Previewing Texas' treacherous final stretch

AUSTIN, Texas -- Three weeks ago, we looked ahead to Texas' next three games and made a simple statement.

The Longhorns needed to take care of business with wins against three seemingly inferior foes in order to make the final three games of the year count.

Go 3-0 against TCU, Kansas and West Virginia and the Longhorns would be in position for a big-time finish. Well, they did just that, and here we are. Texas won a rain-soaked beatdown, an afternoon snoozer and a wild late-night shootout.

Now this 7-2 team is on a six-game winning streak and controls its own destiny. Two home games, one trip to Waco. Win these final three tests and Bevo is Fiesta Bowl-bound. Take two of three and things get complicated. Lose all three and, well, the hot seat gets hotter for coach Mack Brown.

Here's a look ahead at the Longhorns' final three games and what might be in store for them.

Nov. 16: No. 14 Oklahoma State

Let's start with the elephant in the room. How can Texas win this game without Johnathan Gray?

Gray's season-ending Achilles injury will send the Longhorns back to the drawing board. The one-two punch is now Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron, and both have been injury prone in the past. Daje Johnson will have to play a larger role. And Case McCoy will have to play more mistake-free football after throwing six picks in his last four starts.

Just as important, though, is how Texas' defense responds from losing Chris Whaley and giving up 40 points in Morgantown. It's going to take strong run defense and another pressure-filled performance from Texas' defensive line to throw off quarterback Clint Chelf and a Pokes offense that, while vanilla, is getting back on track.

Here's what makes this win so critical: Texas beating Oklahoma State just might render the Bedlam game on Dec. 7 irrelevant to the Big 12 title picture. Both Texas and Baylor would appreciate that, and Texas especially, because in a three-way tiebreaker scenario at 8-1, the Longhorns could be the lowest ranked member of the trio.

Lose to Oklahoma State and this gets messier. To win the league, Texas would need to win out and for somebody to hand OSU its second loss. Take care of business now and we're down to a two-horse race.

Nov. 28: Texas Tech

For Texas, this Thanksgiving matchup is looking a whole lot more favorable now than it did a month ago.

The Red Raiders started 7-0, has lost three straight and are a 26-point underdog against Baylor this weekend at AT&T Stadium. If they're blown out -- entirely possible, considering how shoddy it played the run against Kansas State -- they'll be low on morale and probably back to juggling freshman quarterbacks.

Texas took a bad loss at home on Turkey Day last year against TCU, in front of a weak holiday crowd, and spoiled its faint hopes of reentering the Big 12 title hunt. This team will have a lot more on the line if it gets past OSU and plenty of motivation.

What we don't know now, though, is just how the Big 12 race will look when this game kicks off on Nov. 28. The Baylor-Oklahoma State game on Nov. 23 looms large. If the Bears go 8-1 in the Big 12, this game is the most likely candidate for the lone loss.

But that's out of Texas' control, and so are a lot of other things if Texas can't knock off these suddenly slumping Red Raiders.

Dec. 7: No. 5 Baylor

Baylor and Texas both have treacherous roads to 8-0, but if they emerge unscathed, the Big 12 gets its Game of the Year on conference championship week.

Right now, the Bears need Texas to get to 9-2. If they're still clawing with the likes of Florida State, Ohio State and Stanford for that No. 2 spot in the BCS, a primetime, high-stakes victory over a ranked Texas team to win the league will give the Bears' national title hopes a critical boost.

If you're already marking this down as a loss, Texas fans, you're justified. Imagine the buzzsaw the Longhorns could be walking into: Final game at Floyd Casey Stadium, crazy atmosphere, titles on the line and a loaded Baylor team capable of putting 50-plus on Texas no matter how much progress Greg Robinson's defense has made.

Oh, and then there's the uneasy topic of Coach Brown. Say Texas wins eight straight and then gets blown out by Baylor. What would come next? There are a ton of different ways this stretch plays out, but Brown's future becomes a remarkably contentious issue if Texas is 9-2 and 8-0 in the Big 12 entering the finale.

A lot can change for the fortunes of these two teams before then, so there's no point in over-speculating about the various Big 12 scenarios. For now all we can do is state the obvious: Texas vs. Baylor is setting up to be a gigantic game with major short- and long-term ramifications.