Sunday October 30th, 2016

The Big 12’s chances of making the College Football Playoff took another devastating hit on Saturday afternoon after Baylor blew a late lead in a 35–34 loss to Texas. Considering West Virginia’s loss to Oklahoma State earlier in the day, the Big 12 is all but out of the playoff race barring chaos.

Here are three thoughts on Saturday’s upset in Austin:

1. D’Onta Foreman is the best Texas running back since Jamaal Charles

A two-star recruit who was primarily on the radar because of his brother, Armanti, D’Onta Foreman eclipsed 1,000 yards rushing with a 32-carry, 250-yard, two-touchdown performance on Saturday afternoon. A bruising back with deceptive speed for his size, Foreman ran all over the Baylor defense the same way he’s run over every defense he’s faced this season.

The junior running back has logged at least 124 yards rushing in every game this season, and has done so with a punishing style. On Saturday, he was as good as he’s been all season. His ability to run over linebackers and the occasional defensive lineman is unlike most running backs in the nation, but his first touchdown run of the afternoon showcased his ability to fit through tight windows and turn them into long runs. For offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert’s attack, Foreman’s play is a dream. Not only does it allow space for freshman quarterback Shane Buechele to develop, it leaves several receivers in single coverage while opposing defenses try to load the box and stop the run. Add in surprisingly strong play from Texas’s offensive line, a unit that has had issues since head coach Charlie Strong took over, and Gilbert’s offense looks like a long-term answer.

Gilbert’s arrival from Baylor has given Texas a modernized look, and Foreman has been one of the major beneficiaries. Whether he can keep up his heavy workload remains a question, but Foreman is the most dangerous weapon that Texas features.

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2. Baylor couldn’t protect against the big play

Despite logging 624 total yards and receiving another stellar performance from dual-threat quarterback Seth Russell, the Baylor defense looked a lot like an average Big 12 defense. It struggled to stop the run and blew a host of coverages on downfield plays. Buechele logged 291 passing yards on just 12 completions (roughly 24 yards per completion), and Baylor surrendered six plays of 37 yards or more, all of which were the catalysts for Longhorn scoring drives.

Many pundits treated Baylor as a relative unknown because of its weak non-conference schedule (its only notable win up to this point was against Oklahoma State), and the Bears looked like a top-25 team, but not a playoff contender on Saturday. Interim head coach Jim Grobe has done an admirable job holding together a program whose last five months have been marked by scandal, but the Bears were never equipped defensively to make a serious run at the playoff. When you spend the entire first part of the season playing weak teams, even a middling one like Texas can expose some serious flaws.

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3. Charlie Strong isn’t safe, but this will help his job security

The ABC broadcast quoted Charlie Strong as saying “whoever is in charge next year, this team will win 10 games.” With a budding star in Buechele, a surefire first-round pick in true sophomore Malik Jefferson and a year of experience for last year’s star-studded recruiting class, Strong has a compelling case that he deserves another year in Austin. Whether this win will make a difference in the eyes of the notoriously influential Texas donors may not be known for another month, but the trappings of a really successful team are evident. “We’ve been through so much,” Strong told ABC after the game. “We’re very pleased with the effort and we’ve been battling. I can’t say enough about this football team.”

It’s been well documented that Strong inherited an empty cupboard from his predecessor Mack Brown and a culture that many regarded as soft and entitled. Strong’s defenders will insist that changing that culture requires at least one full recruiting cycle. His critics will point to dismal losses against Cal and Oklahoma State as justification for his dismissal.

With a manageable back end of the schedule awaiting (a visit from West Virginia is the Longhorns’ toughest remaining game), Strong still has a shot to finish the season 8–4 and make a case for his retention. But if the Longhorns lose because of the defense’s inability to stop the run (they surrendered 398 rushing yards on Saturday), then Strong, whose strength is supposed to be defense, may be jettisoned by season’s end. 

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