AUSTIN, Texas — It's been a long, tough week for Texas coach Mack Brown.
Consecutive losses have him desperately trying to figure out how to recover in time for the start of the Big 12 season on Saturday night against Kansas State (2-1). Then came Thursday's revelation that a school regent and a close friend talked in January with Alabama coach Nick Saban's agent about the possibility of luring Saban to Austin if Brown retired. The friend followed the phone call with a meeting with Brown to ask him if he was ready to retire.
No, Brown said, and that was that — until two straight losses, to BYU and Mississippi, sparked a new flurry of questions about his future at Texas.
Now Brown has to coach a game against a Wildcats program that has won five in a row over Texas. Even if he can ignore the off-field distractions about Saban, he's got plenty of problems to handle within his team. The Longhorns (1-2) are battling key injuries on offense and a shaky confidence.
Quarterback David Ash didn't play last week because of lingering concussion symptoms. He was cleared to practice Wednesday with further evaluations expected up until game time. The defense is still learning its way under new coordinator Greg Robinson, who has spent just two weeks on the job after Brown fired Manny Diaz.
Brown told his team to focus on winning the Big 12, a league he feels is "wide open" and ripe for the taking.
"I still think this team's got a great shot. We've got a chance in every game left because I've seen it. I've seen it in practice. It's a great group of young people trying," Brown said.
Kansas State had to do its own turn-around. The defending Big 12 champions lost to Championship Subdivision champion North Dakota State at home before beating Louisiana-Lafayette and Massachusetts.
Wildcats coach Bill Snyder said was sympathetic with Brown's struggles.
"I know when they don't have the success that they want it is painful for him as it is for anybody," Snyder said. "He cares about his players, and he hurts for them as well."
Here's five things to watch when Kansas State plays Texas:
BROWN: Who else? There is no bigger topic of conversation in Austin than Brown's future. The 16th-year coach built up expectations the Longhorns were ready to return to the national elite this season, only to see them fall flat out of the gate. The game will be televised on ABC and the cameras will no doubt spend a lot of time tracking his reaction to every play: good or bad ugly
ASH: With him, the Texas offense has big-play capability. Ash accounted for seven touchdowns — six passes and a 55-yard run — in the first two games before he was hurt. When senior Case McCoy started against Mississippi, the Longhorns were clearly limited in their passing attack and had to play conservative, even when behind.
RUNNING 'CATS: BYU and Mississippi's option attack ran all over Texas the last two weeks and Snyder certainly noticed. In 2010, Snyder inserted a little-used quarterback named Collin Klein to run the ball in a Wildcats rout. Snyder has said slippery backup quarterback Daniel Sams will definitely get on the field against the Longhorns. Texas must get a handle on him and tough Wildcats running back John Hubert to avoid a third straight loss.
LOCKETT UP: Speedy junior wide receiver Tyler Lockett is the Wildcats' big playmaker. His career kickoff return average of 32.9 yards ranks first in Big 12 history. If the Wildcats' running game get cranked up, Texas defensive backs could get sucked in on ball fakes, leaving Lockett open for big plays downfield.
FADE TO GRAY?: Texas running back Johnathan Gray was a high school phenomenon, setting a national record for touchdowns (205) and finishing third in career rushing yards. None of that has translated on the college level yet. The sophomore leads Texas in rushing with 209 yards but has just two touchdowns. Texas is still rotating Gray with Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron. Gray rushed for 91 yards last week against Mississippi but his carries tailed off.