College Football Nation: Texas doesn’t have it wrapped up yet

Eric Avidon

The danger zone lurks for Texas.

Late last Saturday afternoon, the Longhorns gathered in the south end zone of Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium, looked into the setting sun, up at the school’s marching band, and sang “The Eyes of Texas” after a 28-24 win over Oklahoma State that moved them to 8-0 on the season and kept them firmly at No. 1 in the nation.

Quarterback Colt McCoy was brilliant that pristine afternoon, completing 38 of 45 passes for 391 yards and two touchdowns. He carved up the Cowboys, throwing passes with rarely seen precision. He guided Texas to touchdown drives covering 93, 91, 80 and 84 yards, true marches.

But as beautiful as that moment was in the end zone, it needed to be put in the past. Immediately.

The Longhorns are navigating a minefield. They’re three games into a four-game stretch that’s as tough as any a highly ranked team has had to negotiate in recent memory, and they’ve won all three.

It began with a shootout win over then-No. 1 Oklahoma, was followed by a blowout of Missouri, which was 11th at the time but had been as high as No. 3, and then came last Saturday’s victory over previously undefeated Oklahoma State. Now comes a trip to play offensive wizard Mike Leach’s Texas Tech squad, which like Oklahoma and Oklahoma State were before playing Texas, is undefeated.

And after destroying Kansas, the Red Raiders stand seventh in the BCS Standings.

Texas coach Mack Brown has been superb at not allowing the Longhorns to be satisfied with each win, getting them to move on to the next opponent almost immediately after the final whistle of the game just passed. But to maintain the level of intensity it takes to beat four high-quality opponents in a row is monstrously difficult.

It makes tomorrow night’s game as perilous as any Texas will play until the postseason.

“It’s the first time at Texas we have ever beaten three ranked teams in a row, probably the first time we have ever played three,” Brown said on Monday. “We’ll see this more in the future of the Big 12. Very honestly, this team has played hard for eight weeks and that’s hard to do.”

Beyond being the last in the line of four, Texas Tech will pose a unique challenge tomorrow night. Unlike each of the last three games, Texas will be on the road in a hostile environment, way out on the western plains in Lubbock -- the last two games were in Austin, while the win over Oklahoma was in Dallas at the neutral-site Cotton Bowl.

“Lubbock is a tough place to play,” McCoy said on Monday. “They are really loud and it seems their whole stadium is filled with students. It’s going to be a night game, so that’s going to make it even tougher. But we’re looking forward to it, and it’s going to be fun.”

There were signs late in the win over Oklahoma State that the gauntlet Texas is running is starting to catch up with the Longhorns.

The defense was gashed time after time for big gains by running back Kendall Hunter, and missed tackles were part of Hunter’s 161-yard total. Even McCoy, who has completed an obscene 81.8 percent of his passes, made mistakes. Just as the Longhorns were poised to score early in the third quarter, he threw an ill-advised pass that was picked off in the end zone, but he was bailed out by a roughing-the-passer penalty and Texas scored moments later. And then late in the third quarter, still deep in Texas territory, he did throw an interception, which Oklahoma State converted into a field goal to pull within four points.

Texas, which scored touchdowns on four of its first six possessions -- with one being cut short by the end of the first half -- did not score on any of its last three, with two ending in turnovers.

“Offensively, we lost two turnovers, which is something we haven’t done the last two weeks,” Brown said. “We won the explosive plays, 12-8, which is really important, (and we were) really, really good on third down, 11-for-14, which is unbelievable, 78 percent. We weren’t as good in the red zone. If we score in the red zone the last two drives ... the game is out of reach and not even an issue.”

Beyond the hard-to-resist temptation to finally breathe, to let up for an instant during the brutality of this monthlong stretch, there’s the fact that Texas Tech’s offense will challenge Texas’ defense. The Red Raiders have the best passing attack in the nation, gaining 418 yards per game, and they’re second in the nation in total offense and third in scoring offense. Graham Harrell, the Texas Tech quarterback, has been just about as good as McCoy, completing 71.1 percent of his passes and throwing 29 touchdowns.

Of course the Texas Tech defense is vulnerable, and the Longhorns will score points against a unit that ranks 39th in the nation in scoring defense despite not playing a single ranked opponent.

“They understand that their offense does not stay on the field that long and they score a lot of points, so their job is to go out there and make some key stops and to get their offense good field position,” McCoy said. “They’ve been able to do that so far. They are undefeated and they are playing really well on both sides of the ball.

“We’ve got our hands full this week.”

Texas at Texas Tech has all the earmarks of a shootout, and when points pile up, there’s real danger in not scoring quite enough, especially when psychological fatigue piles up alongside physical fatigue.

All things being equal, Texas whips Texas Tech, runs roughshod through that porous defense. But all things aren’t equal. The Longhorns are three games into an unheard of four-game stretch, while Texas Tech’s toughest opponent to date has been a Kansas team that’s no match for last year’s Jayhawks who won the Orange Bowl. After a shooting down Oklahoma and Missouri, and then staving off Oklahoma State in a fight that went down to the final seconds, the Red Raiders represent peril for the Longhorns.

