With Gray's shoulder injury, consider this an injury report matchup. Gray is one of the top running backs in the Big 12, and with Christine Michael already out, his importance can't be understated. Backup running back Ben Malena has just 19 carries on the season, meaning the drop off from Gray — who topped the 1,000-yard mark for the second consecutive year — is potentially tremendous. Gray is a home run threat who dominated the Longhorns a year ago in leading Texas A&M to a win. If he can't go, the balance of the A&M offense shifts over to the pass, and there's some question whether that attack can carry the Aggies for a whole game against a Longhorn defense that seems to have found its legs.
Texas defensive line versus the Texas A&M offensive line
Depending on how you look at it, this matchup could be the most important in the game. It will certainly be one of the more intriguing ones. The Texas defensive line is loaded with athleticism, and has appeared to jailbreak on opposing quarterbacks in recent weeks. But the Texas A&M offensive line, led by tackles Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews, pave the way for a running game that averages 5.4 yards per carry and have largely kept Tannehill's jersey clean, as A&M has only suffered seven sacks all year. Texas, meanwhile, had five sacks a week ago. This is the proverbial unstoppable force/immovable object debate.
If the last matchup was what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object, this one is the opposite. The Longhorn quarterbacks have been far from an unstoppable force, and teams have been able to move the ball on the Texas A&M secondary to the tune of 292 yards per game. Which quarterback will start remains to be seen, but McCoy would seem to be the better fit, as the Aggies have struggled with intermediate passing games, an area where McCoy's lack of arm strength wouldn't hurt the Longhorns. Passing the ball will be key to spreading out the box and allowing the Longhorn running backs space to run against a tough Aggie run defense.
Cochran has been a steady player since assuming the job from Allen in the Oklahoma State game. But he has yet to play in an environment as hostile as Kyle Field, where the crowd is deafening and the linebackers blaze off the edge. The above A&M linebacking trio have combined for 18 of the Aggies' 41 sacks on the season, and if Texas is put into third-and-long — a likely scenario with the effectiveness of the Aggie run defense — those three could make life tough for McCoy and Ash. It will be up for Cochran, and the more experienced Hopkins and Allen, to keep those two off the ground.
Marquise Goodwin versus the Texas A&M secondary
Call this one a hunch. Goodwin has twice blazed the Aggies with big plays in his career, returning a kickoff for a touchdown as a true freshman, then scoring on a long catch-and-run a year ago as a sophomore. Even more than last year, Goodwin has shown the ability to lose a man deep, and though the throws haven't usually been on the money, that threat is there. Goodwin has a flair for the dramatic, and if he can shake free against a secondary that hasn't exactly stopped receivers from doing just that, he could make a game-changing play or two.
X-Factor: Big Plays
Texas A&M has been no stranger to big plays on either side of the ball this year, and the way those plays go could decide the winner. Texas needs to limit those big plays when the Aggies have the ball, because the higher the scoreline goes, the less chance the offensively-limited Longhorns will have to compete. If this game is in the 30s or higher, it's probably a Texas A&M win.
The fact that Cyrus Gray might not be able to go at full speed is a boon for the Longhorns, who are fighting their own health-related issues. The key will be weathering the early storm. A&M has shown itself to be a quick-starting team, outscoring teams in the first half, but losing the second half. Texas needs to avoid getting caught up early and keep it close heading into halftime. The Longhorn defense should be ready to play in this one. They're full of confidence and probably believe that they could shut down the Green Bay Packers at this point. A shut-down isn't likely to happen, but I think they'll be able to do just enough to give the offense a chance. And this week, the offense takes advantage.
Texas — 24
Texas A&M — 21