Inside the Gameplan: UT’s schedule – Part III

Chris Warren. (Will Gallagher/IT)

Chris Warren. (Will Gallagher/IT)

Who else remembers the 2008 season when Texas played four consecutive games against Top 25 opponents and ultimately succumbed in the final contest when they ran out of steam in Lubbock against Texas Tech? Oh everyone remembers that?

Yeah, winning on the road in Lubbock at the end of an exhausting stretch of games proved too tough.

The third quarter of the Texas 2016 schedule will present a similar challenge by sending the Longhorns on the road to play a pair of teams in Kansas State and Texas Tech that are probably underrated heading into the year and always extra frisky playing the Longhorns in front of their home crowds. This stretch won’t be as bad as that ’08 gauntlet, and good thing too as this team could never survive a similar challenge, but there’s a similar opportunity for a young Texas team to drop winnable games. Here’s how those matchups look from our current, preseason vantage point.

The Wildcats of Kansas State

Manhattan is a very difficult place to play, as remaining veterans from the 2014 Texas team could surely pass on to the youngbloods all over the 2016 depth chart. Their defense plays hard and makes you earn everything, their offense targets your every weak spot with precision, and they will flip field position and steal games on special teams. That’s true for every good Bill Snyder-led team but it’s doubly true at home when they’re playing at the stadium named after him.

The 2015 team that Texas ran over after its glorious Red River Shootout win the week before was an uncharacteristic one by Snyder standards. Injuries to their veterans in the secondary and top quarterbacks had left them much less sound and precise than normal while a youth movement at multiple positions doubled down on the same effect.

After the weak showing they put up last year they are being largely overlooked by media and they finished 8th in the preseason poll only ahead of perennial doormats Iowa State and Kansas. However, the Wildcats return the quarterback that was supposed to lead the 2015 offense (Jesse Ertz), return most of their skill players, and add JUCO weapon Byron Pringle to the mix.

On defense, KSU returns nose tackle Will Geary, sack leader Jordan Willis, three solid linebackers, and get Dante Barnett back to lead a talented and now experienced secondary. Assuming they aren’t devastated by injuries again as they were last year, there is a much better chance that this Wildcat team resumes their Snyder-ball ways.

The issues for Texas in this matchup are how they attack one of the Big 12’s tougher fronts and whether their own young front can withstand the Wildcats’ diverse run game.

K-State is going to be tough up front with Geary doing his wrestling routine in the middle and a LB corps of Mike Moore, Elijah Lee, and Will Davis filling behind him. The Wildcats got into trouble at times last year due to Lee’s inexperience and the revolving door behind him at safety but this should be firmed up with Lee back after an offseason worth of work, Barnett back, and young Kendall Adams stepping in at free safety. The Barnett-Adams pairing in particular might prove to be the best supporting safety tandem in the league, capable of executing K-State’s “bend don’t break” system better than what they’ve had in recent years.

Meanwhile, the Wildcat O-line will be largely overhauled after losing four starters but you can count on them using fullbacks and tight ends, nailing double teams, and scheming advantages all over the place via the option and QB run game. It’s a tough matchup for a team that doesn’t have a war horse on the DL, doesn’t have proven inside-backers, and doesn’t have a proven free safety to use in the box to counter the advantages Snyder-ball will manufacture.

This is going to be an easy game for a young team to overlook and a tough one to actually emerge victorious from.

The Bears of Baylor

Davante Davis. (Will Gallagher/IT)

Davante Davis. (Will Gallagher/IT)

How Baylor will perform after seeing the head coach who led them out of the wilderness to bewildering heights get dismissed in disgrace is really anyone’s guess. They were probably facing something of a rebuild either way after losing four OL, Corey Coleman, and the entire D-line. Baylor ended up sending four players to the NFL (plus a long snapper and a basketball player), and that kind of talent is harder to come by in Waco.

On top of this they’ll also have to do without Jarrett Stidham, which may or may not matter pending how well Seth Russell has recovered from breaking his neck, and Andrew Billings’ replacement Jeremy Faulk, who was kicked out by Grobe. Count out pass-rushing DE Brian Nance as well, who is academically ineligible. The upshot is you have a team with minimal QB depth, minimal OL depth, and a completely devastated DL. Not a team you’d like to bet on surviving a full Big 12 season and all of the injuries that tends to bring.

