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Big 12 Championship Preview: Texas vs. Oklahoma State

One year ago the TCU Horned Frogs were gearing up to play Kansas State for a Big 12 title. This year didn’t go as planned, but fans should still tune in for this year’s iteration.

NCAA Football: Texas at Oklahoma State The Oklahoman-USA TODAY NETWORK via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Fun fact: Oklahoma State has won 6 of their last 8 matchups with Texas.

The last time the Texas Longhorns played the Oklahoma State Cowboys we were treated to a classic. Texas roared out to a 31-17 lead and looked like they were going to upset the #11 Cowboys in Stillwater. The Cowboys fought their way back into the game, scoring the go-ahead touchdown with 3 minutes to play. Texas quarterback Quinn Ewers would throw interceptions on the Longhorns last two drives and the upset bid fell short, losing 41-34. These teams are both in very different places than they were last year, but I hope we are treated to another classic on Saturday.

Texas is making their first Big 12 Championship game appearance since 2018 (the Longhorns lost to Oklahoma). Oklahoma State is not far removed from their last appearance which was in 2021 (the Cowboys lost to Baylor). I think it needs to be said - Mike Gundy is one of the most underrated coaches in the country. The job that he continues to do, considering the talent that is on campus, is outstanding.

Texas Offense vs Oklahoma State Defense

In my opinion, this matchup is what will ultimately decide the game. This Texas team is the most talented it has been in decades, and the Longhorns should be winning the Big 12 Championship this year. But if I’ve learned anything in my time following football it’s that you cannot count a Mike Gundy coached team out.

Texas comes into the game with the #14 offense in the country. Moving the ball has not been a problem for the Horns all year. Quinn Ewers has led an efficient passing attack that ranks 31st nationally, averaging 272 yards per game. Texas has 3 receiving options that will be playing in the NFL soon: receivers AD Mitchell and Xavier Worthy, and tight end Ja’Tavion Sanders. The 3 have combined to catch 143 of the Longhorns’ 257 passes for a total of 2,089 yards. For reference, Texas has thrown for 3,265 yards on the season. What makes this Texas offense so hard to defend is that committing resources to stopping any one of the top three pass catchers means you’re making it easier for another one to make plays. And that’s not even factoring in the run game. Oklahoma State has struggled with allowing yards this season. The Cowboys give up 423 yards per game (112th) and 251 of those yards come through the air, ranking 111th. Texas is going to get its yards in the game, there’s no question about that. The key for Oklahoma State will be to prevent explosive plays in the passing game. The problem is that the Cowboys haven’t been very good at that either, allowing 71 explosive plays on the year (good for 126th). However, if the Cowboys can prevent big plays, and force the Longhorns to execute in the red zone, then they may have a shot.

The run game has been what makes this Texas offense truly go this year. The loss of Jonathan Brooks in the TCU game was huge, but freshman running back CJ Baxter has played well since taking the lead role. The Longhorns rush for 188 yards per game which ranks 24th nationally, and on the other side the Cowboys allow 172 yards per game which is 102nd. Once again, I don’t expect Texas will have any trouble moving the ball in this game. However, one thing Oklahoma State really excels at is forcing fumbles. The Cowboys rank 18th nationally with 9 fumble recoveries on the year. Texas has lost 7 fumbles this season. If the Cowboys can recover one or two fumbles their chances of winning this game increase exponentially.

The real matchup to watch here, however, is on third downs and in the red zone. Texas has not been good on third down this year, converting just 36% of their attempts (93rd). The Cowboys allow a conversion on 40% of attempts, ranking 79th, but if the Cowboys can find a way to get off the field on third down this one could get interesting. Texas’ red zone struggles have been documented all season, and the Longhorns are now dead last in the nation in touchdown percentage when in the red zone. Just 44% of red zone attempts turn into a touchdown for this team. If Texas is able to score in the red zone this game could get ugly.

Oklahoma State Offense vs Texas Defense

This is where Gundy can have the most influence. I expect Oklahoma State to be incredibly aggressive in this game. I wouldn’t be surprised if they faked a punt, and they will absolutely look to go for it on fourth down. For reference, the Cowboys went for it on fourth down 4 times in their win over Oklahoma. If Gundy is aggressive, and it pays off, we could see a situation similar to Red River, where Steve Sarkisian starts to make questionable decisions.

I don’t remember the last time Texas was this good defensively, especially against the run. Texas held Rice to 27 rushing yards, Baylor had 60, Houston had 14, Kansas State had 30, TCU had 88, and Iowa State just 9! The Longhorns are 4th in the country in rushing yards allowed, at just 80 per game. Ollie Gordon has been one of the best running backs in the country, rushing for 1,580 yards on 245 carries, and those numbers are pretty much from 9 games. Oklahoma State has to find a way to run the ball in this game if they want to win, and I’m not sure they’re going to be able to do it.

Oklahoma State averages 265 yards a game through the air, good for 35th nationally. However, it’s worth noting that quarterback Alan Bowman has not done a good job protecting the football. The Texas Tech transfer has thrown 11 interceptions to just 10 touchdowns, and the Cowboys often look out of sync in the passing game. The Cowboys do have some weapons in the passing game. Receiver Brennan Presley has 746 yards on 76 catches. Rashod Owens has 646 on 49 catches. The Cowboys haven’t been particularly explosive in the pass game, and it doesn’t seem like they take many shots downfield. If they do take shots in this game, and connect, then it could be huge for the Cowboys’ chances. I’m not sure Bowman has room for even a single interception in this game. That’s how slim the margins are for this offense. The one thing they have done well in the passing game is preventing sacks. The Cowboys have allowed just 12 sacks this season (9th). If they’re clean in this area on Saturday it could go a long way.

Texas has done a good job of preventing explosive plays this year, and it’s because they understand their defensive identity. Texas ranks 1st nationally in red zone defense. The Longhorns allow a score on just 68% of possessions. They’re also 3rd in red zone touchdown percentage, allowing just 40% of red zone trips to result in 6. The Cowboys rank 46th in red zone scoring, and a disappointing 93rd in red zone touchdowns. If the Cowboys do get red zone possessions in this game, I fully expect Gundy’s mentality will be 6 points at all costs.

Final Thoughts

The outlook feels grim for the Cowboys in this one. The talent matchup tilts heavily in the favor of the Longhorns. Oklahoma State’s best recruiting class in the last 5 years ranked 23rd, according to On3. On the flip side, Texas’ worst class in that span ranked 15th. But this is college football. And Mike Gundy is Mike Gundy. And Texas is Texas. Until proven otherwise, anything is possible. I expect an entertaining game on Saturday as we close this chapter on the history of the Big 12, and I’ll be there in person to soak it all in.