How the Longhorns prepare for their bowl game will tell us a lot about whether Mack Brown can keep control of the program going forward.
With Northern Illinois' vaulting into the top 16 of the BCS rankings, Oklahoma's fall to the Cotton Bowl where they'll play one of the most intriguing games on the schedule, and Kansas State's expected pummeling of Texas, the final result f the 2012 season is a trip to the Alamo Bowl to play the Oregon State Beavers.
Reactions amongst Texas fans to this news varies greatly depending on what exactly people are hoping for at this point. For those who want to finish the season with a win that creates momentum for 2013, Oregon State was a good draw.
They are a spread passing team of the variety which Texas faces on a weekly basis and they don't have a strong running game with which to stab the Longhorns Achilles heel.
For those who were rooting for total breakdown and failure of the sort to initiate regime change, an undesired matchup and humiliating blowout loss in the Cotton Bowl against the Aggies just might have done the trick.
As it happens, the bowl matchup that Texas did get should be fairly illuminating regarding the future of the Texas football program. There are at least six storylines that observers of the program should take note of for clues on where Texas is heading.
1). Do they want to be there?
Teams that draw disappointing bowl bids do not always come out with the kind of effort and preparation that is necessary to win a game in which the other team has had a month to scout and prepare for you. Mack Brown has often maximized the bowl practice season as an opportunity to build a foundation for the next season amongst younger players while still fielding well prepared and inspired football teams.
For instance, in 2007 Texas rebounded from a miserable season to obliterate a confident Arizona State team and foreshadow the brilliant 2008 campaign.
Throughout the turmoil of 2012, with the exception of the Oklahoma-Kansas stretch, Mack has maintained the focus of the players. While much of the linebacker corp has looked lost and untrusting of their coordinator throughout the year, the overall effort of the team has been there. Against KSU they had plenty of fight early and a good gameplan that kept the Wildcats at bay until Klein flipped the switch and started running them over.
Does Mack still have the trust and attention of his players? What about the boosters and administration? How much will the results of this game impact the tenure of Mack or other members of his staff?
2). The defense
Technically, Oregon State is a dream matchup for Diaz's defense. Because of the abundance of pass-rushers, blitzing schemes, and excellent coverage defensive backs, Texas can be murder to a spread passing team. Unless that team can run the ball with any variety or effectiveness, then everything comes apart at the seams.
Oregon State does not have a dominant running game. If Texas could master some run defense fundamentals during the bowl practices they might succeed in making Oregon State one-dimensional. In that event, they could finally demonstrate the carnage they would have been capable of in 2012 had they been able to handle their basic assignments.
If Oregon State's running back Storm Woods produces a game worthy of such a fitting name for a back, it will be a sign that Texas' defense isn't paying a great deal of attention to Diaz's coaching, or Diaz simply has no idea how to fix the problems in the program.
3). Will the entire staff be present for the process?
Does Mack Brown trust his legacy reclamation project, which is dependent upon the 2013 season, in the hands of Manny Diaz? Is he waiting for bowl results to make that decision? Might he fire Diaz and appoint Akina as interim DC for the bowl game before bringing in a trusted veteran coach to ensure a trustworthy 2013 product?
Will Diaz spend the bowl season rolling up his sleeves and fixing things, pondering solutions, or looking for a job? For that matter, will other members of the staff look to jump ship and preserve their jobs or resumes?
Very much of the 2012 Bowl Season will indicate if Mack's still in control of the helm and whether or not players or staff are jettisoning in lifeboats.
4). What's the plan at Quarterback?
Against Kansas State, Case McCoy demonstrated that he has some abilities to manage the Texas offense provided that he not have to make throws outside of the hash marks, be given great protection, and receive explosive plays from the running game and short passes to players like Daje Johnson.
In other words, there is very little Case McCoy is capable of doing to catalyze the Texas offense, but he at least knows how to maintain the real engines by reading coverages and making short throws to the playmakers.
David Ash on the other hand, had a great season sandwiched by the disastrous Oklahoma-Kansas two game stretch and the beatdown against the TCU Horned Frogs. He can make the vertical throws that take advantage of "Magic" Mike Davis and stretch a defense horizontally and was also a solid caretaker of the Texas offense provided he not have to read coverage after the snap.
While McCoy's ceiling is quite limited simply because of his physical traits, what will Ash be capable of after another off season to get healthy and learn more? Will he ever be strong at making reads on the fly? Can his accuracy continue to improve?
Behind them both, Texas has two very different quarterbacks with the athletic but inaccurate Jalen Overstreet and the pocket passing system quarterback Connor Brewer while apparently trying to bring aboard JUCO QB Tanner McEvoy.
Bringing in a JUCO suggests that Mack isn't sure if he trusts the Legacy Reclamation project 2013 to either McCoy or Ash, nor to one of the redshirted youngsters.
You would expect the staff to hand the reigns back to Ash and give him more opportunities to stake his claim as the Quarterback for the University of Texas. A shaky start and JUCO commitment could open the door to big changes in 2013.
5). Future stars?
A savvy head coach like Mack would use a bowl game that won't determine a national champion to experiment with new tactics and players that are likely to be the focus in the following season. Daje Johnson's ability to be explosive with the football AND catch it (unlike DJ Monroe) should make him a prominent feature in the Texas offense. Young players like Cayleb Jones, Kendall Sanders, Peter Jinkens, and Jonathan Gray could have more center stage moments in the gameplan.
If Texas bring in dual-threat QB Tanner McEvoy might the offense feature more Zone-read or other option plays? Could Texas test those out with Ash and utilize his running ability, free of the fear that he'll be lost for future games due to injury?
Then there's recruiting, Texas has plenty of future stars to find for the 2013 recruiting class during this period. Recently momentum has gone against the Texas program and they've lost players to instate rivals. Can they reclaim momentum or is the lifeblood of the Mack Brown era starting to flow from the wounds?
6). The Oregon State Beavers
Oh yeah, there's another team playing in this game as well. Mike Riley's Beavers haven't been to a bowl game since 2009 and will likely be eager to play Texas in front of a national audience.
Oregon State has a speedy defense that stood firm and forced four turnovers against the power run oriented Stanford offense, which has far more physical OL and blocking than does Texas at this point in their new run-centric program.
By all accounts, Oregon State is a better football team than the Texas unit that appeared on the field this season. Texas has some advantages in matchups, as they have much of the year, but the trait that often propelled Texas past Big 12 foes was their offense. Harsin's offense was unlike any other offense in the league, which made Texas difficult to prepare for.
Not so for the Beavers. Had they not already played similar teams in the Pac-12, the Beavers also have a few weeks to nail down the gist of the Texas offense and prepare to shut down the unit that carried Texas in most of their important victories this season.
All in all there's plenty of drama surrounding Texas football to make a mid-tier bowl nevertheless interesting. The greatest overarching storyline is whether Texas is on track to reclaim national contender status with an impressive win and strong off season, or if they will flounder about for the next few weeks before being smacked down by a fellow 2nd tier team, cementing their fall from national relevance.