STILLWATER — Here we go again, with another Oklahoma State-Texas matchup providing a measuring stick for a program out to prove its rise is for real.
Except this time the age-old standard of comparison reveals a role reversal — it's the Longhorns readying for their moment of proof.
The Cowboys are still seeking traction and clarity in forging an identity of their own; however, more eyes are on Texas, now ranked No. 12 at 3-0, yet still dragging heavy luggage filled with question marks lingering from disappointments of the past two years.
How good are these 'Horns?
At this point, we don't know, due to a soft opening that served up comfortable wins over the likes of Wyoming, New Mexico and Ole Miss.
“I want to see our toughness,” Texas coach Mack Brown said. “I'd like to see it against good competition. I want to see how good we are nationally.
“We're going to know that soon.”
As soon as Saturday, it would seem, against the reigning Big 12 champs before a prepped and pepped prime-time crowd at Boone Pickens Stadium, where OSU hasn't lost since 2010.
Why the wait-and-see on a Texas team that has done all that could be asked of it so far? The 'Horns have veered off course at similar stages the past two seasons.
In 2010, Texas started 3-0, then crashed to a 5-7 final record that included a 2-6 run through the conference and a last-place finish in the Big 12 South.
A year ago, the 'Horns opened 4-0, only to stumble again, ending 4-5 in the Big 12 (tied for sixth) and standing 8-5 at the finish.
OSU begins a three-week gauntlet of games for Texas, with West Virginia and Oklahoma up next.
“If we're going to show what type of team we are,” said safety Kenny Vaccaro, “it's going to be in these next few weeks.”
There is optimism that the 'Horns are indeed improved over the teams that lost at home to the Cowboys and finished unranked each of the past two seasons.
* Quarterback David Ash, who scuffled as a freshman in a time-share a year ago, seems to be growing with each game. Ash, who had four touchdowns and eight interceptions in 2011, has thrown for seven touchdowns without a pick thus far.
“After having started multiple games last year as well as spring ball and two-a-days,” said Cowboys defensive coordinator Bill Young, “he is just much more settled in. He looks a lot more confident in the pocket.”
In a 66-31 romp at Ole Miss, Ash threw for a career-best 326 yards and four touchdowns, although detractors will point out that Ash at times took advantage of overmatched Rebel defensive backs with lob balls that may not be so effective against better secondaries.
* Texas' offensive line played a major role in totaling 101 knockdowns of Ole Miss defenders, showing off a more aggressive and physical approach. The unit has been bolstered by the addition of junior-college transfer Donald Hawkins, who stepped in at left tackle, allowing sophomore Josh Cochran to shift to right tackle.
* The ruggedness of the offensive front fuels the running game, which features a trio of talented backs: Joe Bergeron, Malcolm Brown and Johnathan Gray. Bergeron, a load at 6-foot-1 and 230 pounds, is questionable for Saturday due to a shoulder injury. Still, Brown averages 6.4 yards per carry and nicked the Cowboys for 135 yards and two touchdowns last year. Gray, a highly touted true freshman compared to Adrian Peterson out of high school, is being brought along slowly, but could see his role enhanced if Bergeron is unavailable.
* Even UT's wideouts, all but invisible as playmakers the past two years, have shown up strong through three games. Mike Davis, Jaxon Shipley and Marquise Goodwin have all provided production and big plays in the passing game.
* Defense remains a Longhorns calling card, with NFL-style ends in Alex Okafor and Jackson Jeffcoat and more pro potential in the secondary with Vaccaro and corners Quandre Diggs and Carrington Byndom.
If the defense has a soft spot, it's at linebacker, especially with veteran Jordan Hicks iffy to play with a hip injury.
“Their defense is always good,” said Cowboys offensive guard Lane Taylor. “They always have athletes. Their offense is clicking better than last year. They definitely look better.”
Ultimately, the Longhorns' power to prove themselves comes back to the offense.
Although involved in a lengthy battle for the quarterback spot with Case McCoy, Ash always was pegged as the man for the job by Big 12 assistants familiar with him from the recruiting trails.
A three-year starter who set 13 school records at Belton High School in central Texas, Ash was the No. 11-ranked prep quarterback by ESPNU. While success didn't come instantly for Ash, it seems to be coming now, with Saturday looming as a key checkpoint for him and the Longhorns.
“I'm not gonna say anything about the defenses they faced,” said OSU cornerback Justin Gilbert, “but I think we can give them a better fight than the teams that they've been playing. I think this will be the game where we really see what they're made of.”