It's not that the rest of the slate is a gimmee. UT's strength-of-schedule is currently listed No. 4 nationally. Three of the next five games are against nationally ranked teams, but Texas gets two of those squads (No. 22 Oklahoma State, No. 17 Texas A&M) at home. Three of the next five games are on the road, but Texas has won 18-of-19 road games (not counting those pesky neutral sites).
It's just that Texas' last road loss was in Lubbock (November, 2002) and it likely cost Texas the first BCS bid in school history. This series has become too-close-for-comfort as of late, with Texas holding a slim 6-5 advantage during the past 11 meetings. Head coach Mack Brown has lost two-of-three on the south plains and would have had just a break-even record against Tech had not backup QB Chance Mock rescued his team in the final 2:03 last year.
That, of course, was back when Texas still possessed the most underutilized player ever to wear the Burnt Orange (Roy, we hardly knew ye) and some semblance of a passing game to complement its punishing ground game. Nothing more needs to be said of a Longhorn passing game that hasn't already been widely chronicled, except that Brown continues to insist its only a matter of time before the impressive air assault he sees every day in practice appears in an actual football game.
Once again, Tech's freak show offense tops the charts in nearly every D-I passing category. On paper (and especially on the artificial turf at Jones SBC Stadium), Texas matches up far worse against Tech's hiccup-quick, flood-the-field, everybody-just-get-open, spread offense than against any program it faces the rest of the season.
"I think one of the reasons they've been better at home than on the road is because that turf is so unique and probably better speed than anybody else in our league when you go out to Lubbock," Brown said.
What Texas has going for it, of course, is the nation's leading rusher in Cedric Benson and a QB who is a go-the-distance threat every time he runs with ball to the tune of six yards-per-carry but who throws, well, like a running back (sorry Ramonce). Texas also believes it has a tenacious D with an experienced secondary that can keep this one from becoming a barnburner. If Texas wins this one, it's because the D gave it a chance.
The biggest question is to what extent OC Greg Davis will pucker-up should Tech jump out to an early lead. Will he try to turn a natural rollout QB into strictly a drop-back shot putter? Will he call upon a rusty, rehabbing Mock to see if lightning strikes twice (knowing that Longhorn lightning wears a Detroit Lions uniform these days)? Will we see the fourth quarter Holiday Bowl game plan in high gear on the high plains? If so, make your travel plans early for San Diego to save hundreds on airline tickets. Texas' BCS hopes are more precarious in Lubbock than in Lawrence, Kansas or Boulder, Colorado. OSU & A&M are clearly programs on the rise but Texas will handle those teams in Austin if it still has something meaningful to play for in November.
In short, this is a season on the brink.
Orangebloods can only hope that Davis will not push the panic button too soon because the Red Raiders will score early and often. But Texas can hold serve, run some clock and keep its defense off the field with its running game. If Davis calls three passes in a row, it's the same as conceding the possession. I'm hoping that Texas will show the same game plan it ran against Texas A&M last November where it hit TE David Thomas early before Benson ran for a career-high 283 yards on 35 carries. (If Benson has less than 30 carries, Texas will lose.)
Brown's decision to stay with QB Vince Young reveals this team's commitment to the running game. Despite the Oklahoma hangover, it's what's brung Texas to Lubbock as a Top Ten team. So, let's dance.
TEXAS TECH OFFENSE: ZOOM-ZOOM
With all due respect to QB Sonny Cumbie, Pee Wee Herman could line up behind center and Tech would still lead the nation in passing. The air Raiders are tops nationally in passing offense (427.7 ypg) and second in total offense (517.3 ypg). X-Receiver Jarret Hicks leads the NCAA with 137.2 receiving ypg while Cumbie is the nation's leading passer (420.2 ypg).
"He's poised, he's got a good arm, he maneuvers in the pocket, maybe better than I was expecting," Co-Defensive Coordinator Greg Robinson said. "He knows the system, you can tell he's been around it for a while."
The scary thing is Texas ranks dead last in the Big 12 in sacks (just five in six games). Cumbie is (get this) 222-of-348 for 2,521 this season, including 16 TDs and 12 INTs.
"You're not going to sack them very much because they don't get sacked," Brown said. "Their quarterback's been taught really well. He gets the ball out of his hands. They get the quarterback deep in the shotgun and the huge splits makes it hard to get to him."
There'll be a two-yard split between OTs and OGs intended to spread the defense. Tech will try to exploit crashing linemen with draws, screens. slants and shovel passes.
"A lot of their throws, in their minds, are runs," Davis said. "Instead of running the zone read (as Texas does), they throw it out wide. They expect those plays to get four, five or six yards. They keep you honest and keep you spread out."
Sophomore RB Taureen Henderson and senior Nehemiah Glover are among the top NCAA active career leaders in several categories. Henderson is third on the active career receptions list with 207 while Glover is fifth with 202. Henderson averages 71.8 ypg rushing. His 70-yard dash against Kansas was the difference-maker in Tech's 31-30 win over Kansas, a game in which Tech trailed by 25.
"Their running game comes off their passing game," Brown said. "They throw so they can run. They usually have 100 yards rushing per game, or more. If you count their screens with their runs, they have even more than that because they have four or five different screens to the receivers and the backs. And the backs have great speed, not just good speed. Their track guys."
Tech will have from 80-to-100 snaps, Brown surmises.
"They wear you out. They're in a one-minute offense from the first play to the last play. They huddle some but they can always go one-minute tempo with what they do. I've seen Mike go for fourth-down 12 times in a ballgame so they're always in four-down zone."
TEXAS TECH DEFENSE
The Red Raiders counter with a young but improving defense, starting three sophomores along the front four, two in the secondary and one at MLB. Through the first six games of 2003, Tech fielded one of the worst defensives in college football, surrendering 460 ypg (NCAA No. 109). These days, the Red Raiders are yielding 325.5 ypg (NCAA No. 39). It helps, of course, to have replaced last year's road games at Ole Miss and N.C. State with contests at SMU and at New Mexico (although Tech dropped that one, 27-24).
"They're playing well as a group and chasing the football," Davis said. "We know that twisting is something that they like to do, and have done, in the past."
The leader of the pack has been senior rush end Adell Duckett, a pre-season first-team All-Big 12 pick. Duckett led the league in sacks (14) and TFL (25.5) last season, setting school records in both categories. He is currently third on TT's career sacks list with 25. But Duckett is having a quieter senior season; his name appears nowhere among the league's Top 10 sack or TFL leaders at mid-season;
Tech's defense allowed eight opponents to record more than 400 yards of total offense en route to allowing 453.4 total yards per game in 2003. Midway through the current season, not one opponent has cracked the 400-yard plateau against Tech. Texas, meanwhile, is averaging 442.7 ypc (NCAA No. 16).
Senior LB Mike Smith leads the team with 43 tackles following an injury-plagued junior season.
JC transfer FS Dwayne Slay has two INTs and leads a unit that has nine picks on the year. Five of those thefts came during that 70-10 drubbing of Nebraska.
Yet the Red Raiders remain mediocre against the run, giving up 142.2 ypg (NCAA No. 60).
HE SAID WHAT?
"We're gonna pound that guy, that's all I know," Vince said. "He's probably a little, short guy."
For the record, Huffman stands 6-0. Benson, meanwhile, was less colorful in his response.
"I'll be very excited to play, then," Benson said.