We're less than 60 days from college football once again joining our lives. It's both the most fun, and most stressful time of the year. The highs of 2014 were high--Kansas State, Texas, Ole Miss, Oklahoma--and the lows; Kansas, and of course, Baylor, made me want to get sucked into a board game and leave my life for about thirty years.
So starting now, and throughout the rest of the summer, which means until Labor Day, we'll be running through and giving you all of our #Big12HotTakes.
Last Time They Met (2014)
Since joining the Big 12, TCU has a 2-1 edge on the team that has dominated the conference for so long. There are plenty of reasons for this. It could take a novel's-worth of words to explain why Texas and Oklahoma are no longer the 1-2 death punch, however, while they've had their own individual setbacks, teams trending upwards like Baylor and TCU aren't easing the "down times" for the Horns and Sooners. To justify Texas' fans concerns, and if it were possible, the 2009 Texas team would smother last year's team, and probably even this year's. That's not to say Texas was a bad team last year, however. Their defense was top class, but the team suffered severely from a lack of points in a league in which you need to score in bulk, regardless of how secure your defense may be. TCU learned this in 2013, and Texas accepted it in Charlie Strong's first year.
Last year, a TCU team that had fired on all cylinders, yes even in the Baylor game, was coming into the Thanksgiving game after their worst performance of the year at Kansas. #HotTake extraordinaire Clay Travis picked a Texas team who'd been playing better at that point than they had all season. I mean, I guess it was a cool pick. The Horns had won three straight against Texas Tech--whom they haven't lost to since 2008--West Virginia--who played poorly on the road all year--and one against an Oklahoma State whose offensive had an identity crisis to rival an angsty teenager. To be fair to Texas, and Clayton (to a degree), it wasn't a terrible upset pick. It was however, the trendy pick of the week and one that was supported through gut rather than logic. And that's fine. Texas forces a Boykin mistake early, and who knows, maybe it's a 21-19 Texas win to make a perfect post-Turkey Day dessert. Even just mentioning upset would've given Travis, as well as a handful of others, a Reagan over Walter Mondale* level of assurance.
Though the first half favored the Frogs, it wasn't pretty for either side. However, TCU opened it up in the second half both on offense and defense. Despite nothing terribly jaw-dropping from Boykin's end statistically (20/33, 233, 3 TDs (2P, 1R), and 1 INT), he dazzled on the eye test.
What dazzled the most, however, was the TCU defense. Aside from one great bubble screen, the secondary was flawless and forced Swoopes to throw 4 picks. The rush defense was just as stellar as it held Texas to sub-100 yards; even more impressive was that 61 of those yards were from Swoopes as Malcolm Brown and Johnathan Gray were held to 29 yards amid 21 carries. I should also mention Brown had all 29 of those yards. So yeah, TCU was pretty much in top form that game.
Texas in 2015
Year 2 will not be as important as Year 3 for Charlie Strong, but if he wants to cool off the massive amount of heat he'll incur next summer if 2015 goes like 2014, Texas' change better start now. This isn't a slight, but somewhat to their credit and the Longhorns' solidarity, their boosters fans are impatient. Is Tyrone Swoopes the answer? No, probably not. And what I saw from Jerrod Heard's spring game provided me with the same conclusion--though he's a hair better than Swoopes.
It's kind of amazing Texas can't find a good quarterback. They have found neither a playmaker like the contemporary Trevone Boykin, or a (and I hate this word) game-manager like AJ McCarron was a few years ago at Alabama. Texas doesn't need a Boykin or a Manziel, they just need someone who's competent and can work the new spread offense they've implemented in the offseason. I'm not so sure going to the spread next year will solve all of their problems, though it's a step in the right direction. It's sort of like buying a dog when you're sad; dogs are awesome, but they're also a lot of work. Once Texas does find this person, whoever and wherever they may be, they'll be back to competing for a title. Texas can play spoiler in 2015 and maybe even get a Cotton Bowl bid with superior defenseand running back charm.
While a destination like the Cotton Bowl is completely plausible--I'll get to this more later and it's something I'll bring up more times than readers will like this summer-- in the Big 12, you have to score points, because the teams you're playing are going to score points. It sounds silly and obvious, yet while a defense as brilliant as Texas is so good at stopping the bleeding, you're still useless as a title contender unless you can make some wounds too. And that's just not happening in Austin right now.
