If you didn’t know just how big and just how important the University of Texas is in the whole scheme of the American collegiate system, look back at the circus staged during the realignment and expansion talks of a few months ago.
Texas couldn’t have possibly had its brass kissed any more by the Big Ten, SEC, and Pac-10 as they took turns pitching woo to the powerhouse university with the massive following, strong academics, and mighty athletic department. However, make no mistake about it, it was the re-emergence of the football program over the last decade that made the University of Texas relevant enough to warrant all the attention and all the fawning.
And that’s why it’s time to start building statues and renaming stadiums to honor Mack Brown.
It’s easy to forget, but as recently as 1997, Texas had just another football program. A year after stunning Nebraska to win the Big 12 title, the Longhorns went 4-7 and were simply a part of the conference instead of being the alpha dog in the pack. In came Mack Brown, and boom went the dynamite.
Always diminished and always slighted for not winning enough big games despite having some of the most talented teams in college football, Brown has been seen more as a caretaker than any sort of legend. He’s likeable enough, but he has never been beloved in a grandfatherly sort of way like Bobby Bowden. He’s a peerless recruiter and talent evaluator, but he has never been given the respect Pete Carroll received at USC for bringing in the top players. He has won year after year after year at the highest of levels, but Urban Meyer and Nick Saban are the resident geniuses of college football. The proof is in the numbers, and it’s time to include Brown among the all-time greats.
But he coaches at Texas, and anyone can win there with the fertile recruiting base and all the resources, right? From 1984 to 1997, a span of 14 seasons, Texas had won 10 games just twice, and both the overrated 1990 and 1995 squads were exposed by superior Miami and Virginia Tech teams, respectively. There were just two bowl wins (with, ironically, one coming over Brown’s North Carolina team in the 1994 Sun Bowl), no runs at a national title, and no juice whatsoever on the national scene.
Since Brown took over in 1998, Texas has won 128 games, has gone on a run of nine straight 10-win seasons, has never won fewer than nine games, and has emerged as a powerhouse of powerhouses that’s creeping ever closer to the success of Florida State’s epic 14-year run from 1987 to 2000.
How dominant has Texas been under Brown? Out of the 128 wins, 100 of them have been by double-digits. That means a Brown-led UT team will win in a blowout 65 percent of the time it runs onto the field. Out of the 27 losses, only two (2000 Stanford and 2007 Kansas State) have come against teams that finished with a losing record while most have come in bowl games (four), to elite teams in the given seasons (1998 UCLA, 1998 Kansas, 1999 Nebraska in the Big 12 title, 1999 Kansas State, 2001 Colorado in the Big 12 title, 2006 Ohio State, 2008 Texas Tech), or to Oklahoma (six times) or Texas A&M (three times) in rivalry games.
So for all the success and all the wins and all the gobs and gobs of money Brown has brought the university, it’s time to start giving him the benefit of the doubt and assume he’s going to put together a 10-win season while keeping Texas among the elite. But that faith could be put to the test this year.
Texas isn’t going anywhere any time soon with a few great recruiting classes restocking the shelves, but if any year is going to be blip on the radar, this might be it. Oh sure, there’s still a pile of NFL talent across the board, but this year’s Longhorn team has several major question marks from the mediocre offensive line, to the relatively green starting quarterback, to the backfield that hasn’t exactly set the world on fire, to a defensive front that needs to find more pass rushers to help out Sam Acho.
The defense is going to be a brick wall, led by one of the nation’s top secondaries, there’s speed and talent to burn at receiver, and while the backfield might not have a Ricky Williams or a Cedric Benson, the backs could do far more now that there’s going to be a shift to more of a ground attack.
But in the end, this is still Texas. For all the nitpicky problems and concerns, this is still the most talented team in the Big 12 by a mile, or maybe a quarter-mile over Oklahoma. This isn’t Brown’s best team, and the loss of Colt McCoy will be massive, but the 10 wins will come, another run in the Big 12 title chase is a given, and another BCS bowl game, after going to four in six years, might be a lock. But if Texas wins as expected, Brown deserves credit in this stepping-stone season for keeping everything going forward. He won’t get it, but he deserves it.
