GLENDALE, Ariz. The national championship game is three days and three time zones away, but national titles good and bad may be at stake when Texas and Ohio State meet in Monday night's Fiesta Bowl.
The Longhorns (11-1) cling to scant hopes that an emphatic victory over Ohio State could result in their receiving The Associated Press' version of the national championship.
WHEN: 8 p.m. Jan. 5
WHERE: University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, Ariz.
TV: Fox (Matt Vasgersian will do play-by-play, with Tim Ryan as the analyst).
THE LINE: Texas by 8
RECORDS VS. BOWL TEAMS: Ohio State 5-2, Texas 6-1.
NCAA SCHEDULE STRENGTH: Ohio State T-7th, Texas 6th.
BCS RANKINGS: Texas 3rd, Ohio State 10th.
COACHES: Texas Mack Brown (10-6 in bowls); Ohio State Jim Tressel (4-3 in bowls).
WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH: These teams are among the most high-profile programs in college football, and Texas has a shot (albeit a slight one) to claim a share of the national championship with a victory. Besides, the Longhorns and Buckeyes have played two entertaining games in the past four seasons. Texas won in 25-22 in Columbus in 2005, and the Buckeyes pulled away in the second half to prevail 24-7 in Austin in 2006.
KEY STATS: The Buckeyes have had trouble in pass protection. They've allowed 26 sacks. Meanwhile, Texas tops the nation with 44 sacks. DE Brian Orakpo leads the Longhorns with 10.5.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Ohio State RB Chris Wells has exceeded 100 yards in four of the past five games. He was held to 55 yards in a 13-6 loss to Penn State; not coincidentally, that was the only game in that stretch in which Wells failed to score a touchdown and the only game the Buckeyes lost.
The Buckeyes (10-2) have been branded with the title of perhaps the nation's most overrated team after absorbing lopsided losses in the past two national title games and falling to USC and Penn State earlier this season. A victory over the Longhorns might help them lose that stigma and perhaps give them renewed respect heading into next season, when possibly as many as seven offensive and seven defensive starters will return.
"You definitely get to make a statement for the next season [with a win]," Ohio State fullback Brandon Smith said. "With the way the BCS is and college football is, if you start off at the top and take care of business, you won't fall too far. I think that is in the back of our minds."
Positioning for next season is important, but it's nothing compared what might be at stake for the Longhorns. Texas was at the center of the season's most controversial issue when the Longhorns fell behind Oklahoma in the BCS standings even though they defeated the Sooners 45-35 on a neutral field in October. But there is a chance that a decisive victory by Texas could influence AP voters to choose Texas their national champion. USC was voted the AP national champion in 2003, and LSU won the BCS championship that season.
"From what I understand, we can [still be national champions]," Texas running back Chris Ogbonnaya said. "I don't know what needs to happen. Right now, our focus is Ohio State and, really, that is all that matters. We can't talk about being in the national championship picture without having a victory against them."
But that doesn't mean they can't be thinking about one.
"Our goal is still there," Longhorns cornerback Ryan Palmer said. "We still can do it if we play well. Our main goal is to get 12 wins, get another bowl win and go out there and have a great performance."
The performance is what coach Mack Brown is focusing on.
"We talk about playing the best we can and then all of the other stuff takes care of itself," he said. "If you start talking about stuff that is at the end, then you probably won't get the results you want.
"What we will do is try to play the best we can play, and we'll end up where we end up."
Who has the edge?
Ohio State run offense vs. Texas run defense Chris Wells a junior who could go pro is one of the best running backs in the country. If not for an injury that forced him out of three games, he would have been a serious Heisman contender. As it is, he has rushed for 1,091 yards and eight touchdowns and accumulated at least 94 rushing yards in eight of the nine games in which he has played. Freshman QB Terrelle Pryor also is a threat, having run for 553 yards and six touchdowns. Meanwhile, Texas allows an average of 73.6 rushing yards to rank second in the nation against the run. Part of that is because the Longhorns play in the pass-oriented Big 12. Part is because of a strong line featuring T Roy Miller and active linebackers. Oklahoma State's Kendall Hunter rushed for 161 yards against the Longhorns, but no other running back has hit three digits against them.
