Strength in Numbers: Cotton Bowl Overall Analysis

A number of Longhorn fans seem to possess an indifferent attitude about Texas&#146; opponent in the Cotton Bowl on New Years Day, but head coach <B>Mack Brown</B> and his players are motivated to &quot;Take Back Dallas,&quot; an area that has saddled the Horns with a five-game losing streak.

Additionally, Texas players feel confident, especially with the offense mended over the month-long break from the regular season’s bumps, bruises, and hamstring pulls. For the first time since September, Mack’s explosive skill position personnel are at full strength. Running back Cedric Benson, who fought through a broken rib, pulled groin, and a stinger from the end of last year, states: "It's going to be kind of a freak show. We've got all this talent everywhere."

Game-breaking receivers Roy Williams, B.J. Johnson, and Sloan Thomas are enjoying healed bodies, like Benson, for one of the few moments of the 2002 season. "It's kind of been a joke around the team: Let's see how good we could've been the whole year," quarterback Chris Simms said.

The Horns will get their shot, because LSU defensive mastermind and head coach Nick Saban brings the nation’s fifth-rated defense into Dallas. It’s front four is healthy as well for the first time in several weeks.

Additionally, the Tigers boast defensive backs Corey Webster and Demetrius Hookfin, who rank 1-2 in the SEC in interceptions, with seven and five respectively.

The Longhorns, however, are unlikely to give the game away. Simms has been precise and often dominant during his senior season.

Though the glamour resides in the Texas offense and LSU defense, the other side of the ball is where the game may be won or lost.

Another key performer who has regained elusive health and form is 2001 all-SEC running back, LaBrandon Toefield, who missed several games with a broken arm. The Tigers will test the Horns’ own fitness by slamming the 230-pound "Toe" into the front wall. Marcus Tubbs, Texas’ key run defender in the middle, is dramatically slowed by a lingering calf injury, and will only play sparingly, if at all.

Beyond the usual offensive and defensive considerations, another area frequently forgotten, but occasionally most important, is special teams’ play. Both schools have highly-ranked return games featuring superb personnel. LSU, featuring Domanick Davis, ranks 13th in punt returns with a 14.2 average. Texas, with Nathan Vasher, rates 16th and averages 14.1. The schools mirror each other in kickoff runbacks as well: Texas stands at #2 in the nation with a 24.9 average; LSU is #5, averaging 24.4. The Tigers do own a distinct advantage in net punting, ranking 18th versus the Longhorns’ 66th.

The three main fronts this game likely will be won though reside in how well each team runs the football, especially LSU and Toefield (Domanick Davis could factor in significantly as well), and how much the Tigers can slow the Longhorns’ ascendant aerial game.

Winning the ground battle between the teams seems imperative in light of Mack Brown’s 40-0 record when outrushing the opposition. This may be equally important for Saban’s squad: during this past season, when the Tigers gained more ground yards than the opponent, they won all eight games. When the opponent won that statistic, LSU dropped all four.

With Simms and his all-star wideouts, the Horns have overcome overland deficits by beating Kansas State, Nebraska, Texas A&M and North Texas this season, which is why claiming victory on the ground is only essential for the Tigers.

Both Texas and LSU can consider their years disappointing in some respects, yet successful in others, though Texas may be in more of a "must-win" situation.

Saban, despite a second-half slump, is leading the Tigers back to a level of excellence witnessed only sporadically by ballistic Bayou Bengal fans over the past couple of decades. Mack Brown, while still grasping for his elusive conference title, leads the nation (I-A) in consecutive nine-plus win seasons with seven. He is a victory away from coaching Texas to consecutive top ten finishes for the first time since the 1977-’78 seasons, and possibly its first back-to-back top five rankings since 1969-’70!

Despite again falling short of a BCS bowl, if he reaches such lofty poll positions, Mack can hardly be considered a failure.

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