College Sports

Texas should take offensive risks heading into showdown with Oklahoma

Memo to Texas fans headed to the Cotton Bowl for Saturday’s Red River Rivalry matchup against No. 11 Oklahoma: As a courtesy, offer a wave of thanks to SMU when you pass the campus in Dallas.

Without the winless Mustangs, your Longhorns would have the most feeble offense of any FBS football program in the state.

The challenge for first-year coach Charlie Strong rests in pushing the right buttons to energize the situation before 2014 becomes a lost season for the Longhorns (2-3, 1-1 in Big 12). It may not be possible. But it’s clear that Texas, which ranks 114th nationally in scoring (18.4 points per game), needs an infusion of offensive confidence to make Saturday’s matchup against Oklahoma (4-1, 1-1) interesting, let alone competitive, for a national television audience (11 a.m., WFAA/Ch. 8).

Without quarterback David Ash, who retired last month because of chronic concussions, the Longhorns have struggled to run or throw with inexperienced replacement Tyrone Swoopes at the offensive helm. In four games under Swoopes, Texas has posted a 1-3 record and averaged 13.5 points per contest.

Those numbers do not sink to the depths of SMU (0-5), which averages an FBS-low 7.2 points per game. But in the high-scoring Big 12, such production is a long way removed from playing winning football.

“If we can’t score, then we aren’t going to be able to compete in the Big 12. That’s just a fact of the matter,” Texas receiver John Harris said after Saturday’s 28-7 loss to No. 5 Baylor.

Without question, there is more amiss with the Texas offense than just the starting quarterback. But that is the easiest position to tweak in efforts to energize a stagnant attack that reached a new low against Baylor, with Swoopes posting a season high for interceptions (2) and a season low for completion rate (16-of-34, 44.4 pct.).

He also lost a fumble at the opponent’s goal line for a second consecutive week.

Texas has a heralded freshman quarterback in Jerrod Heard, a Denton Guyer graduate who has yet to take a snap this season. With Ash out of the picture, Heard is the only scholarship QB on the roster besides Swoopes. By mixing Heard into future game plans, rather than continuing to redshirt him, Texas might discover its missing offensive spark.

But offensive coordinator Shawn Watson remains committed to his sophomore starter, even though he acknowledged Swoopes “got nervous” and made some poor throws against Baylor.

“A young quarterback, you go through this with them. There are a lot of speed bumps with them and you just have to keep working,” said Watson, who has seen Swoopes’ accuracy decline in consecutive starts after showing promise during a 20-17 loss to then-No. 8 UCLA on Sept. 13 in Arlington (24-of-34, 196 yards).

“Ty is still gaining confidence in what he’s doing,” Watson said. “I know exactly where Jerrod is at [in his development] and where Ty is. And Ty is our starting quarterback.”

But the team struggles to score, an issue of mounting frustration within the Texas locker room because a stout defense is capable of keeping the Longhorns competitive in most contests. Yet the wins have been infrequent enough that this will be the first Texas team to enter a game against Oklahoma with three losses on its season ledger. This will be the 109th meeting in a series that dates to 1900.

“I think everybody is frustrated,” Swoopes said. “That’s a fair statement. The offense isn’t playing as well as the defense. We just have to get up to par with them so we can start winning.”

That is easier said than done. It figures to be particularly difficult Saturday against an OU team coming off a 37-33 loss to No. 9 TCU.

The one certainty, said Strong, is that everything “can’t rest solely” on Swoopes in efforts to energize Texas’ anemic attack.

Strong expressed reservations about putting the burden of proof on a player who began the season as a backup quarterback.

Yet a backup quarterback (Mike Bercovici) threw for 510 yards Saturday in leading Arizona State to a 38-34 victory over then-No. 16 Southern California. Two days earlier, a backup quarterback at Utah State (Darrell Garretson) lifted the unranked Aggies to a 35-20 upset of then-No. 18 Brigham Young.

Startling results can happen when college coaches take risks in high-profile games. But there is no indication, at this point, that any fresh wrinkles Texas may unveil against OU would include a fresh face taking snaps in the Cotton Bowl.

Key number

0 Undefeated teams left in the Big Ten, the first Power 5 conference to run out of them in the inaugural season of the playoff era.

Moving up

State of Mississippi: No. 3 Ole Miss (5-0, 2-0 in SEC) is 5-0 for the first time in 52 years heading into Saturday’s game at Texas A&M (5-1, 2-1). No. 3 Mississippi State (5-0, 2-0) has posted consecutive wins over top-10 opponents after routing then-No. 6 A&M 48-31.

Moving down

Elite Eleven: Among the Top 25 teams in last week’s AP poll, 11 suffered losses that triggered Sunday’s significant shakeup. Five of the top eight fell in the same week for the first time in poll history.

Key games this week

No. 9 TCU at No. 5 Baylor: The Big 12’s private schools battle to see which one remains an undefeated top-10 team.

No. 3 Ole Miss at No. 14 Texas A&M: Aggies get a chance to take down a fellow frontrunner in the SEC West standings.

No. 11 Oklahoma vs. Texas (Dallas): Still a great spectacle but both Red River rivals are coming off losses for the first time since 2007.

Playoff projections

If the college football season ended today, here’s a projected playoff bracket based on games played thus far (including playoff seeds):

Semifinal: Auburn (No. 1) vs. Baylor (No. 4)

Semifinal: Florida State (No. 2) vs. Mississippi State (No. 3)

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