September 15, 2013

Defensive stats similar but Aggies, Longhorns heading in opposite directions

A&M better positioned to rebound from Saturday’s tough loss than Texas

From a defensive standpoint, very little separates Texas from No. 10 Texas A&M in Sunday’s updated NCAA statistics.

The Aggies (2-1) have allowed 489 yards per game, tied with San Diego State for No. 112 among the nation’s FCS teams in total defense. The next spot, at No. 114 in the rankings, belongs to Texas (1-2).

But in this case, the statistics lie. The perception chasm between the two programs feels huge and got wider this weekend.

After Saturday’s 49-42 loss to top-ranked Alabama, A&M defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said: “We are going to learn a lot of lessons on Monday when we watch this film.”

With 11 freshmen on the Aggies’ defensive depth chart, there is reason to expect this defense will improve as the season unfolds. It also is supported by a prolific offense led by last year’s Heisman Trophy winner.

After Saturday’s 44-23 loss to Ole Miss, Texas coach Mack Brown said: “When we lose our momentum, we’re having trouble getting it back … If you can’t stop the run, you’re not going to win football games.”

Brown’s team has driven home that point the past two weeks by allowing a combined 822 rushing yards in lopsided losses to Ole Miss and Brigham Young.

Despite a depth chart overflowing with veterans, linebacker Jordan Hicks said the Rebels gashed the Longhorns’ defense by “running the same play over and over again. It’s pretty disappointing.”

The defensive struggles are way beyond “disappointing” to the Texas fans who booed Brown’s image when it appeared on the stadium Jumbotron during Saturday’s game in Austin. And the Longhorns’ offense, which Brown charitably described as “inconsistent” in his postgame remarks, was outscored 30-0 in the final 30 minutes.

Despite the minuscule difference in the A&M and Texas defensive statistics, these are teams headed in diametrically different directions after playing Saturday in September statement games at their home stadiums.

At A&M, hope floats.

Aggies fans believe their point-per-minute offense, led by quarterback Johnny Manziel, will keep the team on the fringe of the SEC and national title races while the defense matures. If a one-loss team gets a chance to emerge in November as a BCS title contender, A&M has shown it could be as well-positioned as anyone.

But at Texas, fans sense little hope. The Longhorns were outplayed on both sides of the ball by Ole Miss (3-0), a middle-of-the-pack SEC team that climbed to No. 21 in Sunday’s AP poll, and lost the special teams battle as well. That places the Mack Brown era at critical mass for this week’s Big 12 opener against Kansas State (2-1), a team Texas has not defeated in a decade.

Brown clearly is a coach on the hot seat. But he raised a valid point after Saturday’s loss. In a down year for Big 12 teams, Texas still can win a conference championship. That looms as his final hole card in efforts to salvage the 2013 season.

“We’ll be excited,” Brown said of the upcoming conference race. “That’s all we’ve got left.”

Without a Big 12 title, Texas’ remaining regular-season games could be the final ones in the Brown era. Based on the past two Saturdays, the idea of a Longhorns turnaround sounds laughable. But if Texas can squeeze past K-State, which opened with a loss to an FCS opponent, the Longhorns face only an Oct. 3 contest at Iowa State (0-2) before heading to Dallas for an Oct. 12 showdown against No. 14 Oklahoma (3-0).

That gives new defensive coordinator Greg Robinson, who replaced predecessor Manny Diaz after the BYU debacle, a full month to improve on Saturday’s debut before facing the Sooners.

It’s probably not enough time. But in a watered-down Big 12, it’s too early to count out anyone in mid-September. Not even a reeling team at Texas, where Brown points to this week as yet another “new start” to a season headed in the wrong direction.

At A&M, meanwhile, a potential dream season took a wrong turn Saturday against Alabama. Unlike their counterparts in Austin, the Aggies showed enough in their statement game to suggest they can get things headed back in the right direction after a disappointing defeat.

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