This week we're running a series on the teams capable of dethroning two-time defending Big 12 champ Oklahoma next season. We continue the series with the Texas Longhorns:
How the Longhorns can beat OU: For starters, hire one of the two head coaches who beat Oklahoma in 2016. Can't hurt, right? Tom Herman did show off a fairly impressive blueprint for upsetting the Sooners in Houston's 33-23 win at NRG Stadium last fall.
The new leader of the Longhorns leaned on a ferocious defense led by defensive coordinator Todd Orlando that held Oklahoma to what ended up being a season-low 23 points, 393 total yards and 70 rushing yards. The Cougars controlled the line of scrimmage and delivered countless big hits and stops with supreme confidence. They had all the right answers for OU's run game, which is always critical. Oklahoma has rushed for 70 yards or less in three of its four losses since Lincoln Riley took over the offense.
As for Houston's offense, its offensive line bought Greg Ward Jr. all the time he needed to pick apart a Sooners secondary that was not up to the task. On third downs, Ward hit 9 of 11 passes for 147 yards and a near-perfect QBR. His receivers played physical and shined all afternoon.
How much of that can Herman replicate with his first Texas team? Hard to say right now. He and his coaches are still figuring out what they're working with from a talent standpoint, and there's a ton of work to be done before the Longhorns play with the relentlessly intense mentality that Houston showed. But a win over their hated rival in October could help create enough meaningful momentum to propel Texas into the Big 12 championship race.
What's holding them back: The difference in Red River 2016 was Texas' shoddy defense. The Longhorns got four takeaways and still managed to give up 45 points. Their secondary had no answer for Dede Westbrook, who burned them for 232 receiving yards and three TDs. Sure, the circumstances that week were a bit abnormal -- it was Charlie Strong's first week as Texas' defensive coordinator -- but this unit couldn't get a few more much-needed stops.
The challenge for Orlando will be figuring out how to get a unit loaded with highly touted talent at all three levels to play up to its vast potential. It's getting to players to buy in and fully grasp what Orlando wants to do on defense. He and his coaches have five games to figure out the right lineup and get Texas' defense executing at a consistently high level before the Oct. 14 showdown at the Cotton Bowl.
X factor: Besides the annual question about the level of Texas' quarterback play? How about special teams? Let's not forget the turning point in Houston's season-opening upset of OU was Brandon Wilson’s 100-yard touchdown return off a failed field-goal attempt. Landing an unexpected upper-cut like that absolutely can swing a Red River Rivalry brawl.
Texas struggled mightily to pull off those sudden game-changers in 2016. The Longhorns were one of only two Power-5 teams to finish with zero special teams touchdowns and zero defensive touchdowns last season. Meanwhile, Houston scored three on defense and three more on special teams. Herman has to find a way to coax more big plays in big moments out of his new team.
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