Preseason countdown: No. 18 Texas

At a place like Texas, not winning the national title is disappointing. Not winning a Big 12 title is a nightmare; especially when Oklahoma is hoisting the trophy. But have a season like 2010, and the panic sirens start blaring.

Going 5-7 and missing out on a bowl game for the first time since 1997 might be a complete and utter disaster, but at Texas, either you win the national title or you don’t. Either you win the Big 12 title or you don’t. Would sneaking into some lower-tier bowl game have made anyone around Austin happy? Hardly.

It doesn’t matter if the record is 8-4, 5-7, 0-12 or 10-2; if Texas doesn’t win a title and/or get into a BCS bowl game, the season is a failure. That might not seem fair and that might not seem right, but Texas is so big, so talented and so loaded that there’s absolutely no excuse whatsoever to not be in the national title chase every year.

Thanks to the talents of Mack Brown, who took Texas football to a special level — it’s not like the national titles were flowing before Brown came to town — the football program can get just about anyone it wants. It owns the in-state recruiting world, and when Brown misses out on one or two big prospects, there are always 10 more superstars ready to sign on the dotted line. When was the last time Texas mattered in any way on the first Wednesday in February? Brown almost always has his haul of high school All-Americans locked up well before Signing Day.

In 2010, the talent level became a negative for a team full of athletic marvels who appeared to be assuming that throwing on the jerseys would instantly bring a BCS bid. There are certain expectations when a top-shelf recruit becomes a Longhorn, and if things aren’t going quite right and any championship dreams are gone by early October, there’s going to be a letdown.

Because of the disappointment of their ugly loss after ugly loss, Brown questioned the team’s effort throughout the second half of the season, and rightly so. Railing on a regular basis to try to find a spark, Brown tried everything possible to motivate his phenomenally-talented team to get up for inferior squads like Iowa State, Baylor and Kansas State, but to no avail. It’s not like the Longhorns always played dead, but they didn’t exactly bring the A-game each time out. Even so, motivation wasn’t the problem. It wasn’t a positive, but it’s not why the season was such a disaster for a team that had a few positives.

The Longhorns had a decent defense, but hotshot coordinator Will Muschamp was itching and ready to get a head coaching gig, not appearing interested in waiting any longer to take over for Brown. It’s not like Muschamp was a total distraction — the defense finished sixth in the nation — but his upward mobility didn’t help when the team dynamic was breaking down. But he wasn’t the problem.

Texas football stunk in 2010 because the offense couldn’t figure out what it wanted to be. The Longhorns had been phenomenal for years under Brown, but they took the next step forward after Vince Young took over and Colt McCoy followed in the footsteps with their all-around skills. Those two were the entire offense at times, but when McCoy lost his arm in the first few minutes of the 2010 BCS Championship Game against Alabama, something had to change with more of the offensive workload to be spread around. It didn’t work.

There was supposed to be help from the running backs to take the pressure off the quarterback, but the line couldn’t block and the running backs couldn’t make things happen on their own. QB Garrett Gilbert was asked to get the offense working with the passing game, the receivers didn’t help the cause and poor decision after poor decision led to an attack that sputtered and coughed when it should’ve been able to simply out-talent almost everyone.

So, now the question becomes if 2010 was simply a fixable blip, or if this was the start of a slide into mediocrity.

There’s usually a simple explanation when superpowers come back down to Earth. Tennessee and Florida State lost their fastballs after Phil Fulmer and Bobby Bowden, respectively, came up with a few great-looking recruiting classes that underwhelmed, and they couldn’t get the old magic back. USC is still trying to overcome the Reggie Bush issues; Miami faltered after Larry Coker didn’t have Butch Davis’ players to coach anymore; and Michigan and Nebraska fell off the map after disastrous coaching hires — Rich Rodriguez and Bill Callahan, respectively — led to changes of the identities of iconic programs.

Texas doesn’t really have any major overall issues. The talent is still coming, there aren’t any sanctions to blame and Brown seems to be going as strong as ever. The team just plain stunk it up in 2010.

While 2011 won’t be a repeat of last year, there are a ton of major issues to overcome to be back in the Big 12 title chase. The offensive line has to be night-and-day stronger, the turnover margin has to be better, the kickoff return game has to be at least average, the passing game has to be more efficient and the running backs need to provide a spark.

The otherworldly-looking receiving corps has to start playing up to its prep billing, the new assistant coaches have to provide new energy and better ideas and overall, Texas can’t rest on being Texas. The sense of entitlement is gone, and Brown knows it. It’s time to be Texas again, but this year — and for the first time in over a decade — 8-4 might really be OK.