What to watch for on offense: More of a running attack. The team was way too reliant on Colt McCoy over the last few years, and it proved costly with disastrous ends to both the 2006 and the 2009 seasons after he got hurt. The coaching staff has decided to balance things out a bit and go back to running the ball more with the backs instead of a McCoy or Vince Young-like quarterback, but there’s a question whether or not this team has the pieces to do it. The offensive line has been shockingly average over the last few years, and only two starters return up front. There are plenty of running back options, but no world-beaters unless Tre Newton becomes special. In any event, the offense that averaged 274 passing yards and 148 rushing yards per game should even out a bit.
What to watch for on defense: A phenomenal year from the secondary. Had Earl Thomas decided to come back to man his strong safety spot, the UT starting group that included Aaron Williams and Curtis Brown on the outside, Blake Gideon at free safety, and Chykie Brown in a nickel spot (or at corner with Williams at nickel) would have been hailed as one of the best in the history of Texas football, and one of the most talented college defensive backfields of all-time. It’s still going to be good with the ultra-athletic Christian Scott taking over for Thomas and everyone else back. This is going to be a ball-hawking group that flies all over the field, and if the pass rush can approach the level it was at last season, when it finished second in the nation in sacks and eighth in tackles for loss, the pass defense will be a brick wall two years after it was lit up like a Christmas tree.
The team will be far better if… a running back becomes special. There will be a four- or five-headed monster utilized for the ground game, but it would be really nice if someone took over and became the main man for everyone else to work around. The Texas ground game wasn’t awful last season, but it was inconsistent over the second half of the season and non-existent for stretches. Of the 28 touchdown runs, just one came against Oklahoma, Nebraska, and Alabama. No Texas team should ever be held to 46 yards rushing by the 2009 Colorado Buffaloes.
The schedule: It’s Texas, so it’s going to finish with double-digit wins, but there are just enough landmines to prevent a second-straight unbeaten season. It’s an interesting first half, after layups against Rice and Wyoming, with a tougher-than-Texas-will-believe home game against UCLA sandwiched in between a trip to Texas Tech and the Oklahoma showdown. After a week off, the Longhorns get a possible Big 12 Championship preview at Nebraska in what might be an even bigger conference matchup than the Red River Rivalry. If the ‘Horns are 6-0, start booking tickets for Glendale (either for the BCS championship or for the Fiesta Bowl, depending on what happens in the Big 12 title game) with five home games in the last six and the road game at Kansas State.
Best offensive player: Sophomore QB Garrett Gilbert … or at least the hope is that he’s the star of the show. The 6-4, 212-pound sophomore did a great job of making the BCS Championship interesting by fighting through an all-timer of a lousy start to rally the team. Of course he stumbled in the end, but he showed the potential and a glimpse of the talent that made him the 2008 Gatorade National Player of the Year. He’s a special passer with the arm, the size, and the skill to play at the next level if he keeps developing and improving.
Best defensive player: Senior DE Sam Acho. He’ll suffer from being pigeon-holed as the next Brian Orakpo and Sergio Kindle in the progression of Texas pass rushers, but he’s not quite the same sort of player. He’ll get his sacks after coming up with 10 last year, but he’s hardly a specialist with the toughness to work as an undersized tackle to go along with the athleticism to be a speed rusher on the outside. The defensive front seven will work around him.
Key player to a successful season: Junior C David Snow, but this could go for the entire starting offensive line. Remember, it’s all relative when it comes to the impossibly high standards that Texas should be held to, but the line hasn’t been as good as it should be over the last few seasons. Kyle Hix has to go from good to great as he moves over from right tackle to left, and Michael Huey could stand to be more dominant going from right guard to left, but the biggest spotlight will be on Snow, a 6-4, 295-pound junior who struggled as a guard over the first half of last year and now has to take over for Chris Hall, who started 37 games up front.
The season will be a success if … Texas wins the Big 12 title. There are too many holes and too many question marks to demand a run for the national title, and beating an improved Oklahoma would be a big deal, but there’s no reason to ever shoot for anything less than a Big 12 Championship. Texas, it’s time to show what all the realignment fuss was really about and show how dominant you can be in what might be considered a down year.
Key game: Besides the Oklahoma game on Oct. 2, the Oct. 16 date at Nebraska. If the Longhorns can survive the first five games unscathed, including the Red River Rivalry, they’ll get two weeks off to prepare for what might be the Big 12 game of the year. Nebraska will almost certainly be 5-0 with the toughest game at that point either the trip to Washington or the date at Kansas State, so the winner might launch itself into national title contention. Or the rematch of the 2009 Big 12 Championship might simply be a preview of the 2010 Big 12 Championship.