definite upside there. He's done a lot of work to clear out a lot of the famed Mack Brown softness in the locker room, and hasn't been shy about disciplining players who do the wrong thing either -- what does the Texas fanbase make of Strong now, and how long do you think it will take before he has Texas contending for conference championships again (if you think he will, that is)?
Wescott: There may have been some fringe elements of the fanbase that didn't like him during the slow start to the season, but I think most rational Texas fans understood that it was going to take some time. And there have been huge improvements over the last several weeks in terms of execution and overall confidence. Frankly, it's been a big difference, and that has probably most of the crazies back in off the ledge.
I think if the Longhorns are in a position to win or compete for the Big 12 title in 2016, that's going to be a problem. The 2015 class won't quite be Strong's first class since recruiting was already advanced there when he arrived last spring, but there will be enough of his players and enough remaining talent that it should all start coming together, especially with time to develop some more stability at the quarterback position.
It's going to be tough to replace guys like Reed and, most likely, Brown along the defensive line, as well as the linebacker, so I'm not sure that 2015 is going to be the year that the Longhorns truly compete for a championship. By 2016, however, I think Strong will have the program in the right spot and I say that with a pretty high degree of confidence.
Hawk: Finally, we come down to prediction time. With both teams coming off a bye week (a long awaited one in TCU's case), we should see TCU and Texas both playing at their very best this Thanksgiving. Who do you think wins and why?
Wescott: I'm buying your arguments on why the Horned Frogs played so poorly in Lawrence the other week and it sounds like the rest should go a long way with that team, so as much as I think that Texas can hang with TCU, I think Boykin's improvement and the defensive front for the Horned Frogs are ultimately too much. The margin for error for this Texas team is still so small and TCU opportunistic enough to force some critical mistakes. I'm going to call this one 31-24 for the visiting team, as much as I'm tempted to make what is becoming a pretty trendy upset pick.
Hawk: There you have it folks. My thanks to Wes for the fun exchange, and I do always love it when someone from another team tells me I've convinced them about something. For all things Texas Longhorns, make sure you drop by Burnt Orange Nation!