Going into this game between the Texas Longhorns and the Nebraska Cornhuskers, there could be an argument for both sides in who has the most to gain and yes, lose. Nebraska still controls their own destiny in making it to Kansas City for the Big XII title game, while Texas needs Oklahoma to lose. Texas though, they still have a shot at a BCS game, something Nebraska would love after last year's 7-7 season. For each, there's everything to lose and gain, so for each, the climax of the year could be here.
In the coaches' poll, Nebraska is 9th, Texas is 16th. In the AP, NU stands 12th amongst the top 25 and again, Texas is 16th. But, in the all-important BCS, Nebraska is ranked 9th, while the Horns sit just on the outside of the top 15, looking in. There may only be wishful national title aspirations for this game, but there's little doubt that for either team, a New Year's Day game could be on the line.
Texas fans no doubt look at that as somewhat of a disappointment. Pre-season, some publications once again touted the Horns as being potentially the best team in the country, some saying that this was their year to shine.
Nebraska fans probably have a different view, looking at their current record of 7-1 as something close to a God-send, the season prior an abysmal if not apocalyptic failure. Heck, you would think that most Husker fans are sitting there, grinning ear to ear.
Texas isn't going to the national title game and Nebraska more than likely isn't either, but there are a lot more bowls out there that any team would consider themselves fortunate to attend. Ok, not a lot, but three certainly stand out. The Fiesta, the Orange and the Rose. And, if those don't do, the Holiday and Cotton are nothing to sneeze at either. The BCS bowls are the place to be for the hip and cool of the college world though and if either has a hope of making any one of them, this game is a "must-win".
That's nothing new for Frank Solich as he has been in that scenario since the season started, every single game perhaps dictating the extent of his coaching career. For Texas, recruiting national titles and seasons consisting of double-digit wins have saved Mack Brown, but there's only so much of getting pasted by the Sooners and biting it against a team you were supposed to beat that fans can take.
That's the great thing about college football. Every game is really a game you have to have in order to have any hope of making one of those prestigious bowls at the end of the year. If you are lucky enough to have a nice strength of schedule, you can afford maybe one loss early on, but two losses seals your fate and losing now (regardless of rank) puts the R.I.P. on your BCS aspirations for 2003.
Ok, so much for what this game means, how about the game itself?
First, it's on the road for Nebraska. And oh yes, Texas is ranked. If you are a Husker fan, that's instantaneous nausea, Solich's record not very good on the road and if that road game is against a ranked team, it's down right terrible. 1-8 if you want that in numbers. Mack Brown at home is a bit of a different story, Texas just having a 20-game winning-streak at Memorial snapped just this year by Arkansas.
Ok, the coaches and while Solich's record on the road isn't good and his record against Texas (1-3) isn't all that great either, the newly revamped Husker team has some definite areas where they can boast.
Man for man, few (if any) teams in the country can say that they are as talented or are more talented than the Texas Longhorns. Such is the by-product of some killer recruiting classes over the last 5 years. With that being said, you can't avoid the saying of "doing less with more", whereas Nebraska can be looked at quite the other way, sporting just one loss on the season, in the top five in most defensive categories and they are doing it with only a couple players on the entire team that you could label, "stars". On both sides of the ball overall, Nebraska has to have the edge in this one, because as Frank Solich might say, this year, Nebraska really is "getting it done" and on a budget in talent to boot.
To the offense we go and sad to say for both squads, the superlatives are few and far between. Both have had their struggles this year, Texas fighting through youth, Nebraska fighting through a lack of an effective passing game.
What has ultimately saved Texas from having a worse season thus far then they have had is having all their tough games at home, their competition on the road being, Rice, Iowa State and Baylor. The game against Oklahoma was in the Cotton Bowl. That and a very gutty performance against Kansas State, the Horns pulling out a 24-20 victory.
Nebraska has had a pretty favorable schedule as well, playing all but two games at home, but the bottom line for NU's success this year has been and will be defense. Bo Pelini's defense leads the country or is close to the lead in a several defensive categories, not the least of which is turnovers gained.