Texas' defense under Strong, especially from a pass-defense point of view, has seen a return to form in the DBU days of pre-2010. Texas jumped from 5th in 2013 (224.2 pass yds allowed/game) to 1st in 2014 (184.2). Their 2014 average is the lowest since Nebraska (153.6) in 2011--that same year, Texas finished 2nd with 161.6. Sometimes, like in TCU's case (which we'll explore at some point this summer) there's a discrepancy in Pass Defense Per Game, versus Pass Defensive Efficiency per game. Put simply for now: if you're a team that historically defends the run well like the Frogs, you're probably going to get more passes thrown at you, hence--more yards. However, pass defense efficiency allows this to become more transparent, and therefore can say whether or not a secondary is more or less legitimate than the passing yards they let up per game. Texas, especially now under Strong, does both of these well, and will more than likely continue to do them well for a very long time.
Strong's unit will be fierce in 2015 as well. It's replacing some greats (Malcom Brown and Jordan Hicks, for starters) but will nevertheless be one of the best in the conference. Should they get after Boykin early and play with the physical aggression that Strong's harboring in Austin they certainly have a chance to make this a game. Should Texas win, it'll likely be because their defense figured out Boykin and the offense, or at least how to contain it. But maybe it's not even that hard; maybe it's just forcing TCU into a few uncharacteristic mistakes. TCU's offense is not impossible to contain and prevent from scoring 30 points, and if Texas' defense finds a way to do that, it's a game. Keep the Frogs from scoring 20 and they just might win. However, whether it's because their offense forces it or they just simply can't keep up because the defense isn't being allowed much time to rest and Texas gives up more than 30 points, that might be the time to get the car warmed up. Although it'll be so nice in October, you can probably just settle with rolling your windows down.
Now where it gets tricky for Texas, and why more people are holding on the 'Horns, is the non-emergence and importance of a quarterback (which is becoming a recurring theme as we try to dissect this fascinating league). Colt McCoy's departure has undeniably been the bane of Texas' football existence since 2009, and therefore the need for a quarterback similar-- not necessarily in style, but more so in efficiency-- has been what Texas has truly been missing. This isn't news, whether you're a Texas fan or not.
Per Bill Connelly's piece from last week:
It goes without saying that this isn't actual money, and that investing a team's season isn't the same in investing in a school. Sure, Texas is the leading brand of the collegiate sphere, and whether or not Steve Patterson helps or hurts that in the long run remains to be seen. Strong wasn't really his brain child. Every blogger from my old house off of South Lamar to a Los Angeles bungalow had that prediction. Despite that, everyone should be all in a Strong, at least for now. The former Louisville and Florida defensive savant is not improving Texas, on the field (at least not offensively), but as far as the parameters we can't really measure in numbers, like culture, Texas has taken a big step forward for a program that felt deflated and snowblind since they played Alabama for a National Championship in January of 2010.
Texas shouldn't face as much pressure against TCU's defense as they did last year. But that's also a testament to how near perfect Gary's unit was last year. Texas, led by Swoopes or Heard, just won't have the firepower to keep up with TCU even though their defense should keep the Frogs in check as good as anyone all year. Johnathan Gray has been far from a bust for Texas, but hasn't lived up to the near impossible expectations that some fans put on him. He's a terrific back, sure, and while it's safe to say he'll pick up more yards than he did last year, he's not going to beat TCU by himself and his supporting cast won't help much either.
Score Prediction: TCU 35, Texas 14
This could be a pretty boring game. And not in the sense of say, the Tech game was last year where even as a TCU fan you kind of were secretly saying "make it stop...he's had enough". Unless they're a few onions short of a casserole, just about every Texas fan will tell you that the offense has a long way to go. Some of these points in my 100% subjective predicted score assume that TCU will benefit from at least one Longhorn turnover. And despite a very talented Texas defensive unit that should make it a challenge for TCU at first, the 'Horns will get too tired from (a) TCU's rate of play and (b) Texas' less than mediocre offense that won't give the defense any time to rest.
While the TCU offense should have a great game, it's not going to be a stats Mecca. In all likelihood, Texas will have one, possibly two good chances, to make this a competitive battle off of a turnover. However, it'll come down to their offense to make that happen and respond, and right now, I just don't see that happening.