The Big 12’s future scheduling model just dropped, Texas and Texas A&M have big games coming up and several teams around the state are trying to reach bowl eligibility. It’s a great time to take stock of the Lone Star State in the latest edition of Texpert Takeaways.
Texas’ CFP dreams have made it to November
It’s a huge weekend for the Longhorns as they host Kansas State, a winner of three in a row and one of four teams tied with Texas atop the Big 12 with a 4-1 league record.
Saturday’s game will have a significant impact on the Big 12 title race, but it’s worth acknowledging what the Longhorns have achieved already. Texas was the preseason pick to win the conference, but some observers assigned a heavy dose of skepticism to those expectations because of the program’s failings since 2010. But so far, Texas has delivered. The Longhorns’ debut at No. 7 in the CFP selection committee’s initial Top 25 is the highest they’ve been in the 10-year history of the Playoff rankings. Their previous high was No. 14 in 2018.
Texas still must finish the job in November, and the continued absence of starting quarterback Quinn Ewers makes that task tougher. The Longhorns haven’t been perfect, but they’ve been one of the best teams in the country, and that’s a testament to the players and how coach Steve Sarkisian and his staff have developed and utilized them.
Longhorns’ red zone offense needs fixing
About that imperfection: The Longhorns’ most pressing issue is their red zone offense. After going 2 for 5 in the red zone in Saturday’s 35-6 win over BYU, Texas ranks 120th in the FBS in red zone touchdown rate. The Longhorns have scored touchdowns on just 16 of 33 red zone trips this season (48 percent).
“We’ve got to finish these drives,” Sarkisian said. “I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t frustrated.”
Those issues have been masked by a defense that has more than held up its end of the bargain in critical situations. The Longhorns rank third nationally in third-down defense, allowing conversions on only 27.7 percent of opponents’ attempts. In the red zone, Texas’ defense is seventh in the FBS in scoring rate (68.1 percent) and second nationally in touchdown rate, allowing just six touchdowns on opponents’ 22 red zone trips (27.2 percent).
Sarkisian can afford to remain aggressive in the red zone and on fourth down because of his defense, but at some point, Texas must convert those opportunities. Winning a Big 12 title and making the Playoff will depend upon it.
Mississippi schools loom large for Texas A&M
The Aggies are coming up on a critical two-week stretch against SEC West foes Ole Miss and Mississippi State. Texas A&M travels to Oxford on Saturday before hosting Mississippi State on Nov. 11.
The Mississippi schools have become a bit of a bellwether for the Aggies since they joined the SEC. Although Texas A&M aspires to be one of the SEC’s elite programs, it holds a combined 10-11 record against the Rebels and Bulldogs since joining the conference.
In the four seasons that A&M has dropped games to both Ole Miss and Mississippi State, the Aggies are a combined 29-21 and haven’t once finished with more than eight wins.
In the seven years that A&M has beaten at least one of those two schools, the Aggies are 61-27. The Aggies beat both Ole Miss and Mississippi State four times: 2012, 2013, 2019 and 2020. A&M went 37-12 in those seasons.
A&M’s offensive line issues persist
Texas A&M’s trip to Ole Miss will be another test for an offensive line that has allowed more pressure than nearly any other FBS unit.
The Aggies allow pressure on 45.8 percent of their dropbacks, the second-worst rate in the FBS according to TruMedia. Ole Miss is one of the nation’s better teams at getting to the quarterback: The Rebels pressure opposing quarterbacks on 35.1 percent of dropbacks (No. 38 in the FBS) and are fourth nationally in sack rate (10.9 percent).
This isn’t a new issue. The Aggies have struggled with it since 2021, and the problem has gotten worse each of the last two years. Per TruMedia, here are the Aggies’ rankings in pressure rate allowed in the last three seasons:
|Year||Pressure rate||FBS rank||SEC rank|
The Revivalry remains
Ahead of its expansion to 16 teams in 2024, the Big 12 protected four annual rivalries in this week’s unveiling of the scheduling model through 2027, with Baylor-TCU being one of them. The Bears and Horned Frogs have met 118 times since 1899, with TCU leading the series 58-53-7. Eight of their last 12 meetings have been decided by one score.