Ohio State pass offense vs. Texas pass defense This is not an attractive matchup. Ohio State's passing offense is among the nation's weakest and Texas' pass defense is, too. Pryor has passed for 1,245 yards, with 12 touchdowns and four interceptions. He has exceeded 200 passing yards just once. WR Brian Robiskie is a deep threat, but he has just 37 catches, though eight have gone for touchdowns. He has had four or fewer catches in all but one game. No other Ohio State receiver has more than 21 receptions. Texas' best pass defense is its rush. The Longhorns rank a dismal 110th in the nation in pass defense and have allowed 18 touchdowns while getting only six interceptions. Part of that is because Texas has faced six of the country's top 14 passing offenses, including four of the top five.
Texas run offense vs. Ohio State run defense The Longhorns have a respectable running game, but QB Colt McCoy leads them in rushing with 576 yards; that's 200 more than their most productive running back (Vondrell McGee). Bullish FB Cody Johnson has scored 12 touchdowns. Ohio State ranks among the nation's top 20 in rushing defense. The Buckeyes faced three of the nation's top 30 running backs Michigan State's Javon Ringer, Penn State's Evan Royster and Purdue's Kory Sheets and did not allow more than 77 rushing yards or a touchdown.
Edge: Ohio State.
Texas pass offense vs. Ohio State pass defense Typical of a Big 12 offense, Texas has a strong, productive passing attack. The Longhorns average just less than 300 passing yards behind McCoy, who ranks third in the nation in passing efficiency and has thrown for 3,445 yards and 32 touchdowns with only seven interceptions. WRs Jordan Shipley and Quan Cosby have 79 and 78 catches, respectively, and have combined for 19 touchdowns, while RB Chris Ogbonnaya is effective out of the backfield. Ohio State's pass defense is led by CB Malcolm Jenkins, who has three interceptions and nine pass breakups. The Buckeyes rank seventh in the nation in pass defense, but they haven't been tested by a team that throws as well as Texas.
Ohio State special teams vs. Texas special teams Texas' Cosby and Shipley are dangerous on kickoff returns, but Ohio State is among the best in coverage on kicks and punts. The Longhorns have had issues in covering kickoffs, and Ray Small is scary on kick returns for the Buckeyes. Ohio State K Ryan Pretorius has converted 14-of-18 field-goal attempts, with a long of 50 yards, but he has been inconsistent beyond 40 yards. Texas' Hunter Lawrence is 9-of-11, with a long of 46 yards. Both teams have solid punters.
Edge: Ohio State.
Texas coaches vs. Ohio State coaches The Longhorns have posted at least nine victories in every one of Mack Brown's 11 seasons in Austin and have a national championship. Not many coaches can top that résumé, but Ohio State's Jim Tressel is one who can. In eight seasons under Tressel, the Buckeyes have notched 83 victories, three Big Ten championships, three appearances in the national championship game and a national title.
Edge: Ohio State.
X-factor: A year ago, senior QB Todd Boeckman passed for 2,379 yards and helped Ohio State reach the national championship game. But early this season he was benched in favor of Pryor. There are indications that Boeckman will be used at least to some degree in hopes of giving the Buckeyes' passing game a boost against Texas' soft pass defense.
Texas will win if: McCoy will need to have a strong game. The Longhorns must prove their lofty ranking against the run is because of the strength of their defense and not the weakness of the running games they've faced. If Texas slows Ohio State's running game and forces obvious passing situations, the Buckeyes are in trouble.
Ohio State will win if: History shows that running successfully is the key for the Buckeyes. They rushed for a combined total of just 132 yards and no touchdowns in their two losses, to USC and Penn State. Putting pressure on McCoy will be vital, too.
Expert picks Olin Buchanan: Texas 34, Ohio State 24
Tom Dienhart: Texas 30, Ohio State 21
David Fox: Ohio State 35, Texas 31
Mike Huguenin: Texas 28, Ohio State 23
Steve Megargee: Texas 31, Ohio State 17
Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.