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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

Need to Know

Keys to Texas A&M-Oklahoma State

Texas and Oklahoma dominate the Big 12 headlines, both in general and over this coming weekend: despite a Texas loss to U.C.L.A., the Red River Rivalry remains one of the defining games of the college football season. Tonight, however, as I touched on yesterday, we’ll see two teams eying an under-the-radar Big 12 run; we’ll also see two of the top offenses in the country, even if one — Texas A&M’s — sputtered against an inferior opponent two weeks ago. Conference season begins tonight for two undefeated B.C.S. conference teams  – here are some keys to watch.

Can Oklahoma State get stops on defense? The Cowboys have been disappointingly average on defense through three games: 84th nationally in scoring, allowing 27.7 points per game, one year after ranking in the top 35 nationally in the same category. Blame the offense — yes, the offense — for the less-impressive statistical performance. The new spread-passing attack has O.S.U. possessing the ball for three fewer minutes per game than in 2009, when the Cowboys ranked 16th nationally in time of possession. Those three additional minutes have, thus far, led to six more points per game for the opposition. No large matter when the Cowboys are scoring at such a clip, of course; 57.0 points per game, trailing only Oregon.

Can Texas A&M get stops on defense? This is the big question: A&M has looked good through three games, but has yet to face an offense with such potency. However, take note that A&M has faced a similar attack — Louisiana Tech. The Bulldogs, now coached by Sonny Dykes, run a distinctly Mike Leach-like pass-first system; Dykes, like O.S.U.’s Dana Holgorsen, was an assistant under Leach at Texas Tech. Now, there’s no comparing O.S.U. and Louisiana Tech; A&M will see a far better, far more explosive offense later tonight. In addition, recall the history between A&M defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter and Holgorsen, as I touched on in yesterday’s post.

Can Texas A&M limit its turnovers? This was a major issue two weeks ago, when only a late charge allowed the Aggies to avoid a dreadful home loss to Florida International. The problem: Jerrod Johnson, believe it or not. The senior quarterback opened up the second half with four consecutive interceptions, which allowed the Panthers to take a 20-6 lead entering the final quarter. Despite the 27-20 win, A&M committed five turnovers; turn the ball over five times against O.S.U., and the Aggies will be lucky to hold the Cowboys under 50 points.

Can Texas A&M control the ball? Not just protect the ball, but control it — with a heavy dose of the running game. We’ve seen nothing from Oklahoma State to predict it could stop the Aggies between the tackles; last time out, for instance, the Cowboys allowed Tulsa to rack up 199 yards on the ground. A&M’s running game is surely more effective than Tulsa’s, even if the young offensive line has yet to be truly tested. Running the game does more than help the Aggies move the ball — it keeps the O.S.U. offense off the field.

Will we see a rebound from Jerrod Johnson? Johnson might no longer have any Heisman chances — slim as they were — but the A&M senior badly needs a bounce-back performance. How out of character was his four-interception showing against F.I.U.? The total represents half of his 2009 total, which came against 30 touchdowns, and represents a quarter of his career total of 16 picks. So it was an extremely atypical performance; nevertheless, Johnson needs to be far better against the Cowboys.

Is Oklahoma State really this good, this fast? It’s not so hard to believe: O.S.U. has never bee short on talent offensively, and seemed — on paper — to have most of the pieces needed to run Holgorsen’s passing system. That the results have been so immediate remains a surprise. As noted yesterday, the Cowboys rank 2nd nationally in passing offense and scoring offense, 1st in total offense — 596.0 yards per game. Yes, the heightened totals have come against Washington State, Troy and Tulsa, all in Stillwater. Don’t count that against O.S.U. — the Cowboys have been terrific. A&M will have its hands full.

Texas A&M will win if… the offense controls the ball, committing no more than a single turnover and keeping the Oklahoma State offense off the field. The defense, on the other hand, must do its best to force O.S.U. quarterback Brandon Weeden into mistakes: he might have thrown two interceptions against Troy, but he followed that up with a six-touchdown showing against the Golden Hurricane.

Oklahoma State will win if… the offense proves to be as potent against Big 12 opposition as it was against Troy, Tulsa and Washington State. If this is the case, O.S.U. will win a shootout with the Aggies. If this proves not to be the case, and the offense is not ready for a quicker, stronger defense, the Cowboys might have a hard time pulling out the win.

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