All that said, Baylor has as many athletes in its offensive skill positions and defensive backfield as most anyone else in the conference and will still be plenty dangerous.

Texas has to assume that the seven scholarship offensive linemen Baylor has will still be formidable in its own veer and shoot run game and that between Russell, K.D. Cannon, and young athletes like Ishmael Zamora and Blake Lynch that the Bear offense will still be very explosive. Texas has really struggled in recent years with the Baylor run game and it’s hard to believe that will be different given the Longhorns’ own issues up front.

Johnny Jefferson and K.D. Cannon are two of the more fearsome skill players in the conference and we haven’t even mentioned Shock Linwood, who has run for over 1k yards two years in a row. Baylor knows how to force opponents to account for Cannon’s over the top speed, and Linwood or Jefferson’s running ability on the same play. Texas is more immune to this than many other teams because they can play man coverage without living in fear of a vertical bomb but they’ll still need to play well up front to avoid another career day for Jefferson or Linwood.

The Baylor defense is uniquely qualified to get smashed by the Texas offense and I can only assume that’s what will be happening to them every day at their own 2-a-day practices. They have some athletic safeties and linebackers that could be really valuable if they can hold up decently at the point of attack but even that may be beyond the ability of this depleted DL. They’ll probably go all-in on stacking the box with numbers and hoping that runners that get through don’t go the distance.

Fortunately Texas has runners that can break your back for playing that way, as Texas Tech can attest. I think this game sets up very well for Texas.

The Red Raiders of Texas Tech

Connor Williams. (Will Gallagher/IT)

Connor Williams. (Will Gallagher/IT)

Like Kansas State, this team is getting overlooked due to Oklahoma State’s strong record in 2015 and Tech’s own relatively poor season. However, the Raiders were scorching on offense last year, ranking 2nd in offensive S&P, and were a real load to handle even for SEC defenses from Arkansas and LSU.

Texas fans should remember well how explosive and lethal Patrick Mahomes was given how the Longhorns were defeated by the Raiders despite running for 403 yards. The 2015 winner of the “Darren Sproles water bug trophy for most outstanding tiny person” is gone (Jakeem Grant), but Kingsbury has proven adept at weaponizing a wide variety of skill players in his offense. A system built around Mahomes’ amazing gifts, incoming freak athlete Derrick Willies, and remaining burners like Justin Stockton should still be a load to handle in all of the space Tech plays in.

Their defense was abysmal in 2015 but might be half-decent in 2016 thanks to the return of promising contributors like Jah’Shawn Johnson, D’Vonta Hinton, and Breiden Fehoko. By simply having another year in the Gibbs defensive system and playing with better fundamentals up front, the Raiders should be able to make a considerable leap in run defense and consequently in their pass defense as well.

For Texas this will be a game that really tests the young cornerbacks again but also the play of nickel P.J. Locke and whoever is starting at safety by that point in the season. Kingsbury knows how to get after poor coverage from interior defenders and Mahomes is brilliant at attacking the middle of the field, especially off a scramble.

It’s pretty difficult to contain the Raider offense; Oklahoma came the closest a year ago and they did it via a sweltering pass rush and flooding the field with four plus coverage defenders that generated four Mahomes interceptions. LSU tried the same approach in the bowl game and saw diminishing returns, to say the least.

The surer path is to blow the doors off their own defense with the run game and plenty of scoring, which is what Texas attempted last year but was thwarted due to poor special teams play and a lucky break for Tech.

Both teams are likely to be improved since last year and it’s hard to gauge who will make the bigger leap but the game will be in Lubbock and the best player on the field is the Tech junior quarterback. This is the kind of game you win when you either enjoy a massive talent advantage (not really the case) or you have a team full of veterans that understand what it takes to win a game like this (also not true).

For that reason, the matchup in Lubbock and this part of the schedule may be one of the more problematic stretches for Charlie Strong’s young Longhorns. They’ll at least learn a lot about what it takes to win the conference if it doesn’t also hand them a few losses. A 2-1 result would indicate either extremely positive things about this Texas team’s talent and leadership or else result from injuries depleting these opponents’ of their strengths.

From this point on, Charlie’s team won’t really be “young” anymore.