Danger lurks in Lubbock.

What we learned

USC does not deserve to play for the national championship.

Unless the Trojans are either the only team with one loss at the end of the regular season or one of just two with one loss, and every other team has two or more, the Trojans should be in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1 and not in Miami on Jan. 8.

The combination of losing to Oregon State plus a weak schedule should have already ensured that USC not climb up into the top two in the polls, yet too many voters are being blinded by the lopsided scores the Trojans have won by against the likes of 2-6 Arizona State and 1-7 Washington State in recent weeks.

Last weekend USC was at Arizona. The Wildcats are good. They were 5-2 heading into last Saturday’s game. But they’re not great; not even close. Sure, there was a really good win over California, but also losses to New Mexico and Stanford.

USC barely beat Arizona, 17-10.

The defense was its usual stellar self, allowing just 10 points and 188 yards. The unit is No. 1 in the nation in both categories, giving up 8.1 points and 216 yards per game. But the offense is a mirage. The Wildcats are the first good defense USC has played since Ohio State the third weekend of the season, and the Trojans managed just 367 yards on 77 plays.

The best teams left for USC are California and Notre Dame, teams no one will confuse with those that remain on the schedules of fellow one-loss teams like Georgia, Florida, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. Even TCU, which has played Oklahoma and BYU and still has undefeated Utah left, has a tougher road to a one-loss season.

USC simply lost any right to play in the BCS Championship Game when it didn’t come away from Corvallis with a win. You lose to an inferior opponent and play a crap schedule, you don’t get the great reward.

USC is fun. Its defense is fantastic and coach Pete Carroll seems like a genuinely good guy, but barring the collapse of all those around them, the Trojans should travel no further east than Pasadena to close out the season.

Game of the week

Since Texas’ matchup in Lubbock against the Red Raiders has already been discussed, the attention now turns across the Gulf of Mexico, where Florida and Georgia will do battle at the Biggest Outdoor Cocktail Party in Jacksonville.

It’s a national championship elimination game.

Both the Gators and Bulldogs have one loss, and neither can afford a second if they’re to remain in the mix of contenders.

Beyond the national championship, however, Georgia vs. Florida will have huge repercussions within the Southeast Conference. Both are 4-1 in league play. The winner will not only move a game ahead of the other in the East Division standings, but will hold the tiebreaker should the two wind up with the same record -- essentially, the winner will hold a two-game edge on the other.

“I think the stage is set with both teams with just one loss and looking for control in the East,” said Georgia fullback Brannan Southerland. “We’re going to give it everything we’ve got, and I know Florida is going to give it everything they’ve got.”

And then there’s the history, which just adds spice to an already tasty dustup between two top teams who happen to be hitting their stride -- Florida has scored 152 points in its last three games while Georgia hung 52 on LSU in Death Valley last Saturday night.

“We’re certainly not a great team, but I’m starting to see signs all over the place ... that we’re going to fulfill our destiny as far as being an unselfish team and being accountable to one another,” said Florida coach Urban Meyer. “I see it happening, and why I’m getting jacked up about this (season). I see it happening, and when that happens you’re going to put a pretty good team out there.”

“We seem to be getting better as the season goes on, and it’s not all that unusual, especially with the youth we have,” said Georgia coach Mark Richt.

The series between the Bulldogs and Gators goes back in the annals of the SEC, with the Bulldogs holding a 46-37-2 edge, but last year Georgia added some venom. After scoring its first touchdown, the entire team flooded onto the field and celebrated in the end zone. It was a premeditated move that stunned Florida, and the Bulldogs beat the Gators for the first time since 2004.

“This is my favorite one as far as my favorite game,” Meyer said. “I watched it from afar as a fan. I love the fact that it’s a neutral site, I love the fact that the stadium is split 50 percent right down the middle of the goalposts, and I love when you have two quality programs going against each other.”

There’s depth to this year’s Cocktail Party. There are title implications -- both national and SEC -- and there’s some old-fashioned dislike that will be on display.

If I had a ballot ...

1. Texas (8-0): Will the Longhorns finally let down in Lubbock?

2. Alabama (8-0): The rest of the schedule looks eerily easy with LSU and Auburn both struggling mightily.

3. Penn State (9-0): This matches the best start for the Nittany Lions since they went undefeated in 1994.

4. Florida (6-1): The offense has caught fire since humiliation at home against Ole Miss.

5. Oklahoma (7-1): The defense is a growing concern, allowing over 30 points each of the last three games.

6. Georgia (7-1): The ’Dawgs finally flashed their offensive arsenal last weekend, and they’ll need it this weekend in Jacksonville.

7. Texas Tech (8-0): The blowout of Kansas was good, but it’s this weekend against Texas that will make or break this team as a contender.

8. USC (6-1): The Trojans play winless Washington this weekend, which could get ugly.

9. Oklahoma State (7-1): The Cowboys showed their greatness in defeat at top-ranked Texas, losing by just four and holding the Longhorns to 28 points.

10. Utah (8-0): The Utes should be 9-0 when they host TCU next Thursday night.

Eric Avidon is a Daily News staff writer. He can be reached at