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My preseason top 25 in August looks so quaint now, so hopelessly naive, a relic of more innocent days. Louisville in the top ten? Arkansas, Rutgers, Miami? Ah, the folly of youth!

I’m not sure yet, though, just how wrong I was about my top two, the industrialized superpowers I envisioned on a scorched earth trail to the mythical championship: USC and Texas. Both enter the weekend with two losses, one eye-raising (or, in USC’s case, like, apocalypse-inducing) upset and one competitive but confirming smackdown by an ascending rival that appears to be in reality what our fading stars were supposed to be. Neither looks good for running wild on Nebraska, after all; both are just now beating an opponent with a winning record for the first time, Oregon State and Oklahoma State, respectively, neither of which is guaranteed to be above .500 for much longer.

But where I only see malaise for the Trojans, Texas looks like it may have found itself, as it were – the Longhorns might be hitting their stride offensively at the perfect time for their backloaded schedule and a sneaky BCS run.

Way back in June, I bought into the Colt McCoy Conjecture of Texas’ prospective success while questioning whether McCoy was able to survive as the focal point of a championship offense if his teammates weren’t making plays, especially in the running game, as they hadn’t at all in the slide to the Alamo Bowl in ‘06. After a shoddy September ended in McCoy being bounced around in a four-interception disaster, I had this to see:

And yea, one month in, all that was forecast by apocalyptic UT skeptics has come to pass: the inconsistency of the running game has made the `Horns a pass-first attack even against defenses they should reasonably pound into submission - UT has passed slightly more than it's thrown in three games out of five and over the season as a whole, when the average Longhorn offense this decade has run at least 60 percent of the time - shifting the impetus to McCoy and the pass blocking of his young offensive line, neither of which has held up. Colt now has nine interceptions on the year to eight touchdowns (he threw seven picks all of last season), forced almost exclusively by defensive linemen his face.
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Part of the hypothesis then was that, with no consistent big play threat or sustainable identity – Texas was eventually finding itself in an inordinate number of third-and-long situations (seven yards to go or longer) that McCoy struggled to convert against un-surprised defenses, most of which to that point were very bad defenses.

Ten games into the season, the defenses haven’t been much better (with the exception of Oklahoma), but the situational struggles continue:

Texas Passing, 3rd Downs
To Go Att. Comp. % Yds./Att. TD INT Rating Conv. Rate
1-3 Yds. 10 60 7.1 0 0 119.6 60.0
4-6 Yds. 30 56.7 4.8 1 2 112.6 46.7
7-9 Yds. 20 40 4.6 1 0 68.2 35.0
10+ 26 65.4 9.0 2 2 151.0 30.8

To be fair, most quarterbacks struggle in third-and-long situations, but the current mythical championship contenders – Todd Boeckman, Matt Flynn, Sam Bradford, Rudy Carpenter, Dennis Dixon – have been vastly better in medium-to-long yardage situations on third down than McCoy. It seems very much that what Texas has here is what it thought it had with McCoy back at the beginning: a moderately gifted system quarterback.

This is fine, as long as he can work in advantageous situations against defenses not fully geared to stop the pass in obvious passing situations – see Boeckman and Bradford, for example, not elite atletes but both working with strong running games that help keep the entire playbook open in more situations. Until the last two weeks, Texas’ ground game had failed to achieve this effect in its tougher games.

The fourth quarter of the last two weeks, anyway, as pretty clearly reflected below:

Texas Rushing by Quarter
Qtr. Att. Yds. Avg. TD Long 1st 10+ 20+
1st 79 336 4.25 1 27 25 10 2
2nd 92 378 4.11 4 29 24 16 2
3rd 112 533 4.76 6 44 27 18 4
4th 110 740 6.73 12 86 31 23 11

And one more:

Play Selection by Quarter
Qtr. Run:Pass Yds./Play
1st 52% Pass 5.6
2nd 54% Pass 6.5
3rd 56% Run 6.2
4th 66% Run 6.9

Mack Brown’s teams here in the past have tended to be about 60 percent run overall, but the philosophy has tended to try to establish the pass first – throw to score, run to win, as they say – and has not generally succeeded; Texas has trailed in the second half of six of its ten games. So when the going gets tough, the tough hand off to the best athletes on the team. Charles led the comeback charge against TCU and had been basically effective in the losses to K-State (4.2 per carry) and Oklahoma (4.7), but only had 17 carries in each and yielded to McCoy in both cases as the ‘Horns tried to catch up from behind.

Now, after two straight barnstorming efforts to salvage previously hopeless efforts, Texas’ offensive identity finally seems clear: in the end, it’s Jamaal Charles’ show. Why wait till the fourth quarter? Colt McCoy is just living in it.

Of course, anything that posits the last two games as a definite trend is building a house on sand, not least because Nebraska and Oklahoma State are two of the most porous defenses imaginable in a major conference, and outside of Minnesota and Duke possibly the two most likely to give up 216 and 125 yards, respectively, and double-digit leads in consecutive fourth quarters. But then, for all the yards it’s liable to ring up, Texas Tech is in the same category – the Raiders come into Saturday’s game having yielded three second half touchdowns apiece to OSU, Missouri and Colorado and a reputation for unenthusiastic tackling against Texas; UT is 6-1 and averages more than 41 per game against marauding, overmatched defenses since Mike Leach has been in Lubbock. Then it’s off to College Station in two weeks, where A&M will be coming off Missouri, undoubtedly the worst of the Aggies’ five losses in the last six games, and preparing Dennis Franchione’s farewell motorcade from the stadium by the third quarter.

So as far as trends go, however it’s going down, winning four straight in the conference is still enough for Texas to hit the stretch as master of its domain – that is, of Texas.Unless Oklahoma drops two of its last three against Baylor, Tech and Oklahoma State, though, that’s the limit for now.