In terms of bowl eligibility, Saturday's Big 12 Conference showdown between the Texas Longhorns and West Virginia Mountaineers is a must-win for both squads.
Texas has lost five straight games, including an inexplicable 57-56 overtime loss to Kansas in Austin last week. Being upset as a 31-point favorite dropped the Longhorns to 4-6 overall and 2-5 in conference play under first-year head coach Steve Sarkisian.
West Virginia's Neal Brown has also coached his team to a 4-6 (2-5) record in 2021, including back-to-back losses to Oklahoma State (24-3) and Kansas State (34-17). Though the expectations in Morgantown will probably never match those at Texas, missing the postseason in his third year at the helm could turn up the heat on Brown's coaching seat.
Texas at West Virginia
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 20 at 12 p.m. ET
Spread: West Virginia -2.5
When Texas Has the Ball
Running back Bijan Robinson entered the season as a Heisman Trophy contender and became a Doak Walker Award semifinalist as a sophomore. Unfortunately, Robinson suffered a fractured elbow late in the loss to Kansas, and as a result, he won't be able to build upon the 1,127 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns, or 26 receptions, 265 receiving yards, and four touchdowns, he compiled in 2021. Roschon Johnson (313 rushing yards, 3 TDs) should ascend to the role of top ball carrier, and Keilan Robinson (194, 2), who missed last week's game but could return, should see an increased role as well.
Quarterback Casey Thompson entered as a backup to Hudson Card this season, and despite wrestling the job away in September, his grip had loosened considerably in recent weeks. However, Thompson put together one of the most impressive games of his career against Kansas, completing 30 of 43 passes for 358 yards and a career-high six touchdowns (plus a seventh on the ground, giving him four rushing touchdowns this year). He was also intercepted once — his seventh of the season — but seems to have solidified himself atop the depth chart for at least another week. In all, Thompson has completed 64.3 percent of his passes for 1,914 yards and 23 touchdowns, while averaging 8.5 yards per pass attempt.
Thompson (or Card) will benefit from the presence of freshman receiver Xavier Worthy, who leads the Longhorns with 49 receptions, 831 yards, and 11 touchdowns following a career-best 14 receptions last week, his fourth 100-yard performance of the season, and his second three-score game. With Robinson out, Worthy is unquestionably the biggest offensive playmaker available on the Texas roster. But it's also worth noting Marcus Washington (16 rec., 253 yds., 2 TDs) has stepped up in recent weeks, including 100 receiving yards and two touchdowns against the Jayhawks, and there's hope Jordan Whittington (24, 359, 3) could return to the lineup after missing the last four games.
When West Virginia Has the Ball
The West Virginia offense has shown promise at times in 2021. The best examples came in back-to-back wins over TCU and Iowa State in which the unit averaged 489.5 total yards and 6.71 yards per play. However, the Mountaineers were not able to build on that momentum and followed with their worst performance of the season — 133 total yards and 2.33 yards per play — in a 24-3 loss to Oklahoma State and a below-average output (345 total yards, 4.86 yards per play) against Kansas State last week.
Quarterback Jarret Doege threw for 370 yards and three touchdowns against Iowa State but also tossed a pair of interceptions in the win. Doege was picked off once by Oklahoma State and twice by K-State, which pushed his season total to 10, more than any other Big 12 quarterback. The senior still holds a slight lead in the conference in passing offense with an average of 244.8 yards per game and 2,448 passing yards overall, although his 65.5 percent completion percentage, 7.6 yards per attempt, and 14 touchdowns all rank fifth or worse among signal-callers in the conference.
Leddie Brown was also highly productive during the two-game Big 12 winning streak last month but has cooled since. Brown totaled 220 rushing yards and five touchdowns combined against TCU and Iowa State but has managed 109 yards without a score in the two games since. He has 751 rushing yards, which ranks seventh in the Big 12, and 11 scores this season.
The Mountaineers haven't been nearly as stingy on defense in 2021 as the unit was last year, but West Virginia still has an edge over Texas in most defensive categories. WVU ranks 76th in yards per play (5.93) and 72nd in points per drive (2.28) both adjusted for garbage time against FBS opponents only, but Texas ranks 101st (6.29) and 102nd (2.66), respectively. The Horns also rank 106th in predicted points added (0.289) and 97th in success rate (45.4 percent) in non-garbage time, compared to 68th (0.199) and 76th (43.4 percent) for West Virginia. The Mountaineers have also been much better against the run, having allowed 136.7 rushing yards per contest and 3.89 yards per carry in games against FBS opponents compared to 203.3 and 5.19, respectively, for Texas.
Though the Mountaineers have struggled with consistency on offense, WVU has talent and experience at quarterback, running back, and receiver, including 500-yard wideouts Winston Wright Jr. and Bryce Ford-Wheaton, capable of outscoring Texas — especially considering the injuries and impact on depth for the Longhorns. Neither team can afford another loss, but with West Virginia's home-field advantage, the Mountaineers seem more capable of pulling out a close win to keep their bowl hopes alive.
Prediction: West Virginia 29, Texas 28
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