It's impossible to talk about Texas — and especially Texas at 4-0, as a team headed into Saturday's Red River Shootout with Oklahoma with a renewed sense of optimism and momentum — without zeroing on the Longhorns' startling, page-turning youth on offense. After all, it's pretty clearly the source of the optimism and momentum: Since benching junior quarterback Garrett Gilbert with a 13-0 deficit against BYU, the Longhorns have outscored opponents 103 to 37 over the last ten quarters, with one of the greenest casts in the country.
The new starting quarterback, Case McCoy, is a sophomore with all of two college starts. He's regularly alternating with a true freshman, David Ash. The leading rusher is a true freshman, Malcolm Brown. So is the leading receiver, Jaxon Shipley. The No. 2 and No. 3 wide receivers are both sophomores, Mike Davis and Darius White. The offensive line features three sophomores and a redshirt freshman in the regular rotation. Even the new coordinator, Bryan Harsin, is feeling his way at the relatively tender age of thirty-four. They've been so good, so fast, on the heels of such an unrelentingly miserable campaign in 2010, that UT fans who insist on withholding their expectations for a more distant payoff (and yes, they do exist) must feel like they're on the verge of calling the police on their neighbors. Would it be so bad if they just went ahead and joined the party?
The obvious answer is that the party could be shut down and all participants dispersed at pretty much anytime, Saturday afternoon being the most likely. The Longhorns are in the same position that Florida found itself in ahead of last week's showdown with Alabama — a young, largely rebuilt team under a younger, largely rebuilt coaching staff, putting it hot start to the test against an elite rival accompanied by no such question marks. For Florida, all sense of progress was stopped cold in a 38-10 pummeling that brought the forward momentum to a screeching halt. With its fire-breathing offense, Oklahoma is more than capable of doing the same.
And its left entirely up to the Baby 'Horns on offense, frankly, we're probably inf or a slightly more up-tempo repeat of Saturday night in Gainesville. No, Texas' real trump card is still the underrated defense, which still sits atop the Big 12 in total D, exactly where it's finished each of the last three years under departed coordinator Will Muschamp. On that side, the youth movement — sophomores Jordan Hicks and Jackson Jeffcoat, freshman Quandre Diggs — is a footnote to the fourth and fifth-year anchors on all three levels: The defensive line (Alex Okafor and Kheeston Randall), linebackers (Keenan Robinson and Emmanuel Acho) and safeties (Blake Gideon and Kenny Vaccaro) are all vets who will either help keep the game in reach of a potential, low-to-medium-scoring upset or limp out of the Cotton Bowl with thread marks running down the back of the uniforms. What's changed for Texas is an offense that, so far, is talented enough and creative enough to take advantage opportunities and maybe make a couple of its own, which by the end of 2010 seemed nearly impossible. What hasn't changed is their reliance on the defense to make that opportunism count.
Not that the Sooners have to administer the type of Old Testament smiting it put on the 'Horns en route to the BCS Championship Game in both 2000 and 2003; a slow, demoralizing suffocation on the order of their 12-0 win over the Vince Young-led 'Horns in 2004 — also en route to a perfect regular season and a championship reservation — would get the message across loud and clearer. Regardless, Texas is going to wake up on Sunday morning knowing exactly how far it's come over the last nine months, and how far it still has to go to get back to where it wants to be.