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Dr. Saturday

Friday Morning Quarterback: Texas’ young guns, meet Oklahoma’s veteran arsenal

Matt Hinton
Dr. Saturday

A weekly primer.

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GAME OF THE CENTURY OF THE WEEK
OKLAHOMA (-10½) vs. TEXAS Noon ET, ABC.

What's at stake: Most directly, the driver's seat for the Big 12 championship, which Oklahoma currently possesses (along with undefeated Oklahoma State) and Texas can hijack by moving to 5-0. Less tangibly, the Longhorns are another hurdle for Oklahoma to clear to remain at the front of the pack nationally. And most intriguingly, Texas faces the ultimate gauge for measuring just how far its rebuilding project has come — and how far it still has to go — since handing over the offense to a handful of the freshest faces on campus.

Oh: And hate, of course. One-hundred and nine years of deep-fried hate.

Oklahoma wants: The Sooners are going to do what they always do: Throw it early, often and to every eligible member of the offense, at maximum speed. As usual, OU is averaging more plays per game (82.5) than any other offense in the country except Oklahoma State, and seems to have a found a little rhythm offensively since surviving a slugfest at Florida State — Landry Jones has gone well over 400 yards passing with multiple touchdown passes in back-to-back games, five of them to senior Ryan Broyles alone.

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Texas' secondary has been excellent, statistically, but also features a cornerback rotation consisting exclusively of freshmen and sophomores who have yet to encounter a quarterback or an overall attack with anywhere near the firepower coming at them in the Cotton Bowl. Oklahoma hasn't been quite as fast out of the gate this year at it was at times in 2010, but the faster it moves against a group as green as the Longhorns, the more likely it is to leave them shellshocked before they know what hit them.

Texas wants: The usual line for any double-digit underdog facing a fast-moving, high-flying offense is to "shorten the game," and the Longhorns will certainly rely heavily on a pair of true freshmen — 225-pound workhorse Malcolm Brown and run-oriented quarterback David Ash — to move the chains, keep the running game viable, limit Oklahoma's opportunities with the ball, etc. Obviously they can't afford to turn the ball over.

But Texas also has to score, and a startling number of its big plays over the last three games have come via some brand of trickery: Reverses, reverse passes, reverse throwbacks, tailbacks running out of the Wildcat — you name it, first-year offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin has it somewhere in the bag, as Oklahoma knows all too well.

This is the kind of game where that bag gets emptied, and the Longhorns will need a quick, "cheap" strike or two to keep pace.

Constants: Landry Jones will throw for 300-plus yards with multiple touchdowns. … Neither offense will run with any consistency. … One of Texas' many key underclassmen will make a crucial, potentially game-changing mistake.

Variables: How many attempts will it take rack up Jones' big stat line? … Can Texas move consistently enough to score with a minimum of razzle-dazzle? … Which team delivers a big play via special teams?

The Pick: I like Texas: The combination of Harsin in the press box and the extreme youth movement on offense has rejuvenated a program that was running on empty at the end of last season. The last two-and-a-half games with Ash and Case McCoy at the controls have looked and "felt" like vintage Texas. But expecting the Baby 'Horns to stand toe-to-toe with a serious, veteran national contender that has this game circled on its schedule, too, is asking way too much, too soon.

UT may connect on a few big plays, may push the Sooners well into the second half and may leave Longhorn fans feeling that much better about the ship's new course. But they're not nearly far enough along yet to convert a moral victory into a real one.

AUBURN at ARKANSAS (-10) 7 p.m. ET, ESPN.
I'm not generally the kind of critic who puts a lot of stock in memes like "this team just finds a way to win," considering that they're synonymous with other, less celebrated tendencies such as "allowing Utah State and Mississippi State to go well over 400 yards and 30 points apiece." So far, the most salient characteristic of Auburn's 4-1 start — besides dramatic, last-second victory snatched from the jaws of defeat — is turrible defense: Even after last week's vastly improved effort at South Carolina, the Tigers rank dead last in the SEC in every significant defensive category, which is the last thing you want to hear when Bobby Petrino is involved short of your boss telling you "I just got off the phone with Bobby Petrino's agent…"

Auburn's fledgling defense may be on the upswing as the year goes on, but coming off a ridiculous, record-setting barrage in last week's comeback win over Texas A&M, Tyler Wilson's stat line at home should look a lot more like Tajh Boyd's dominant afternoon against the Tigers on Sept. 17 than Stephen Garcia's latest flop last week.{YSP:MORE}

FLORIDA at LSU (-13) 3:30 p.m. ET, CBS.
Based on what we saw last week against Alabama, Florida probably deserves to be a double-digit underdog regardless of who's playing quarterback. Faced with a first-rate defense for the first time this year, the Gators managed to strike for one big play against 'Bama before being forcibly beaten back into their shell, and with senior John Brantley sitting this one out after 18 consecutive starts, I'd be surprised if they even made it that far before the beating begins in Baton Rouge. With Brantley out and a true freshman in under the most hostile possible circumstances, the Gators should be satisfied just to get out of Death Valley in one piece.