The rest of the scheduling format is compelling, but it would have been nice to see the Texas schools play each other on an annual basis. It’s hard to achieve that while also ensuring that every Big 12 team plays each other home and away within a four-year span, as the new format does.
Still, the former Southwest Conference foes will see plenty of each other. Baylor, Houston, TCU and Texas Tech will meet at least three times each in the next four years. Here’s a look at each of their 2024 conference opponents.
Home: BYU, Kansas, Oklahoma State, TCU
Road: Colorado, Houston, Iowa State, Texas Tech, West Virginia
Home: Baylor, Iowa State, Kansas State, Utah
Road: Arizona, BYU, Cincinnati, Kansas, TCU
Home: Arizona, Houston, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech, UCF
Road: Baylor, Cincinnati, Kansas, Utah
Home: Arizona State, Baylor, Cincinnati, Colorado, West Virginia
Road: Arizona, Iowa State, Oklahoma State, TCU
Don’t count SMU out of the New Year’s Six
The initial CFP rankings saw only two Group of 5 teams, No. 24 Tulane and No. 25 Air Force, make the cut. But it’s worth keeping an eye on SMU.
The unranked Mustangs are coming off a total domination of Tulsa — SMU led 52-3 at halftime and won 69-10 — and have steadily improved since conference play began. SMU is 4-0 in the American, outscoring its league opponents 189-36. Only one team in the country has outscored conference opponents by a larger margin: No. 3 Michigan, which has dominated Big Ten foes 229-31.
With respect to a surging UTSA, which is also 4-0 in league play, SMU appears to be on a path to the AAC title game, where it could see the Green Wave. If the Ponies get there without another loss and are sitting at 10-2, it’ll be interesting to see whether a win over Tulane could boost them over Air Force for that New Year’s Six berth, which would be SMU’s first in the CFP era.
• Thursday night’s meeting between TCU and Texas Tech is a battle of two programs that carried high hopes into this season but have underwhelmed. Neither team has the quarterback it started the season with, as Tyler Shough and Chandler Morris are both injured. TCU’s 41-3 loss to Kansas State was an eye-opener in a bad way, and the Horned Frogs (4-4) have lost three of their last four. Tech (3-5) is hopeful backup quarterback Behren Morton is ready to go after navigating the last six quarters of consecutive losses with true freshman third-stringer Jake Strong.
• Few teams need a win more than Baylor and Houston. The Cougars’ 41-0 embarrassment at Kansas State squandered a lot of the positive vibes that lingered after their last-second win over West Virginia and close loss to Texas. Baylor followed up a road win at Cincinnati by getting outclassed by Iowa State at home. Both coaches and fan bases need to see something positive in Waco.
• A hat tip to UTSA for bouncing back from its rough 1-3 start. Coach Jeff Traylor said before the Roadrunners’ trip to Tennessee (where they lost 45-14) that “America’s gonna write us off, because we’re not a very good football team right now,” but vowed that when conference play began UTSA would be a “pissed-off, healthy football team.” The Roadrunners have made good on those words and look a lot more like the teams of 2021 and ’22, which won Conference USA championships. They’re a real factor in the AAC.
Texpert Power Rankings
1. Texas (7-1)
2. Texas A&M (5-3)
3. SMU (6-2)
4. UTSA (5-3)
5. TCU (4-4)
6. Texas State (5-3)
7. Texas Tech (3-5)
8. Rice (4-4)
9. Houston (3-5)
10. Baylor (3-5)
11. North Texas (3-5)
12. UTEP (3-6)
13. Sam Houston (0-8)
(Photo: Tim Warner / Getty Images)