This is the first time we've ever listed a matchup with someone who wasn't on the field. But this matchup bears listing anyway. Diaz's defense is supposed to be the best of all worlds: a scheme that's simple enough for players to learn and execute it well, but with enough of a complex look to be confusing to others. In that way, it would see that McHargue would play right into Diaz's hands. He's an instinctive quarterback, somewhat of a gunslinger with some moxie. And that could be dangerous against a defense that shows pressure from one way while dropping off and pressuring from elsewhere. The Longhorn defense could use a big start in causing turnovers, and, despite McHargue's low turnover numbers (he threw just one interception in five games last year), this might be the right game to do it. On the other hand, if McHargue can calmly play his hand and take what the defense gives him, the Owls do have the offensive weapons to make a dent in a still-adjusting Texas defense.
We've all heard stories about how stacked this defensive end grope could be. This past week, several players compared Okafor to former Longhorn great Brian Orakpo in terms of his ability to get after the quarterback. This will be his first chance to truly cut loose and do so against an offensive tackle he doesn't see on a daily basis. And ditto for Jeffcoat, Wilson, Johnson and potentially true freshman Cedric Reed. For their part, Hicks and Parish are solid, experienced players with 54 career starts between them (that's more than the entire Texas offensive line combined). Diaz has talked about how defensive end is the most important position in his defense, and here's a chance for the Longhorn group to prove themselves against a steady pair of offensive tackles.
The loss of Demarco Cobbs to injury means that the Longhorns will be without their best coverage linebacker, and the player Texas turned to in its "big nickel" sets. In its "small nickel" set, Kenny Vaccaro will serve as the nickel back. But when the Longhorns go to a 4-3, outside backers Acho and Hicks will have to track down McGuffie, a player with uncommon speed and burst. He's not a guy that gets the ball 30-plus times per game, so Rice usually tries to get it to him in spots where he can do something with it, either in space or on misdirection plays to try and cut down the flow. It will be important for Acho and Hicks to read things correctly, and to try and keep an eye on McGuffie in the passing game, where he's also dangerous.
Both Allen and Hopkins might be best suited for guard spots, but they'll play tackle for the 2011 Longhorns as part of offensive line coach Stacy Searels' best efforts to get the best five linemen on the field. They should be somewhat challenged right off the bat. Solomon is a big defensive end (6-3 270), with a history of making plays in the backfield. The Owls are also high on Williams on the left, where he represents a consistent threat to get to the quarterback. Hopkins should be able to handle the undersized Williams in the running game and help to pave the way for a big ground effort there. But Allen's job is more challenging. About half of Williams' 30.5 career tackles for loss are against the run, and he has an ability to hold up strong there, while also pressuring the passer. Those two represent a nice opening night challenge for an offensive line that hopes to show it is better than last year's version.
Garrett Gilbert, quarterback, versus the Rice secondary
The Owls were a middle-of-the-road run defense a year ago, and return several key pieces — and add back Williams — that should ensure that they can play the run again this year. How they'll hold up against the pass is another question. In a classic good-news, bad-news scenario, the Owls bring back several secondary players. Unfortunately, those players were torched repeatedly last year, accounting for one of the country's worst defenses against the pass. The Longhorns would love to line up and run the ball all over the Owls, but they'll have to throw it eventually. When they do, can Gilbert show the improvement that the players and coaches have talked about? If not, and if Gilbert struggles, it could have implications that reach further than this game.
X-Factor: Keeping down mistakes
This seems like an obvious one, but in Week One play, it's even more vital. Things are going to go wrong. Teams rarely have perfect outings in their first time out, and the Longhorns face the triple whammy in that it's 1) week one, 2) they have a young, inexperience team and 3) it's their first time out executing new offensive and defensive systems. But it's time. Diaz said this past week that the Longhorns are all out of practice lessons, that the team now needs to learn game lessons ("hey, they really can score a touchdown like that") in game situations. Limiting those lessons and those mistakes is key, especially when playing a team that Texas out-talents by a decent-sized margin.
Both teams should be improved from a year ago, when Texas claimed a sloppy 34-17 win. But while Rice's improved strength comes largely from the same players getting an extra year of experience, the Longhorns' added strength comes from a team that's in better shape, has added dynamic playmakers at key spots and appears to be in a better place schematically. Like last year, this one should be a win. And here's guessing that it's a little less sloppy.
Texas — 44
Rice — 14