- Max Olson, ESPN Staff Writer
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AUSTIN, Texas -- The great unknown of Texas’ future remains unsolved two days after Texas’ loss to Baylor. But the imminent future was at least settled Sunday: Texas is returning to the Valero Alamo Bowl, this time to take on No. 10 Oregon.
And that proposition looks about as scary as anything Mack Brown and his loyalists might see in the next few weeks.
We don’t know what’s next for Brown. He traveled to New York on Sunday with UT president Bill Powers and athletic director Steve Patterson for the College Football Hall of Fame induction ceremonies. He’s supposed to hit the road this week for in-home visits with recruits.
Whatever is in the works in the meantime remains unknown. Texas’ grand plan is far from clear. But this much is certain: When the dust settles, the Longhorns have plenty of work to do and 15 practices to do so. At some point, preparations to face Oregon will begin.
The response from fans and pundits on Sunday night was relatively consistent: Texas (8-4) is going to get smoked by Oregon (10-2). It won’t be pretty.
Oddsmakers have made the Ducks a two-touchdown favorite, which is familiar territory for the Longhorns by now. This team liked playing the underdog role in 2013, so perhaps there’s no better way to end the year than with Texas’ most difficult matchup yet.
Oregon has a two-time All-Pac-12 quarterback in Marcus Mariota. He ranked No. 2 in the nation in QBR this season behind Florida State's Jameis Winston. If not for an MCL sprain that limited his game late in the season, Mariota would likely be New York-bound as well this week. The way this Heisman field fell apart, he still might.
The Ducks' famously fast tempo won’t be what causes this Texas defense trouble. The Longhorns have seen faster this season, and Oregon’s plays-per-game-average of 75 is down from a year ago.
The problem will be the option. Among spread offenses, nobody does that better in college football than the Ducks. It’s a big reason they’re 56-9 since 2009, the year former coach Chip Kelly took over.
Mariota rushed for 695 yards excluding sacks this season, his second as the starter. He says the knee injury that prevented him from running effectively should be 100 percent healed by the Dec. 30 bowl game.
And he’s surrounded by options: Three running backs surpassed 500 yards this season, led by second-year back Byron Marshall’s 995 yards. He has an ankle injury, but also plenty of time to recover.
And don’t forget De’Anthony Thomas, as explosive a player as there is in college football. He’s healthy again after missing four games with an ankle injury. Miss him once in space and he’ll hit the home run. And when you sell out to stop the run, Josh Huff (1,036 receiving yards, 11 TDs) can sneak behind the defense and make you pay.
“These guys are like Baylor," Brown said. "They can score fast and they do a tremendous job."
Read option, speed option, triple option, veer, packaged plays – the Ducks do it all. No other bowl team has more 20-yard runs this season than Oregon.
And few bowl teams struggled more to stop the option and the quarterback run than Texas. For all the progress Greg Robinson and the defensive staff made in the past 10 games, this remains the team's Achilles’ heel.
The Longhorns gave up the ninth-most rushing yards to quarterbacks in the bowl subdivision. As Brown joked midway through the season: If Texas’ opponents don’t run the option, they’ll put it in the playbook.
It was just too easy, even against a defense with a pair of All-Big 12-caliber ends. Injuries have rendered this unit thin at linebacker and defensive tackle. Robinson, his coaches and his defenders will need these 15 bowl practices to find answers.
Oregon’s defense is far from flawless, but it did hold foes to 19 points per game in its wins. It’s a top-three scoring defense in the Pac-12 and No. 4 in total defense. At the moment, though, the attention of Texas’ offense will be on fixing itself.
Case McCoy is coming off the worst start of his career. The Longhorns gained 59 yards in the second half Saturday at Baylor. Their only touchdown drive began at Baylor’s 11-yard line, and they still needed seven plays to score.
They’ll need every practice and film session afforded to them this month. Stanford beat Oregon with pure power. Arizona blew out the Ducks with an elite running back. What’s it going to take for Texas to pull this one off?
The Longhorns have their own problems to solve first, and plenty of preparation ahead. If you think the next three weeks will be rough and messy off the field, it can get a lot worse if Texas doesn’t stay focused on its toughest test yet.
9hMax Olson and Matt Fortuna