Texas begins their post-Texas A&M Thanksgiving day matchups against a TCU team eager to prove themselves.
In terms of quality of opponent, there's a chance that TCU will match and exceed the quality of competition the Aggies have provided over the last decade. Gary Patterson has been plugging in new DFW athletes every season and sustained 3 consecutive years as the nation's No. 1 defense from 2008 to 2010, highlighted by a perfect 2010 season capped with a Rose Bowl victory over the Wisconsin Badgers.
Since the 2010 season, the Frogs have struggled to replace QB Andy Dalton along with many of their defensive stars. The drug bust that occurred in the off season took out some of the upperclassmen on defense, graduation ravaged a veteran OL unit and Casey Pachall's arrest during the season finalized 2012 as a rebuilding year.
The defense, which has already emerged as one of the league's best, is almost totally devoid of seniors and most of the key offensive players will return for 2013. Nevertheless, this TCU team isn't the favorable matchup for Texas that the last four opponents were. It's a team loaded with young athletes with nearly a full season under their belt.
For Longhorn fans looking to enjoy their after-turkey entertainment, there are three matchup keys that will prove decisive in this contest.
1). Play (and cheer) like it's a rivalry game
Perhaps the greatest knock on Mack Brown's tenure at Texas has been his failure to prepare his teams for rivalry games. Even against the more hapless A&M teams Mack's teams often produced frighteningly unimpressive victories. Dennis Franchione was even fired in College Station immediately after his 2nd consecutive victory over the Longhorns and Bob Stoops' dominance over Mack is more than safely established.
Save for post season games and contests with Nebraska, against whom I suspect Mack holds a deep and personal grudge, Texas teams have rarely matched the energy and preparation of their opponents in big games.
In the instance of Texas A&M, the players and Mack at least knew to expect a fired up opponent that would almost be willing to brand their season a success if they could just beat the 'Horns. While Texas didn't always match that urgency, it at least wasn't always a shock.
With TCU, Texas faces a former non-BCS conference program with coaches, players, and fans that have been dying for chances to play games against teams like Texas. The hunger and energy of the Horned Frogs coming off a bye week cannot be underestimated. If the Longhorns and fans began the game in a Tryptophan induced stupor the Horned Frogs may build a lead that their defense can protect when the Horns finally wake up.
2). Avoid negative plays
TCU will feature the best secondary Texas has faced this season save for Oklahoma's. Corner Jason Verret has five interceptions on the year and their three safety system has produced the team's 2nd and 3rd leading tacklers. They are stocked with athletes who have been well drilled in making plays on the ball from zone coverage. Should Texas get behind the chains and be forced to ask David Ash to make throws downfield against coverage, turnovers could mount.
Avoiding negative plays is typically a function of controlling the opposing defensive line, and TCU's is the best Texas has faced this season. Defensive Ends Stansley Maponga and Devonte Fields are comparable to the Okafor-Jeffcoat tandem that Texas was actively wasting before Jeffcoat's injury. Maponga is a 262 pound junior who brings power and pass-rush to the strong side while freshman weakside end Devonte Fields is a stud athlete and emerging superstar pass-rusher.
As an example, against Kansas State, Fields managed a diving interception against Collin Klein after dropping back into coverage on a Fire Zone blitz. He already has eight sacks on the season and his athleticism and skills are immediately translating to succcess in the Patterson 4-2-5 scheme. Together they head TCU's four man pass-rush.
The interior line is anchored by nose-tackle Chucky Hunter who also has the quickness to show up in the backfield unexpected. The Frog pass-rush and penetration is a unique danger to the Texas offense's goal of avoiding negative plays and creating opportunities to attack downfield.
The TCU linebackers are still recovering from the graduation of Tank Carder and dismissal of Tanner Brock, but they are a solid unit. The key for Texas will be staying ahead of the chains with the running game and forcing the TCU safeties to start charging the line of scrimmage, then avoiding sacks when Ash drops back to punish them deep.
The Texas offensive line hasn't yet become a unit that can pile drive better defensive fronts but they've had a remarkable season avoiding negative plays. If they can maintain that success against the Horned Frog DL then Texas will have a great chance to continue their win streak and put a number on the scoreboard that the TCU offense can't reasonably expect to match.
3). Don't get burned by the run
Casey Pachall was a very talented passing QB who's personal problems will hopefully be successfully addressed this offseason. His replacement Trevone Boykin doesn't have the same accuracy or pocket presence but he brings the double-edged sword of speed and scrambling ability which allows TCU to emphasize their QB run game ... Texas' particular weakness this season.
QB read plays have given Texas fits all season and may provide TCU with a foundation for their gameplan. The TCU offense is a mix-match of traits that doesn't always form a cohesive whole. They have an excellent receiving cast, led by Josh Boyce, an inexperienced quarterback, a green offensive line that struggles to protect and a stable of injured running backs.
These pieces come together when Boykin has success running the football and scambling to find time to hit receivers downfield. When Boykin is contained in the pocket and forced to make throws against coverage, most of the explosive elements of the Horned Frog offense are extinguished. This has proven to be a difficult trick for Texas to master and their ability to understand their assignments and run fits against QB running plays will prove decisive both in this context and the next against Collin "Optimus" Klein.
The most likely outcome is a defensive struggle in which Boykin and the TCU running game struggle to create enough explosive plays to generate scoring drives while TCU successfully holds off the deep passing game from Ash and absorbs body shots from Jonathan Gray and the running game before succumbing to the running game and turnovers by Boykin in the fourth quarter.
However, Longhorn fans shouldn't allow the afternoon feasting to put them to sleep too soon, Gary Patterson is a masterful coach who will have this young team ready and eager to prove their mettle on the national stage. If Texas can finally R.I.S.E to the occasion as they did against Iowa State and Texas Tech, then they'll have an opportunity the following contest to make this season memorable for something other than the horrendous beatdown in Dallas.