That's not to say that each doesn't have weapons on offense though, because both have some pretty effective weapons or I should say, potentially effective. Jammal Lord ran roughshod over Texas last year, tallying over 240 yards rushing all by himself. To be honest, Lord may take the blame for the late-game interception, but it was because of him that NU was in the game in the first place. Texas knows how deadly he is firsthand.
Nebraska also does have some very capable receivers, guys that don't get the pub other receivers get because their roles are often quite different from that of a say, Roy Williams. Block, block, block, catch a ball, block and block some more. That's not going to get you a lot of headlines outside of Lincoln, but fans of the Big Red love it because that's what they are supposed to do.
Running the ball, NU has done well at times, Nebraska amongst the nation's best in yards per game on the ground. Yeah, that's typical NU, but believe it or not, I think the Nebraska coaches wouldn't have cried too much if they knew it was going to be even marginally worse than that before the year began.
This was to be the first year of the "Cotton Era" in that new offensive coordinator, Barney Cotton would bring his "pass on first down" mentality to Nebraska, the Huskers finally finding some balance in what was a sorely unbalanced attack the season before. It hasn't worked out so well. While Jammal Lord has improved in his passing efficiency, it hasn't been enough that Cotton is comfortable with relying on it. NU actually passed the ball just 6 times the entire game against Penn State. Well, that's because they were running over Penn State, so why not?
Another thing that has hampered the NU offense this year is the offense itself, sometimes it's own worst enemy. Turnovers, penalties and mental mistakes in the Red Zone, all have equaled some offensively dismal performances, NU again having to rely on it's defense, the offense seemingly doing all it could to stop itself.
The vaunted running game this year is running back by committee, coaches willing to go with the hot hand. Who that is probably won't depend so much on the back, but who's hitting the holes the best that day. Josh Davis, David Horne and Cory Ross are all capable runners, but who's getting most of the snaps will depend more on who's seeing the field the best during any one contest.
What Texas brings is what they usually bring to the game. A whole lot of talent, led by pre-season Heisman contender, Roy Williams. He's the prototypical receiver that gets drafted into the NFL, early enough, those players are usually at the draft in person. He's good, but so is his teammate, B.J. Johnson, who if not for Williams, would probably be a pre-season darkhorse Heisman contender in his own right. He doesn't have the frame Williams does, but he's definitely got the ability, two guys that NU's defense will have to keep an eye on throughout the entire game.
Running the ball, another kid that came out of high school with a bunch of stars by his name, Cedric Benson is expected to carry the load for the Horns. Benson has not had a year that any would have expected, his longest carry on the season being just 20 yards against Rice. His best game came against Iowa State, running for 140 yards and scoring 3 touchdowns. Yes, I know, it was Iowa State. If he isn't in there, Selvin Young will spell him more than likely, a capable, but recently unused weapon for the Longhorn attack.
At the QB position, that's where it gets interesting for Texas. Oh yeah, there's the typical talent back there, but it's not coupled with any major degree of experience. Chance Mauck is the returning "veteran" and actually, his stats aren't that bad. Mauck has managed to throw for 14 scores, while tossing only 1 interception. I don't know about you, but that's a remarkable ratio. With that being said though, the start for this game is expected to go to Vince Young, the phenom freshman out of the Lonestar state, loaded with potential and realized it this year, if only sporadically. Young's ratio is not quite that of Mauck's, Vince tossing two TD strikes, while giving 3 to the other guys. His effectiveness will be outside of the pocket though, a very effective runner in space, especially for someone 6'5". He's young and makes mistakes indicative of the untested, but again, his potential for the big play is significant.
All in all when you look at it, talent aside, there doesn't seem to be a major disparity between each in what they "might" do during any one game. There lies with each unit the capability of putting together some pretty impressive results. Ok, now to the talent. Yes, Texas has it and though they don't usually use that bevy of stars all that well, it swings the pendulum over to their side, giving them a slight edge on that side of the ball.
No lengthy analysis needed here when it comes to defense, because NU wins this one going away. Texas has the talent once again, but Nebraska has the players. More accurately, Nebraska has the coaches who know what to do with those players on the field. The statistics bear that out glaringly.
