AUSTIN, Texas — Texas was supposed to be a year away from challenging for No. 1.
There were just too many questions: Could Colt McCoy cut down his interceptions? Could the Longhorns find a running game? Could new coordinator Will Muschamp turn a struggling defense into a playmaking one?
And after five straight blowouts against a soft early schedule, could they trade punches with a heavyweight such as Oklahoma?
The answers keep coming up yes and the Longhorns (6-0, 2-0 Big 12) are a surprise No. 1 after knocking off the previously top-ranked Sooners 45-35 Saturday. Texas is ranked No. 1 in the regular season for the first time since 1984.
“Right now, this team would be known for heart and character and toughness,” coach Mack Brown said. “Everybody has questioned this team, including me. I didn’t know how good we are.”
Everything starts with McCoy, who became a serious Heisman Trophy contender after his 277 yards passing with one touchdown against the Sooners. The junior is completing 79 percent of his passes with 17 touchdowns and just three interceptions. Last season, he threw 18 interceptions but had none Saturday in a nearly flawless performance against the Sooners.
“He’s just making those plays, and he knows when something’s not working why it’s not working,” Brown said. “Last year, we thought he got frustrated some and tried to move probably a little bit faster than he should at times because he was trying to make plays on his own.”
Just as important, McCoy’s 348 yards rushing and four touchdowns have kept teams off balance, giving Texas a flavor of a multitalented threat at QB the Longhorns had when Vince Young tormented opponents in the 2005 national championship seasons.
“McCoy’s a double threat. He can pass and run,” Sooners linebacker Travis Lewis said. “He has a lot of weapons around him. They outplayed us with those weapons.”
McCoy is also getting big plays from two fast but undersized and sure-handed receivers Jordan Shipley and Quan Cosby. Neither stands 6-feet tall but both managed to slip into open space against the Sooners.
While McCoy and his receivers are seasoned vets, Texas as a whole needed time to mature. The running game needed to replace Jamaal Charles, who gained 1,600 yards last season but bolted for the NFL, and Muschamp inherited a defense that was 109th nationally against the pass.
Early poundings of Florida Atlantic, Texas El-Paso and Rice by average scores of 50-10 gave the secondary a chance to gain confidence and the defensive line to turn into a pass-rushing force.
While the secondary gave up five touchdown passes Saturday, the Sooners’ high-powered offense scored just twice in the second half. Strong safety Earl Thomas had an interception and free safety Blake Gideon had eight tackles.
“Those guys aren’t young anymore,” linebacker Roddrick Muckelroy said.
Brian Orakpo, hampered much of last season by injuries, has nine of Texas’ 22 sacks, including two against Oklahoma when he powered past Sooners tackle and NFL prospect Phil Loadholt. Texas sacked Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford three times despite rushing just four players and dropping linebackers into coverage most of the game.
“We dominated the line of scrimmage, we played well up front, we rushed the passer with four guys rushing, we improved in coverage down the field,” Muschamp said.
The running game has been last to develop. Senior Chris Ogbonnaya has emerged as the best of a bunch at running back.
Ogbonnaya has shown a knack for making backbreaking runs with a 51-yarder against Colorado and a 62-yarder late against Oklahoma that set up Texas’ final touchdown. He finished with 127 yards against the Sooners.
The Longhorns also have found their short-yardage specialist in 255-pound freshman Cody Johnson, who touched the ball three times against the Sooners and scored on runs of 1, 1 and 2 yards. Johnson has nine touchdowns on 53 carries this season.
The big question now is whether Texas can hold on to No. 1 against a brutal schedule. The Big 12 is playing at its highest level since its creation in 1996 with five teams ranked in the top 11. Texas dispatched Oklahoma but now faces No. 11 Missouri on Saturday, No. 8 Oklahoma State a week later, No. 7 Texas Tech on Nov. 1 and a trip to No. 16 Kansas after that.
Brown doesn’t want to look beyond Saturday, but acknowledged what’s out there for his team if they can get through that gauntlet undefeated: the chance to play for No. 1 in Miami when it really matters.
“The fact that we won this game makes next week’s game with Missouri even that much bigger,” Brown said, “because now it puts us in a different place. Now we’re looking at a bigger goal.”