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How Texas can rebound from another sluggish start and make the Big 12 Championship Game 

Texas isn’t back, but we certainly are parsing through the Longhorns’ problems. Following the 53-45 four-overtime loss to Oklahoma last weekend, Texas drops to 2-2 overall and 1-2 in Big 12 play. To say this is uncharted territory would be a lie; this is the sixth time since 2013 that Texas has started 2-2 or worse

This has been a decade-long ordeal. For Texas fans, it probably feels longer. A program that hasn’t been the same since Colt McCoy’s injury in the 2010 BCS National Championship against Alabama has been average, at best, within its own conference and nationally. 

Figuring out what’s gone wrong this year isn’t terribly difficult. Texas is dead last in the Big 12 in scoring defense during conference play, though two overtime games certainly haven’t helped. The defense doesn’t get off the field on third down, either. In fact, they’ve been on the field for more plays than any other team in the conference. The Horns are also averaging nearly 10 penalties a game — a number that, again, goes up once you erase the warm-up against UTEP. 

And if you remove quarterback Sam Ehlinger from the equation, Texas isn’t particularly effective in the running game. Keaontay Ingram, Roschon Johnson and Bijan Robinson all average above four yards a carry, but none of them average more than nine carries a game. Johnson is the only one among them with a rushing touchdown. 

Texas frequently plays from behind, which puts stress on Ehlinger to make every play. Ehlinger is far from perfect, but he is capable and generally reliable. However, that alone doesn’t guarantee wins.

Can Texas circle the wagons with six games to go? A Big 12 Championship Game appearance at 7-3 or even 6-4 isn’t out of the question with the way this season has gone. It would mend a lot current wounds. 

It’s possible, but there are a few things going on here. 

The aforementioned on-the-field shortcomings aren’t easy fixes. Take Texas’ penalty problem, for instance. It’s bad coaching, yes, but most flags are related to conditioning and repetition. Normal routines have been completely disrupted due to COVID-19. It’s why Texas isn’t the only team shooting themselves in the foot. It just happens to be one of the more egregious offenders. This could be a season-long issue. 

Herman has to take the pressure off of Ehlinger, too. There are enough talented pieces on both sides of the ball, but once again there’s a ceiling on collective output that’s lower than what it should be. Playing better as a team is something coaches preach constantly, but it’s another thing to go out and do it. Right now, Herman’s not getting the most out of this team. 

There’s also the social aspect of 2020. Herman is in a precarious spot because he’s trying to balance a sensitive situation with the school’s alma mater “The Eyes of Texas.” Longhorn student-athletes demanded over the summer that the song be replaced due to racist undertones and twisted ties to Robert E. Lee — common themes throughout cultural artifacts. In response, the university, while agreeing to a number of other demands, basically gave a non-answer for “The Eyes of Texas” — which, in itself, was an answer. 

Herman has attempted to play both sides since many boosters and fans want to keep the song and tradition as-is — Ehlinger, for instance, was lauded for staying on the field after the OU loss — while many players don’t feel comfortable with it. But as of Wednesday, multiple reports indicate that Herman and athletic director Chris Del Conte informed the team they are expected to stay on the field for the playing of the song. 

How this plays out will be interesting to see. We live in a time of a more acutely aware college athlete. How these players view Herman in times like these is critical. Do they feel as though he supports them and their causes? Even though Texas isn’t playing its best football, Herman says he still has the locker room. 

Win or lose, a united locker room that believes in its coach matters. Three-and-a-half years in, Herman may or may not be the guy to get Texas out of this rut and back to the promised land. The people who cut the checks will help make that call. But he definitely won’t be the guy if he loses his players. 

Power Rankings

1. Oklahoma State (3-0, LW: 1): I don’t want to knock this team for things that are out of its control. Oklahoma State was off last weekend and Saturday’s game against Baylor has been postponed. With the open weeks and the injury to Spencer Sanders, we don’t have a clear picture of the Pokes just yet. They’ll stay No. 1 for now, but almost by default. 

2. Iowa State (3-1, LW: 2): The Cyclones beat and covered against Texas Tech. Breece Hall is the Big 12’s top running back and the defense leads the conference in sacks. They’ve really turned a corner since the opening week. I like this team a lot more than I thought I would entering the season. 

3. Kansas State (3-1, LW: 3): Kansas State keeps finding ways to win even though the odds are stacked against them. Chris Klieman is making a strong early case for Big 12 Coach of the Year. Can the Wildcats sustain, though? Quarterback Skylar Thompson is out for the year. 

4. Oklahoma (2-2, LW: 6): The Sooners stopped the bleeding with a four-overtime win over Texas. I like that T.J. Pledger took ownership in the ground game and Lincoln Riley’s decision to bench Spencer Rattler in the first half helped reset the young quarterback. And overall the defense played well … until the final five minutes. This team needs to learn how to finish. 

5. Texas (2-2, LW: 5): Sam Ehlinger is a dude. If you need a play, he’ll make a play — probably two or three. Texas’ problem is largely self-inflicted. They get behind the chains too much because of mental errors. Even though that isn’t uncommon this year, that’s on the coaching staff. 

6. TCU (1-2, LW: 4): The Horned Frogs had a hard time protecting the quarterback against Kansas State. I was bullish on TCU as a dark horse entering the season, but if you have protection problems then it lowers your ceiling. 

7. West Virginia (2-1, LW: 7): The Mountaineers were off last week and get Kansas at home on Saturday in the Big 12’s only game. The Mountaineers are massive (-22.5) favorites and if they want to show they’ve taken even a slight step forward, they’ll dispatch the Jayhawks without a problem. 

8. Baylor (1-1, LW: 8): We’re in mid-October and Baylor’s only played two games. COVID-19 has really taken its toll on some programs and the Bears are one of them. 

9. Texas Tech (1-3, LW: 9): Despite Texas Tech jumping out to an early 7-0 lead against Iowa State, the Cyclones controlled most of that game. The only drama at the end was whether the Red Raiders would kick down the back door. This is not the start for which coach Matt Wells was hoping. 

10. Kansas (0-3, LW: 10): Are Mark Mangino and Todd Reesing walking through that door? If not, the Jayhawks might be here for a while. 

Picks

Kansas at West Virginia (-22.5): It’s the only Big 12 game in Week 7 and it’s on FOX’s Big Noon Saturday. Yeah. Anyway, the Mountaineers have been running the ball better with Leddie Brown and Alec Sinkfield taking on a bulk of the carries. Meanwhile, no team in the Big 12 is giving up more yards per game on the ground than the Jayhawks. West Virginia’s defense is plenty good enough to keep Kansas from scoring too much, but I’m not sold on West Virginia being able to put up enough points to cover more than three touchdowns in a conference game — no matter how bad the opponent is. The under (51.5) is a good play here, too. Pick: Kansas +22.5



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