The final Friday in November is circled as an important day in the state of Texas. A day after stuffing themselves with Thanksgiving football, fans from Brownsville to Pampa dig in for the annual Texas-Texas A&M holy war. The 110th meeting between the bitter rivals may not have as much on the line for either team, but there is no doubt that a win would make life for the victors that much sweeter for the next year.
Although currently saddled with two losses, the Longhorns (9-2, 6-1 Big 12, No. 7 in Coaches Poll) will use a Bowl Championship Series Bowl game as motivation to win. There exists a strong possibility that with a win, Texas would receive an invite to the Fiesta Bowl--a feather in Mack Brown's cap.
On the opposite side of the field, the Aggies (4-7, 2-5 Big 12) have suffered several ills this season. Entering his first game against Texas, head coach Dennis Franchione faces the challenge of installing a new system, implementing his gameplan with a lack of experienced talent, and overcoming the loss of key veterans to injuries.
From the outset, it appears a win would mean much more to the Longhorns. After all, Texas A&M is not contending for a bowl and is in the midst of righting the ship. However, an Aggie win would bring back smiles to many faces around the Bright Football Complex. Upsetting Texas could silence the whispers of some critics that players are not buying into Fran’s system. Furthermore, returning players seek revenge for last season's 50-20 hammering in Austin. A win over the Longhorns would be a positive ending for the team's seniors. Even more crucial is the head-to-head recruiting momentum gained in the war in the war that Fran wages with Brown and Co.
On the field, each team enters Friday’s contest with different strengths and weaknesses. Texas comes in with two players who are almost a lock to cross the 1,000 yard rushing mark. Halfback Cedric Benson needs only six yards, and quarterback Vincent Young needs only 142. Given the way the Aggies have defended the run this year, it appears that both of these totals may be reached rather easily. But it is not a given that Young will start at quarterback come Friday, as junior Chance Mock turned a few heads when he led the Longhorns to a game-winning touchdown drive with less than two minutes remaining in Texas’ 43-40 victory over Texas Tech.
Whichever quarterback makes the start against the Aggies, he will have to utilize his receivers well in order to establish the passing game. A&M will likely double team Roy Williams at every opportunity, possibly freeing B.J. Johnson and Sloan Thomas down field. Longhorn offensive coordinator Greg Davis is feeling some heat entering the game. Davis coached with current A&M defensive coordinator Carl Torbush while the two were at North Carolina. The much maligned Davis could be forced to throw some new wrinkles at the Aggies, as Torbush is certainly familiar with Davis' offense.
Texas A&M enters the game still looking for answers to several unanswered questions. Chief among them: Where is the renowned Wrecking Crew defense? Currently, the Aggies rank 94th in the nation in total defense, allowing 426 yards per game. The reason for this uncharacteristic statistic may be that A&M is fielding one of the youngest defenses in the nation. At the same time, the Aggies have switched from a system for which all of these players were recruited, the 3-4, not the 4-3. Torbush and his defensive staff have had their hands full simply finding the right places for each player to play, much less fielding a competitive defense in one of the nation’s toughest conferences.
That said, potential abounds on Texas A&M's defensive side of the ball. Freshmen linebackers Justin Warren and Ta Ta Thompson have shown tremendous ability at their positions--a great sign considering they are less than a year removed from playing high school ball. They, along with other youngsters such as Archie McDaniel and Nurahda Manning must play the game of their young careers in order for the defense to effectively counter UT's potent offensive attack. Stopping the run may rest solely on the linebackers' shoulders, as the Aggie front four will have its hands full maintaining pressure in the backfield. Look for Torbush to try blitzing at least one linebacker from different angles several times, just to disrupt Texas' offensive flow.
Offensively, the Aggies have shown great talent at times. Other times, they have fallen on their faces. Like Texas, the Aggies have a question mark at quarterback. Dustin Long moved the ball well against Missouri after taking over for starter Reggie McNeal. The QB who starts must deal with a speedy Texas defense, allowing the Aggies little time for sweeps and runs to the edge. Courtney Lewis is another player looking to cross the 1,000 yard rushing mark. Lewis needs 60 yards to reach this milestone. A&M will likely try to counter Texas’ defensive speed using delays and draws to keep the Longhorns off balance. When McNeal plays, look for creative use of his running talents.
When all is considered, it appears that a struggling A&M team stands little chance in this game. But one constant is found in all rivalry games: if each team enters the game focused and well-prepared, you can throw prior records and statistics out the window. Franchione has had two weeks to prepare his team for Texas. Coming off of a bye week earlier this season against Virginia Tech, the Aggies had one of their best showings of the year. So it is safe to say that this game, like many others in the long and storied history of Texas vs. Texas A&M, may come down to which team wants it more.