GEORGIA (-2) at TENNESSEE 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2.
Tennessee's offense has looked so good in three wins — 40-point efforts in easy blowouts over Montana, Cincinnati and Buffalo — that it's easy to overlook just how stagnant and one-dimensional the Vols were a couple weeks back at Florida, where they wound up with —9 yards rushing for the game and a long gain of ten. Georgia hasn't been as explosive in the passing game, but it hasn't had to be: The Bulldogs have found a legitimate, every-down workhorse in freshman tailback Isaiah Crowell — he's over 100 total yards in four straight games — and Aaron Murray is still as reliable as any quarterback in the SEC. So is Tyler Bray, for that matter, but with the SEC schedule in full swing, the Vols have to get him some steady help in the backfield.

OHIO STATE at NEBRASKA (-11) 8 p.m. ET, ABC.
As bad as the Cornhusker defense was in last week's 48-17 debacle at Wisconsin — and it was epically bad, yielding seven extended touchdown drives in nine Badger possessions and forcing coach Bo Pelini to apologize to the entire fan base — it still can't touch the ongoing ineptitude of Ohio State's offense after its second miserable flop of the season in a 10-7 loss to Michigan State that only missed being a shutout by about 17 seconds. The Buckeyes still look like their usual selves on defense, but the prospect of Joe Bauserman and Braxton Miller staring down a Pelini-coached defense on the road is either a tragedy or comedy in the making, and neither one is going to end well for Ohio State.

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MIAMI at VIRGINIA TECH (-7½) 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC or ESPN.
There's a strong temptation to punish Virginia Tech for betraying its preseason expectations so spectacularly last week in its first real game against Clemson — and at home, no less — but when the opponent has already dropped games to both Kansas State and Maryland, it hardly seems poised to accept any rewards. The Hokies are still solid on defense (they lead the ACC and rank in the top 10 nationally in every major defensive category), and still very much in the thick of the race in the Coastal Division. More importantly, Miami still can't stop the run and just lost its best interior lineman for the year.

TEXAS A&M (-9½) at TEXAS TECH 7 p.m. ET, CBS.
Texas Tech is 4-0, leads the most offensive-oriented conference in the nation in scoring and gets to host a deflated defense that's been shredded through the air in back-to-back heartbreakers. None of that changes the fact that Texas A&M should be the better team — especially when it comes to pounding Christine Michael and Cyrus Gray against the Raiders' 117th-ranked run defense — but don't say you weren't warned, Aggies, if your most promising season in more than a decade starts to spiral out of control.

MISSOURI (-3½) at KANSAS STATE 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC.
Kansas State's upset wins over Miami and Baylor the last two weeks are two of the best back-to-back wins by any team this season, but there still seems to be a general feeling — see the point spread here — that the Wildcats' 4-0 start is something of a mirage waiting to be exposed. (Hence, a point spread that makes them home underdogs to a conference peer that's lost two of its last three.) If so, this is a good place to find out: K-State has dropped six straight to Missouri, the last five by double digits. Both of Mizzou's losses have come on tough road trips, first to Arizona State (an overtime loss) and then to No. 1 Oklahoma (a game the Tigers led early, 14-3); by comparison, Manhattan should feel like a petting zoo. As much as this amounts to another "statement game" for the Wildcats' staying power in the polls, Missouri needs to make a statement, too, namely: "We're not bound for a losing record while simultaneously hoping for an invite from the SEC."

MICHIGAN (-7½) at NORTHWESTERN 7 p.m. ET, Big Ten Network.
The intrigue in Evanston is over what happens when Northwestern has the ball, and both teams get a little closer to answering their most pressing questions: a) How healthy is Wildcat quarterback Dan Persa? and b) How sustainable is Michigan's vast improvement on defense against competent Big Ten offenses? But regardless of what Persa's able to accomplish against the Wolverine D, the real question for Northwestern is: How in the world is the defense going to contain Denard Robinson? In consecutive losses, the Wildcats have yielded 381 yards to Army, then 391 yards passing to Illinois, leaving them as the worst total defense in the Big Ten this side of Minnesota. Even another big game by Persa — he had four touchdown passes in last week's loss in Champaign — may not be enough to break the skid.

AIR FORCE at NOTRE DAME (-14) 3:30 p.m. ET, NBC.
No Irish fan needs to be reminded how severely the defense was gashed by the triple option in consecutive losses to Navy in 2009 and 2010, and Air Force is every bit the same challenge: The Falcons are averaging 365 yards on the ground through the first four games, third-best in the nation. For its part, Notre Dame has been vastly improved against the run, but if it doesn't put up some points of its own on offense, it's only a turnover or two away from another very sobering return to the 'L' column.

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Matt Hinton is on Facebook and Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.

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