Rohlfing: Iowa State and Baylor gain ground on Longhorns

Running back Breece Hall runs the ball after a handoff from quarterback Brock Purdy during the game against Texas Tech on Oct. 19, 2019, at the Jones AT&T Stadium. The Cyclones won 34-24.

Noah Rohlfing

You know, Texas doesn’t seem so dangerous anymore. Not that this is news to all of you.

After a rip-roaring first two weeks of the season and plenty of hype coming into the campaign about a Big 12 championship season for the Longhorns, they sit at 5-2 and with a close escape at home against Kansas this past weekend. You probably didn’t see the Longhorns’ struggles — hell, nobody did — because the game was on Longhorn Network. 

But all over Twitter, the joke was on Texas, who almost let bitter rival Oklahoma beat them twice. This doesn’t mean Texas is a bad program — the Longhorns just might not be as good as many thought at the beginning of the season.

Why am I writing so much about Texas, you ask? Because I think their predicted position as No. 2 in the Big 12 is in real danger. The Longhorns might already have been surpassed — by two unlikely opponents. 

And yes, I am talking about Iowa State and Baylor. 

The Bears are flying under the radar no more, 7-0 and finishing games strong under coach Matt Rhule. Charlie Brewer, disaster second half against Texas Tech aside, has been one of the best quarterbacks in the conference throughout the season. The Bears are feisty on defense even without starting middle linebacker Clay Johnston — the team’s leading tackler who is out for the season. 

The Bears also have been able to take advantage of their opportunities, capitalizing on turnovers to score two fourth-quarter touchdowns against Oklahoma State. They also proved their worth against fellow Big 12 contender Iowa State, taking a 20-0 lead before holding on for a 23-21 win on Sept. 28.

But what impressed me the most was their ability to create big plays in the Oklahoma State game. The Bears had five plays of 50-plus yards in just 54 snaps, an absurd number against an Oklahoma State defense that “theoretically” is built to limit big plays. I would probably favor Baylor over anyone in the conference besides Oklahoma at this point. 

So where does this put the Cyclones? I think they’re firmly the third-best team in the league right now. The defense stops big plays and has the best defensive yards-per-play rate in the conference at 4.62. This isn’t surprising, because from the second year of Campbell’s tenure on, the Cyclones have been geared toward the defensive side of the ball with Jon Heacock’s “shell” 3-3-5 approach. 

This year the surprise has been an offense right up with the best in the league (although Oklahoma is still miles ahead of everyone else). The Cyclones are tied with Utah for the fewest three-and-outs in the country with five, and the recent emergence of Breece Hall has led to a balanced, cutthroat attack. Purdy hardly put a foot wrong in the games against West Virginia and Texas Tech — bad pick in the Tech game aside — and advanced metrics have the Cyclones near the top of the division in nearly every offensive category (most of them from the stats GOAT Bill Connelly). 

Matt Campbell has his best team yet, and the Cyclones seem to be getting stronger as their October winning streak continues. 

But both of these teams are still yet to play the traditional powers of Texas and Oklahoma. Iowa State plays the Sooners on the road Nov. 9 then hosts Texas Nov. 16, while Baylor goes up against the Sooners Nov. 16 and Texas Nov. 23. 

This series of games will settle the debate for at least the rest of the season. And you know what? I think both these teams will take down the ‘Horns.