Texas head coach Tom Herman has one thing in common with his predecessor, Charlie Strong – he is searching for bowl eligibility in his first season leading the Longhorns. Still needing two wins to become bowl eligible, Herman now has the opportunity to do something that Strong couldn’t last season – beat Kansas.
While few expected Strong to survive the 2016 season, Texas’ stunning 24-21 loss to the Jayhawks last Nov. 19 basically erased any doubt. At 4-5, Herman’s Horns will need to win two out of their three remaining games to secure a bowl bid. Considering West Virginia and Texas Tech follow Kansas, it’s no stretch to label this a must-win for Texas. Herman certainly doesn’t want to be the Jayhawks’ first Big 12 victim either.
Despite entering the season with bowl hopes of their own under third-year head coach David Beaty, Kansas (1-8) comes to Austin dragging along an eight-game losing streak. KU ranks last in the Big 12 in scoring offense (19.7 ppg), scoring defense (42.2 ppg), total offense (354.2 ypg), and yards per play (4.9). However, most of the Jayhawks taking the field Saturday know what it feels like to upset the Longhorns.
Kansas at Texas
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 11 at 6 p.m. ET
TV Channel: Longhorn Network
Spread: Texas -34
Three Things to Watch
1. Finding a rhythm on offense
Texas may be a 34-point favorite to beat the Jayhawks, but the Longhorns have averaged just 28.6 points per game this season, including 22.7 in conference play – second worst in the Big 12 with only Kansas (13.7) below them. Arguably the biggest reason for both teams’ struggles has been inconsistency on the offensive side of the football. For Texas, that inconsistency begins with injuries at the quarterback position, as well as the loss of All-American tackle Connor Williams, but spreads through a depth chart that includes several ongoing position battles.
Shane Buechele began the season as the starting QB, but injured his shoulder in the opener, which led to true freshman Sam Ehlinger starting the next two games. Buechlel returned against Iowa State, but suffered an ankle injury that sidelined him three more weeks. The sophomore has made 16 starts over the last two seasons and four starts in 2017, and is listed first on the depth chart, with a big “OR” next to his name. Ehlinger, who has started five games but also missed time due to injury, is listed below Buechele. Kansas also has shuffled quarterbacks. Peyton Bender began the season as the starter, but Carter Stanley has gotten the nod the last two games.
Texas’ offensive depth chart has several other “OR”s on it – running back (four players), Z receiver (four), H receiver (two) and right guard (two). Additionally, the Longhorns have already used six different starting combinations along the offensive line in nine games. Simply put, it’s difficult to be successful offensively with so much inconsistency throughout the starting lineup (particularly at quarterback) from week to week.
2. Rushing the passer
There have been few bright spots for Kansas this season, but the Jayhawks have had a solid pass rush with the potential for even better results. Preseason Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year Dorance Armstrong Jr. has just one sack to his credit, but others have stepped up the pressure. Daniel Wise leads the team and ranks third in the Big 12 with 5.5 sacks, four of which have come in conference play. Joe Dineen Jr. has two sacks, and ranks third nationally and first among players from Power 5 conferences with 110 total tackles. Josh Ehambe and Bryce Torneden also have two sacks each. Of the Jayhawks’ 16 total sacks, 14 of those have come in Big 12 games.
On the other side, Texas’ shuffling along its offensive line has contributed to a conference-worst 28 sacks allowed. So Kansas’ pass rushers should have opportunities to make plays behind the line of scrimmage. The Longhorns have had success rushing the passer as well. Texas’ defense has produced 21 sacks, led by Malik Jefferson (4.0 sacks), Breckyn Hager (3.0) and Charles Omenihu (3.0). The Jayhawks have allowed the same number of sacks (21), so don’t be surprised if the quarterbacks for either team spend some time picking themselves up off of the turf on Saturday.
3. Replacing Holton Hill
Hill, Texas’ top cornerback, has been one of the brightest spots of the season, but he may have played his final game for the program. Head coach Tom Herman announced early in the week that Hill would be suspended for the remainder of the year for an unnamed violation of team rules. The 6-foot-3, 200-pound junior ranked second on the team with 51 total tackles and two interceptions, both of which he returned for touchdowns. He also scored on a blocked field goal.
Given his size and playmaking ability, and how he helped shut down Oklahoma State’s talented wide receivers, NFL scouts are high on Hill. Though he’s not likely to be a first-round pick, it’s possible Hill will opt to enter the draft instead of returning to school for his senior season.
Kris Boyd figures to get the first shot at replacing Hill. Boyd, a sophomore, has recorded 41 total tackles and an interception this season. Reports out of Austin suggest freshman Josh Thompson and junior Devante Davis will compete for the third cornerback role. Thompson has recorded 11 tackles this season and Davis has made six stops. Fortunately, the Longhorns still have standout safety DeShon Elliott, who leads the nation with six interceptions (two returned for TDs), anchoring their secondary.
Kansas beat Texas last season, but the Jayhawks appear to have taken a step back in 2017. The Longhorns have struggled to put up points consistently, and there’s a chance the Kansas pass rush will hold Tom Herman’s offense in check, but Texas is far and away the more talented team. Questions remain about the Horns, especially following the suspension of top cornerback Holton Hill, and tougher games against West Virginia and Texas Tech loom with bowl eligibility no guarantee. For this week, however, Texas should take care of business at home and exact a little payback against the Jayhawks in the process.
Prediction: Texas 42, Kansas 10
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, a member of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.