As a whole, injuries are bad for the present tense but pretty good for the future tense. There are exceptions, of course, for more serious injuries, but in general, players get hurt, and then they return. And hopefully, they return to find that others have stepped up in their absence.
This was exactly the case for Oklahoma and receiver Kenny Stills. When the season began, one of my biggest questions for the Sooners was who would emerge as a weapon alongside the great Ryan Broyles. Stills was the most logical choice after a freshman campaign that saw him post 786 receiving yards, albeit at a mediocre clip of 7.6 yards per target. The sophomore indeed looked like he was ready for stardom versus Florida State, breaking out for seven catches (in 10 targets), 125 yards and a gorgeous, go-ahead touchdown. But he missed the next game versus Missouri with a concussion, and with Trey Franks' suspension, it appeared the Sooners might be limited. It isn't the worst thing in the world to be "limited" to having "just" Broyles (46 targets, 38 catches, 476 yards, 6 TD) as a No. 1 receiver, of course; but with an uncertain running game and Oklahoma's propensity for abandoning the run entirely on passing downs (the Sooners run just 13.5 percent of the time on passing downs, second-lowest in the country behind another Stoops-led team, Arizona), one could see how good defenses could grind the Sooners to a halt if others don't step up.
Early in the game versus Missouri, the Sooners looked a bit uncertain. Broyles was racking up catches, but quarterback Landry Jones targeted freshman Kameel Jackson with no success (for the game: three targets, zero catches), and Dejuan Miller (five targets, four catches, 40 yards) didn't set the world afire. Oklahoma's first six drives resulted in 10 points, three punts and an interception. But then Jaz Reynolds got involved. He caught a 39-yard pass to set up an Oklahoma touchdown, then caught another one for 27 on the next drive. When he stepped into the picture, Missouri's defense officially reached its saturation point and stopped stopping the Sooners.
Last week versus Ball State, Stills (nine targets, seven catches, 80 yards) returned, but Reynolds stayed hot. He caught five of the seven passes thrown his way for 141 yards, including a 62-yarder that set up a field goal attempt and a 56-yarder he took to the house. Yes, it was Ball State, but future Oklahoma opponents now have to figure out how to stop three outstanding receivers who have the potential to score on any down. With running back Dom Whaley (nine catches, 112 yards) also making an impact in the passing game, most defenses will reach their saturation point, so to speak. Oklahoma's offense becomes like one of those late-1980s, early-1990s (oh, so very, very NSFW) hip hop samples -- there are so many samples going on that it is impossible to process everything.
Enter Manny Diaz. The new Texas defensive coordinator has shown a lot of promise in his first year in Austin, but it has come at the expense of Rice (Off. S&P+ rank: 102nd), BYU (73rd), UCLA (42nd) and Iowa State (83rd). He and his defense will get their first real test of the season early today at the Cotton Bowl.
It wasn't hard to see the draw of hiring Diaz away from Mississippi State. The Bulldogs were good in the way the Longhorns were at least a bit lacking last year. While Texas ranked eighth in Passing Downs S&P+ and just 28th on standard downs, MSU was seventh on standard downs and 14th on passing downs. MSU successfully blitzed from any number of confusing angles, but getting to the quarterback wasn't a problem for the Longhorns -- the problem was leveraging opponents into passing downs so they could blitz.
Diaz became a successful defensive coordinator, first at Middle Tennessee, then in Starkville, when he learned the art of leverage, of forcing an offense to attack a certain area of the field and swarming. Opponent-adjusted figures are still volatile this early in the season, but they paint a picture of a defense still in progress. The Horns rank 32nd in Def. Standard Downs S&P+ and 57th overall against the run. They have taken on mostly poor rushing offenses, but they still showed at least a couple of gaps; Rice's Tyler Smith and Tune Petersen combined for 110 yards on 17 carries, while Iowa State's James White and Shontrelle Johnson managed 111 yards on 21. This is far from a serious concern at this point; it is still early, and Oklahoma running backs Whaley and Brennan Clay have averaged only 3.7 yards per carry versus their two BCS opponents.
Oklahoma is not necessarily built to take full advantage of Texas' biggest potential weakness, while it is strength versus strength when OU's pass attack faces off versus Texas' pass defense. The Horns have struggled in the pass rush department (115th in Adj. Sack Rate), but that isn't really an issue versus the Sooners -- Jones passes the ball so quickly that he isn't going to get sacked much anyway (the Sooners are second in the country in Adj. Sack Rate, having allowed just one sack in non-garbage time thus far. (And yes, this analysis is 180 degrees different from what ESPN's Dan Hawkins tried to sell you this morning on television.) Getting into Jones' face consistently is rather difficult, and the game will probably boil down to whether Reynolds can stay hot versus a talented secondary and whether Texas can keep track of Oklahoma's sudden wealth of options.
Texas' offense is incredibly inexperienced and still finding its way; the Longhorns are finding competence on standard downs with their two young quarterbacks, but passing downs are still a significant issue. The defense will need to come up big, and the onus will most specifically be on the Longhorns' secondary -- corners Adrian Phillips, Quandre Diggs and Carrington Byndom, safeties Blake Gideon, Kenny Vaccaro and Mykkele Thompson (this isn't the best time for Texas to have lost safety Christian Scott) -- to account for the Sooners' newfound wealth of options.