What to watch for on offense: The quarterback situation. The running backs and receivers didn’t exactly help the cause, and the offensive line was stunningly bad, but QB Garrett Gilbert was the Beavis & Butthead episode of the 2010 college football season. Even when things were going well there was always one bad decision that meant he wasn’t going to score. While Gilbert has next-level skills and as much pure talent as any quarterback in college football, he doesn’t seem to have a feel for the game quite yet. He’s not as decisive as he needs to be, and now he can’t afford to spill. He has to be perfect or else Connor Wood or Case McCoy will step in and give it a try. It’s Texas — the backup could’ve gone anywhere.

What to watch for on defense: The Manny Diaz enthusiasm. One of college football’s rising star coaches, Diaz was the defensive coordinator at Middle Tennessee two years ago, spent one year at Mississippi State and now gets to follow in the footsteps of giant names like Gene Chizik and Will Muschamp. He inherits a line with a world of talent and depth, but little consistency, and a secondary in need of new stars in several key spots. He’s going to be aggressive, aggressive, aggressive, and his front seven — occasionally a front six — is going to get behind the line on a regular basis. His defenses over the last few years have been terrific at making big things happen, but he never had talents like the ones he gets to work with now. Considering UT was second in the nation in sacks and eighth in tackles for loss in 2009, and was 31st in sacks and 42nd in tackles for loss last year, Diaz should make a big difference.

The team will be far better if: The offensive line can hit someone. Obviously, Texas provides a steady stream of offensive linemen to the NFL, right? After all, few programs in America, if any, send better defensive backs to the next level. There are always dangerous pass rushers ready to be millionaires, and there are plenty of Longhorn skill players littered all over the big league. So, how many Texas offensive linemen have been drafted over the last three years? Zero, and Mike Williams in 2002 was the last Texas blocker to be taken in the first round. The Longhorn lines have been fine when experienced, and pass protection wasn’t really an issue last season, but there’s no blast. There’s no power running game to rely on when everything else is breaking down, and this year’s line doesn’t appear to have the talent to change things around in a hurry.

The schedule: Everything set up schedule-wise for a phenomenal 2010, with the back half apparently easy with so many home games against average teams — oops. This year, Texas will get two big chances early to show things have turned around, with BYU as big a must-win as Brown has had in a long, long time. Lose that, and all of a sudden the road game at UCLA becomes a game of monumental proportions. Texas doesn’t play a true home game for over a month, starting with the date at UCLA and going through to the Oklahoma showdown, and there isn’t a big run of home games to rely on outside of a stretch of three in four weeks against Kansas, Texas Tech and Kansas State. Going to Missouri and Texas A&M will be challenging, but getting Oklahoma State and Texas Tech at home is a positive.

Best offensive player: Sophomore WR Mike Davis. The offense desperately needs Gilbert, or one of the other quarterback options, to be the best player, and top recruit RB Malcolm Brown might be the star of the show right away, but it’s Davis who appears ready to break out and shine. Unstoppable at times this offseason, even with shaky quarterback play, Davis will be the star of the attack, even though he won’t get the recognition Oklahoma’s Ryan Broyles and Oklahoma State’s Justin Blackmon will enjoy.

Best defensive player: Senior LB Keenan Robinson. A sure thing for 100 tackles and plenty of plays behind the line, he’s a perfect fit for the Manny Diaz defensive scheme. He’ll be all over the place, but he’ll mostly be a whale of a run stopper with an NFL-ready blend of speed and toughness. There are other Longhorns who’ll come up with more sacks and splashier plays, but it’s Robinson who’ll be the leader of the group. It’ll show with a slew of All-Star honors and a top 40 draft selection on the way.

Key player to a successful season: Junior QB Gilbert, or sophomore QB McCoy, or redshirt freshman QB Wood. In 2009, Texas was 22nd in the nation in passing offense and 35th in passing efficiency. Last year, the passing game was 50th in yards and 103rd in efficiency. The Longhorns need a starting quarterback to take the job and then be the main man without having to look over his shoulder. Good luck. No matter who the starter will be the pressure will be on to make smart, right decisions and to keep the mistakes to a minimum.

The season will be a success if: Texas wins 10 games, even if it takes a bowl victory to get to double digits. There are way too many holes and too many issues to expect a Big 12 title, but the Longhorns could lose to Oklahoma, at Missouri and at Texas A&M and still right the ship. Brown won 10 games or more nine years in a row before last year, and making it 10-of-11 will show that 2010 was merely a slip.

Key game: Sept. 17 at UCLA. Of course, the Oklahoma and Texas A&M rivalries are big, but for a Texas team in desperate need of a confidence boost after what happened last year, including an ugly 34-12 loss to the Bruins, getting revenge over UCLA going into a bye week would be a start. Beating BYU at home the week before is a must, and assuming that happens, the date in the Rose Bowl should be the tone-setter for the season.