Preseason countdown: No. 5 Texas
Texas, it's OK to start playing up to your talent level again.
In 14 years as the Texas head coach, Mack Brown has lost a grand total of 39 games, with 12 of them coming over the last two seasons. To put this in perspective, Texas lost 12 games from 2003 to 2009, a span of seven with a phenomenal 79-12 record.
And after a bit of a hiccup, now there’s absolutely no excuse to not be back at a national title level again.
It wasn’t all Garrett Gilbert’s fault, but he came to represent the problems that knocked the Longhorns down from their elite status. The current SMU QB came to Texas as an All-World prospect, but the coaching staff was used to mobile options like Vince Young and Colt McCoy and didn’t seem to be able to get the most out of the star prospect. Gilbert struggled, didn’t get any help from the rest of the offense, was replaced, and then all of a sudden Texas became very, very mediocre against the better teams.
The defense was tremendous last season – finishing first in total defense, run defense and pass defense while finishing second in scoring D – but if you can’t put up points in the high-powered Big 12, you can’t win. Gilbert was quickly pushed aside for young options David Ash and Case McCoy, and while they weren’t miserable, the offense simply couldn’t find the endzone.
But enough is enough. There’s too much talent, too much experience, too much athleticism and too many outstanding recruiting classes in a row for 2012 to not be a special season. So now it comes down to this for Brown after his two straight duds; either Texas wins at least 10 games and gets back to a BCS game, or else no coaching staff in America will have gotten less out of its team.
The players are in place. The coaching staff is tremendous. The schedule isn’t all that bad with just two road games against teams that went bowling last season. In other words, there’s no excuse.
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What to watch for on offense: Quarterback, quarterback, quarterback. The idea that it’s a good thing to keep up the competition between David Ash and Case McCoy might be a negative. Ash appears to be the better of the two options, but he needs to have the No. 1 job to become the leader the offense needs. Still a sophomore, Ash needs to time to grow into his potential and he has to be able to learn from his mistakes. However, the coaching staff isn’t going to be patient if he isn’t getting the job done.
What to watch for on defense: Speed. Texas always has a vast array of athletic speedsters and athletic marvels, but even for a Brown team this year’s back seven should take on a whole other level. It’s not that former linebackers Emmanuel Acho and Keenan Robinson were bad in any way, but they were better football players than athletes. Once Steve Edmond gets a little more time in the middle, and after Demarco Cobbs establishes himself a bit more on the weakside, look out. Veteran Jordan Hicks is a tremendous talent, but he might look like he’s running in sand compared to Cobbs. The secondary takes speed and quickness to a whole other level.
The team will be far better if: The team could score on a consistent basis. Over the last two seasons, Texas is 8-0 when scoring 28 points or more and is 4-12 when scoring fewer. Basically, as good as the defense has been, it hasn’t been able to pitch the shutouts needed to overcome the inconsistent play of the offense. This year, with this defense, scoring 28 should be an automatic win, but just getting to 20 might be more than enough.
The schedule: It won’t be a barrier to getting back to superpower status, but there are a few key landmines to sidestep. The non-conference slate is a walk in the park with Wyoming, New Mexico and Ole Miss all layups if the Longhorns are focused, and then comes a nicely timed week off before going to Oklahoma State to kick off the most important three-game stretch of the season. OSU, West Virginia and Oklahoma are likely going to be the three toughest teams on the schedule, and they all come in a row. If Texas gets to 6-0, it’ll be on the fast track to 12-0. However, don’t sleep on the road trip to Texas Tech, which will be experienced on defense and improved on offense. It could be the big curveball of the 2012 Big 12 season. A week off before facing TCU is a godsend, and closing out at Kansas State shouldn’t be too bad if Texas is back to being Texas.
Best offensive player: Sophomore RB Malcolm Brown … maybe. Thumping fullback Joe Bergeron was good enough this offseason to take carries away and potentially push Brown for the starting job. It’s a good problem for the coaching staff to have, looking to keep both players fresh in a rotation that should take the heat off the passing game. But on pure talent and upside, Brown has all the skills and abilities to carry the offense and be a special runner. However, this year’s super-recruit, Johnathan Gray, might be every bit as good when he gets his chances.
Best defensive player: Senior DE Alex Okafor and Junior DE Jackson Jeffcoat. There will be all-stars galore in the back seven, but everything starts with the defensive front that boasts an outstanding array of prospects on the outside. Okafor is a big, tough pass rusher who’s always working to make things happen, while Jeffcoat is a next-level talent who should be one of the Big 12’s most dangerous pass rushers once he gets past a torn pectoral muscle. The two should combine to be among the nation’s best end tandems.
Key player to a successful season: Freshman PK Nick Jordan. It’s not like Texas plays a slew of close games, but the difference between a great season and a special one could come down to a few key kicks. Since losing to Kansas State 45-42 in 2006, Texas is 9-0 in games decided by three points or fewer. Can Jordan come through with the really big kick if needed? It’s asking a lot for a true freshman to come through in the clutch.
The season will be a success if: Texas wins the Big 12 title. You’re not Texas if you’re shooting for anything less than a national championship, but considering the quarterbacks might not be up to BCS snuff, and with too many concerns on special teams, winning the conference championship would be a huge success after the problems over the last two seasons. Even if the Longhorns play up to their abilities it’s not going to be easy with road games at Oklahoma State, Texas Tech and Kansas State to go along with home dates against West Virginia and TCU and the annual shootout against Oklahoma, however, they should be better than everyone except, maybe, the Sooners.
Key game: Sept. 29 at Oklahoma State. Of course the Oklahoma game is huge, and there are several other key battles, but beating Oklahoma State on the road to kick off the Big 12 season is a must to show that this season and this team will be different. The Longhorns will get a week off to prepare, and with West Virginia and Oklahoma to follow it could be a must win to potentially avoid a disastrous start to the conference slate. Texas had won 12 straight against the Cowboys, often in heart-wrenching fashion, before losing the last two seasons. If Oklahoma State makes it three in a row, it might be officially time to signify a shift in conference power.