So maybe Texas isn't living the charmed life that the program has enjoyed for much of the past 10 years. Sure, the 2010 season was a comedy of errors, and sure, Texas A&M has gone and become one of college football's new sexy "IT" programs, in their fancy pants new conference. Still, rumors of the total demise of Texas are probably exaggerated, as the Longhorns return an experienced and highly talented squad, with Texas-sized expectations along with it. No doubt about it, whether this game is being played in Provo, Austin, or Newt Gingrich's Secret Moon Base, this will be one of the toughest tests for the Cougars this season.
In case you were wondering, it's going to be held in Provo, although if getting on the Moon Base would help ESPN access, I'm sure somebody will look into it.
Alright, enough jibber jabber. Let's mess with Texas.
How did Texas do last season?
For all the flack that Texas caught from many national media sources, they really didn't have *that* bad of a season. Texas finished 9-4 (5-4), and beat a good Oregon State team 31-27 in the Alamo Bowl. Throughout the year, Texas boasted a strong offense, and hung very close in two of their losses, a 48-45 shootout to West Virginia when the Mountaineers were at the peak of their powers, and a 20-13 close setback to a good TCU team. Given some of the injury trouble that Texas experienced, and their relative youth, those two losses could probably be forgiven. Probably.
You know what can't be forgiven though? Absolutely, positively getting the doors BLOWN OFF by Oklahoma. Getting clobbered by Kansas State isn't going to help your case either. No school with the resources and talent level of a Texas should give up 63 points to anybody. In Big Ten country, we call that a high scoring BASKETBALL game. Those blowouts really took the shine off anything else Texas managed to accomplish last season.
What can we expect to see from Texas on offense?
The Longhorns will turn to David Ash under center, another player that I suspect may have been unfairly maligned during the year. Ash threw for 2,699 yards, 19 TDs and 8 picks, with a 67.3% completion rate, which isn't bad at all for a sophomore. The problem, as Bill Connelly points out, is that when Ash was bad, he was BAD. Against the Sooners and Horned Frogs, Ash completed just 23 of 50 passes for 217 yards, no touchdowns, and four picks. It's hard to win many games with that kind of stat line no matter who you are playing, but let's get real, if you give up 63 points, you can put Aaron Rogers under center and still lose.
Ash returns his top two targets in Mike Davis (57 catches, 939 yards) and Jaxon Shipley (59 catches, 737 yards, and a first name that feels straight out of Utah). Texas loses the electric Marquise Goodwin, but retains another explosive threat in Daje Johnson (19 catches, 287 yards,, 82.6% catch rate). Davis and Shipley provide a strong 1-2 punch that could challenge most secondaries, but Davis vanished in some games, and having another potential home run threat could really add another big wrinkle to the Texas passing attack. Either way, BYU will probably have their hands full with this outfit.
The interesting question is with the running game. On paper, this ought to be an elite unit. All five starters along the offensive line return, paced by 2nd-team All-Big 12 LG Trey Hopkins, along with the top five returning rushers, including leading running backs Johnathan Gray (698 yards 3 TDs), Joe Bergeron (567 yards 16 TDs) and Malcolm Brown (324 yards, 4 TDs). Gray and Brown were 5 star recruits, and their running back corps and line are full of 4 and 5 star prospects who have not played up to that billing, either from injury, instability, inconsistency or immaturity. The potential is there for this unit to be elite, and if it is, Texas will have dynamic and powerful offense. If not, Ash might be forced to put all the weight on his shoulders, which could lead to bad decisions at inopportune times.
But what about the defense? I didn't hear good things about that last year.
That would be accurate, especially the rush defense. A major part of that was due to injuries. After linebacker Jordan Hicks went down for the year, an already quasi-shaky unit was left in shambles, and when the dust settled, opponents averaged an astounding 299 yards rushing against Texas a game. Now, part of that is probably because Texas faced some pretty strong offensive attacks last season, but still. #woof.
The good news for Longhorn fans is that Hicks is back, and this defense returns a lot of experience, and lots and lots of Rivals and Scout stars. Only Alex Okafor (who WAS awesome) departs from the line this season (and many likely contributors, like Jackson Jeffcoat and Ashton Dorsey, should finally be fully healthy). The only other defender Texas needs to replace is FS Kenny Vaccaro, who was also a strong member of the secondary, but hardly irreplaceable. Everybody else comes back.
What does that mean? It means Texas has a pretty high ceiling for their defense, if their crew of 4 and 5 stars can stay healthy and build off the lumps they took last season. Having an experienced crew of underachievers is hardly crowing achievement though, and the Longhorns will need to make production with potential. Manny Diaz, last season not withstanding, has a strong record of building great defensive units. This is certainly a crew that could experience a dramatic improvement. The run defense, at least, probably can't get that much worse anyway.
Have these guys ever played before?
Yes, and interestingly enough, BYU leads the all-time series 2-1. Texas won the most recent meeting in 2011, beating a 10-3 BYU team 17-16 in Austin. The Cougars won both matchups in a home and home in 1988 and 1987, beating a 7-5 Longhorn team in Texas 22-17, and kicking the crap out of an overmatched Texas squad in Provo in 1988, 47-6 (that Longhorn team won only 4 games). Expect to see this fact mentioned among local media at least 1,000 times before the game.
Are there any famous Texas type grads I should know about?
If your school has roughly a gazillion students, and you have one of the largest athletic programs in the country, chances are, you're going to churn out a few famous people. A BY NO MEANS EXHAUSTIVE list of those individuals might include Laura Bush, Lloyd Bentsen. Michael Dell of Dell Computers, Janis Joplin, Matthew McConaughey and Paul Begala.
As far as sports go, Texas can claim Roger Clemens (if they wanted to I guess), Adam Dunn, LaMarcus Aldridge, some dude named Kevin Durant, TJ Ford and Boobie Gibson. There are a ton of famous football players, including Cedric Benson, Ricky Williams, Jamaal Charles, and the legendary Phil Dawson.
So how is this game going to go?
Like most football games, this is probably going to come down to the line of scrimmage. If the Longhorn defensive front plays like it did last year, BYU will have the ability to attack them viciously on the ground, both giving cover for their downfield passing game, and slowing the game down. The Cougars likely do not have the athletes to win an out and out shootout with Texas, but they do have the potential to ugly the game up a little bit.
The other key point will be finding ways to make David Ash uncomfortable. He's hardly a statue in the pocket, but if they're able to get a few hits on him, it's possible that he can be pressured into making bad decisions, allowing BYU to prematurely end drives without giving up points, and potentially giving themselves great field position.
With the exception of maybe Notre Dame, BYU won't face a more talented team this season, and I don't think it's very close. The Longhorns will have the talent pedigree advantage at nearly every position (although perhaps not dramatically so), and the Cougars will need to play a fundamentally sound, tactically smart game to give themselves a chance. That probably means getting a clutch turnover,l sustaining drives, and remaining mentally focused if they give up a huge play on defense.
We've talked about this in the LGHL newsroom a lot, and I admit, I'm more bullish on the Longhorns this season than a lot of other bloggers. Phil Steele agrees, having them as his preseason Big 12 favorite, and a candidate for a major bounce back season. If BYU can steal a win here, there really isn't a team on their schedule they won't be able to beat, and we can all be forgiven for dreaming big dreams about this squad. I don't think that's in the cards though. I think the Cougars hang around and make things difficult, but Texas eventually wins, 28-20.