Count this one as a matchup mostly in that it remains to be seen whether either of the primary Texas backs — Malcolm Brown or Joe Bergeron — will play Saturday. If they do, and they're able to be effective, count that as a big check in the Longhorns' favor. But regardless of whether it's Brown and Bergeron or some compilation of Jeremy Hills, D.J. Monroe and Cody Johnson, the Longhorns have to get production out of the running game. Texas can win by being one dimensional. But the Longhorns haven't shown they can win if that one dimension is the passing game.
If there's a weakness on this Kansas State team, it's the pass defense. And if there's a weakness on this Texas team, it's that the Longhorns can't sustain drives without its top running backs. With no Jaxon Shipley, the Longhorns' top possession receiver is also gone. That necessitates that the Longhorns find some way to get downfield in big chunks, a task at which Davis excels. Marquise Goodwin could also be depended on in that area, but the result remains the same: Texas needs to find big plays in the passing game.
Texas linebackers versus Collin Klein, Kansas State quarterback
Texas defensive coordinator Manny Diaz often talks about bringing a friend to the quarterback, implying that it's easier to sack the passer with help. That statement rings true about Klein for a different reason. The bruising Wildcat quarterback has taken over just where Daniel Thomas left off in terms of supplying a runner who makes yardage after contact. One tackler isn't typically going to halt his progress, much less take him to the ground. So it's important that the Longhorns swarm and gang tackle.
As the SAM linebacker, Lamur will be responsible for lining up over the tight end. In many cases, that will be Poehlmann, a 300-plus pound offensive lineman who moonlights at that position. Kansas State's starting linebackers don't have a lot of size, but they do use their quickness to defeat blocks well. If Poehlmann can base block Lamur, and the interior offensive line can get to the other linebackers, Texas might be able to wear down a defense that isn't necessarily that deep.
Klein is a physical runner, and he often runs behind a physical tight end in Andre McDonald and a physical fullback in Braden Wilson. All of those are concerns for the linebackers, but let's face it: a running game, in any form, will struggle if the opposing team is plowing road up the middle. That's the role that Randall and Howell have to play. If they can eat up double-teams, play low and get penetration, Texas has a chance to slow down an excellent running game. If not, well, that's when this becomes a long day for Texas.
X-Factor: Gray Matter
Earlier this week, Diaz talked about the difficulty behind defending Kansas State. Every coordinator tries to create black-and-white solutions for plays, i.e., if this guy goes here, you go there. But he said the Kansas State offense excels at bringing out the gray, forcing teams to defend scenarios that they haven't fully prepared for. Texas has been gashed at times by big running plays, and the slightest hesitation could lead to a big plays for the Wildcats. At the same time, if the defense can keep the score down, it will take some pressure off an offense trying to find its way.
You absolutely hate making a prediction in a situation where you aren't even sure which players will play. If the running backs are good-to-go, you'll see a different game than if they can't. So without giving a score prediction, it's best to give a range. If Brown and Bergeron are healthy, Texas takes this game by a field goal. If they can't go, it gets ugly, with Kansas State winning by as many as four scores.