NU's linebacking core, one of the best in the country, led by JUCO transfer, Demorrio Williams, who is a threat no matter where he is on the field. In the secondary, Josh Bullocks leads the way with a nation-leading 7 interceptions. Nebraska's defense leads the conference in every single defensive category, save one, pass defense where they are ranked 2nd. Oh yeah, and the triumvirate of Rashaun Woods, Tatum Bell and Josh Fields that everyone is lauding right now for their statistical prowess, Woods didn't even get 50 yards receiving against NU, Bell didn't get to the century-mark on the ground and Fields, he didn't even manage 100 yards passing in the air.
‘Nuff said here.
In special teams, if you want to talk Punting, Nebraska takes it, leading the conference in avg., Kyle Larson proving he's all that and a bag of chips almost every opportunity he gets. Make no mistake on how valuable he is to Nebraska, his propensity at putting the ball inside the opponent's 20 yard line, almost scary.
As for field goals, NU's David Dyches is good, but he's also very young, having set some positive records this year and one that has to be a record on the other side, hitting the up-right two times in a row. Dyches is 11-15 on the year in field goals and perfect in extra points.
Dusty Mangum is the starting kicker for Texas and he's not really seen a lot of opportunities to score. Just 4 attempts on the year, Mangum is perfect, but hasn't kicked a ball from farther out than 31 yards. He's missed one extra point in 37 attempts and if need be, will be spelled by David Pino, who hasn't attempted a field goal on the year, but has kicked in 8 extra points in 9 opportunities.
In the return department, NU is better at kickoff returns and Texas is better at punt returns. Josh Davis is averaging around 24 yards a return, that placing him amongst the top dozen in the country. Texas is like Davis, amongst the top 12 in the country, but his is in the punt return department, averaging 14.7 per. Neither has taken it all the way this year in their respective strengths as well.
When you look at this game on paper, I have to say that it's hard to come out with a clear-cut winner. I'm not even sure you can. Texas has a much more effective offense than NU if you go by the stats, but NU's defense trumps that of Texas by a ways.
I think that when it comes down to it, I'll simply have to go with what I have seen from NU and what brief bits I have seen from Texas this year.
Texas has been weak against the run this year. To hear that, an NU fan would light up, eyes glistening with anticipation. Add to that the performance of Jammal Lord last year and yeah, there's serious reason to believe that Nebraska can run it right at the Horns and have a certain degree of success.
The problem here is, nobody Texas has played this year or will play runs the ball with an almost frustratingly unbearable predictability as Nebraska, due to the fact that in the passing game, NU has been less than efficient.
Texas has played teams that to a degree gave them a reason to not expect the run on 3 out of every 4 plays. They won't have to worry about that against NU. And, what's worse is that when it comes to depth, Texas' D-line is markedly less shallow than NU's O-line. On either side of the ball, this game will be a battle of attrition, something NU doesn't have the depth to win against a team with good quality depth on the interior line.
And this is really the bottom line in that what NU's offense can do against Texas will decide who wins this game. If Nebraska can get out early and put some points on the board, either from drives or turnovers caused by the defense, they've got a shot at taking it down in Austin.
If though this game becomes a stagnated battle of back and forth, Texas wins in the end.
Though my confidence in NU's defense is astronomically high, I harken back to the Holiday Bowl of 1998 when an NU defense was all but crushing an Arizona offense for 3 quarters, allowing nothing but field goals. They folded though only because they were on the field way too long.
An offense that simply couldn't put drives together until it was too late in the game didn't offer even a great defense like they had enough time to figure out where the oxygen bottle was, much less use the thing.
That's my worry here and as I pick and prod at possibilities, I keep coming back to the notion that NU's offense this year, against Texas will end up doing the same thing.
NU's one chance here outside of the offense breaking out of it's funk is that they not only get turnovers early in this game, but either score directly off of them or get them deep in Texas territory. If that doesn't happen, I think NU's offense will either not be able to sustain drives or find some way to take themselves out of drives, i.e., penalties or turnovers.
In the end, I think the Blackshirts will be game, but will be out there for too much of it, resulting in an eventual spurt from Texas late that will give Solich yet another loss on the road.
It hurts, it stinks, I wish I could see otherwise, but against even reasonably good defenses, the Nebraska offense has shown itself to be it's own worse enemy.
Final Score: Texas 27 - Nebraska 13
Steve Ryan can be reached at email@example.com or 402-730-5619