X-Factor: Who Are The Texas Xs?

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. -- The Xs and Os have already been drawn up for the Rose Bowl National Championship, but who among the dripping-with-talent USC and Texas squads are most likely to emerge as the X-Factor in Pasadena?

In other words, who is the relatively unheralded Trojan and Longhorn possessing the tools to become a difference-maker when these storied programs collide on January 4? There will be 10 first-team All-Americans on the field that evening, including two Heisman winners, the Maxwell Player of the Year Award winner, the O'Brien Trophy winner and the Thorpe Award winner. But showdowns of this magnitude typically feature a previously overlooked playmaker, a gamer that prognostications may not have taken into account when dissecting the matchups.

So, which supporting actor has the best shot for a leading role when the curtain rises at approximately 5:20 (PST) next Wednesday?

USC's offensive personnel have become such household names during the 34-game winning streak that it's difficult to pinpoint the X-Factor, but here goes: how about TE Dominique Byrd?

The 6-3, 260-pounder is just about the only Trojan not named to the Associated Press All-PAC-10 teams (USC has nine first-teamers, four second-teamers including Reggie Bush at PR, and nine listed as Honorable Mention). But Byrd does not become X-Factor material simply by process of elimination.

Much like Texas TE David Thomas, Byrd is a solid blocker but is also a deep ball threat. Byrd averages 11 yards-per-catch and is his team's fourth-leading receiver with 274 yards on 25 receptions. You may recall that he tallied a TD against Oklahoma in last year's national championship but is looking for his first score this season.

Byrd isn't so much a game-breaker as he is a back-breaker, serving as a dependable go-to guy on those rare occasions when USC needs to move the sticks on third-and-long. (The Men of Troy are averaging a nation's best 7.5 yards-per-play while Texas averages 7.1.) Offensive Coordinator Lane Kiffin has more weapons in his arsenal than any assistant in recent memory, but he loves to hook-up with the TE on play-action. Against UCLA, for example, Byrd had just as many grabs (six) as did All-American WR Dwayne Jarrett.

MLB Aaron Harris will have his sights set on backup TB LenDale White. That means SLB Robert Killebrew (a considerable upgrade at this spot since Texas last ventured into Pasadena) will have his hands full blanketing Byrd while training to contain Bush at the edge.

So, who stands to be the X-Factor for the Horns?

At times this season, Ramonce Taylor has been labeled Texas' X-factor (not to mention a poor man's Reggie Bush). But the speedster has figured too prominently in the offense to sneak up on anyone any more. RT has logged four straight starts at RB while his 14 carries in the Big 12 Championship matches his total for the first eight games of the season.

Honestly, I don't think Texas has an X-factor; that's because I think Texas may have a couple of Texas Xs. Submitted for your approval: FL Quan Cosby and RB Selvin Young.

I have a real bias toward Cosby. Long before August Camp, I liked that Cosby assumed the role in keeping fellow freshmen on the straight-and-narrow and helping to corral them into voluntary workouts. The 22-year old is obviously mature, is deceptively strong and, with 4.29 speed, is as fast as Ramonce Taylor and Reggie Bush. It's a shame that he was slowed by the early shoulder injury against Rice, but his production has picked up considerably during the latter part of the season. Cosby had just three receptions for 25 yards during the first eight games of 2005. But, during the past four contests, Cosby has 10 catches for 205 yards and two TDs.

Even I can do that math: the Horns have added 20.5 yards-per-catch down the stretch. Cosby's four grabs at Texas A&M were a career high, but the most impressive thing is what happens when he has the ball and smells the end zone. Remember the 55-yard TD grab at Baylor (in double coverage) and the career-best 64-yard score the following week against Kansas? Cosby makes the grab and then it's like the personality of a fullback gets stuffed into the frame of a 6-0 flanker.

Cosby is my X-factor, but I can't shake the thought that Selvin might be Texas' most productive RB next week.

Young clearly does not have the burst that Jamaal Charles possesses. Personally, I'd love to see JC have the kind of breakout game that Vince Young had in this one last year. Charles represents the immediate future of this program and appears to have regained the form where he ran for 402 yards in a three-game stretch against Rice, Missouri and Oklahoma. Brown needn't worry about starting a freshman in the biggest game of his coaching career because Charles thrives on the big stage. (He doesn't know why he doesn't get nervous, he said.) His 69 yards on six catches at Ohio State were indispensable.

But I think Brown would dearly love to start Selvin against USC. There are several reasons for this. Despite the fact that Selvin has been in and out of the lineup all season (and out for virtually all of 2004), he remains Texas' most experienced back. Brown covets that type of upperclassman presence on the field. More important, one can expect (hope?) that OC Greg Davis opens the playbook because, until now, the Horns have had the luxury of lighting up the scoreboard while running a fairly basic offense. It stands to reason that Young, with four years in the system, has a firmer grasp of Davis' total package.

In addition, Brown has pronounced Selvin "healthy" following the Big 12 Championship. Now, there have been at least two other times this season when Brown decreed that Young was "fully recovered" from ankle injuries. But in those three totes for 42 yards against Colorado, Young looked better than he has all year. He looked confident; he ran angry. It will still be tailback-by-committee, and the RB who fumbles first will be relegated to an interested observer, but don't be surprised if Selvin is given every opportunity to get the hot hand against the Trojan defense.

Texas' Rose Bowl practices began Thursday morning in Carson, California followed by a late-afternoon outing to Disney's California Adventure theme park.

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