The peasants are seldom sympathetic when a king loses his crown.
From Mack Brown’s hiring in 1998 to Texas’ national title game appearance against Alabama on January 7, 2010, the Longhorns lived a charmed life in the world of college football. Brown accumulated a record of 116 wins to just 27 losses, finished ranked in the top fifteen eleven times, won a national title, and had a simpering lapdog in the Big 12 administration determined to carry out its Texan Overlords’ every whim.
Tables turned pretty quick. From 2010 to 2014, the Longhorns’ cumulative record was just 36-28 and saw the Horns lose their stranglehold on college football to the likes of TCU (!) and Baylor (!!!). Brown retired/resigned/was forced out and replaced with Louisville’s Charlie Strong, who promised to bring in his culture of toughness and discipline, with games won on the backs of a steady pro-style passing game and strong defense.
Texas won’t be down long. Despite a 6-7 record in 2014 the Strong effect was already taking hold.
A LATE UPTICK . . .
. . . and subsequent collapse. One of the simplest measuring sticks with which to assess a season is this: how did the team do against teams they were decidedly better than? Texas played nine teams that finished with winning records and four with losing records.
Vs. teams w/ losing records: Texas 35.8, Opponents 16.3 (4-0)
Vs. teams w/ winning records: Opponents 27.2, Texas 15 (2-7)
Texas took care of who they needed to, namely during a three-game winning streak near the end of the regular season (Texas: 31.7, Opponents 12). But any mid-to-high level team made life difficult for the Horns, who struggled to gain any offensive momentum against opponents not named Iowa State. Finally, reality came crashing in quickly in the form of TCU and Arkansas, who made short work of Strong’s squad.
In order to improve in 2015 the Horns will need to maintain the growth made on defense while finding some offensive consistency.
OFFENSE DU JOUR
Quarterback Tyone Swoopes was about as average as a quarterback can get, completing 59% of his passes for a middling 5.4 yards per attempt. He threw too many interceptions (11) and took too many sacks (26), and while he was his most accurate on third downs (71% on third and short situations) one has to wonder why Strong and offensive coordinator Shawn Watson were even calling him throw in this situations. Swoopes was a consistent runner when called upon to do so (5.7 yards per carry) . . . so why not run him on short yardage downs? Swoopes’ completion percentage came back down to earth on third and longer-than-three, a pedestrian 51%.
This means converting obvious passing situations was about a flip of the coin, and lo and behold, the Horns finished 64th in offensive efficiency, dead center of the FBS’ 128 teams.
How to break out of this in 2015? A better run game would help, and the Horns aren’t hurting for talent. Former five star recruit Jonathan Gray will bear the brunt of Texas’ rushing attack this fall, who, after a slow start, came on strong(er) late in the season (6.1 yards per carry in Texas’ three-game win streak, and we’ll gloss over his performance in the TCU and Arkansas games because we try to stay positive here).
Texas adds a bruising four star in Chris Warren III, who brings 6-2, 239, size to the position. If he plays this fall he could provide a short-yardage presence apparently lacking in 2014. An experienced offensive line will help, also. The Longhorns lose a seasoned center in Dominic Espinosa but retain four other starters with at least eleven starts under their belts.
Unfortunately for Swoopes, important pieces from an already inconsistent passing game are gone. (Of the 393 passes thrown by a Texas quarterback in 2014, 64% of them were thrown to a target no longer on the roster.)
It’s not that there are no pieces here (this is Texas recruiting we’re talking about) but they need to do more. Leading incumbent Marcus Johnson only caught 47% of the passes thrown his way. Jacorey Warrick was slightly more reliable at 56% but never went anywhere (5.2 yards per target). Sophomore-to-be Armanti Foreman provides the most hope for explosiveness in the passing game. While he caught only ten balls (six of them in the Oklahoma State and TCU games), he took each one for 18.8 yards and a pair of touchdowns, and also carried twice for 41 yards. If he can continue to be a deep threat it’ll open things up for the others underneath.
Now Swoopes has gotta hit ‘em.
THE DEFENSE WAS FINE
After coaching several suffocating defenses at Louisville and Florida, veteran defensive coordinator Vance Bedford returned to his alma mater in Austin and did not miss a beat. The cupboard wasn’t exactly empty: Bedford inherited a defense which performed 31st, 9th, 32nd, and 44th in Defensive S&P+ in the four years before he arrived. But Bedford didn’t even need a recruiting cycle or rebuilding year in order to improve them to 20th nationally, second in the Big 12 behind Baylor.
Now we’ll see if he can do it again. Texas essentially loses its leaders from all three units: Malcolm Brown and Cedric Reed from the defensive line (22 tackles for loss, 13 sacks), Steve Edmond and Jordan Hicks from the linebacking corps (22.5 tackles for loss, 10 sacks, two picks), and Quandre Diggs and Mykkele Thompson from the secondary (four picks, seven pass breakups).
The biggest test will come at lineman, but Texas played a pretty wide rotation of guys up front in 2014. So while the returning numbers don’t necessarily pop, there is plenty of experience to go around. The Longhorns will welcome the return of Desmond Jackson, a force at nose tackle before his 2014 season was cut short by foot injury after just three games. He’ll join tackle-for-loss specialist Hassan Ridgeway who got into the backfield nine and a half times in 2014, and for six sacks.
They’ll need to tighten up their short yardage screws a bit (102th in power success rate, 95th in stuff rate) but they did a great job getting to opposing quarterbacks early and often (8th in first- and second-down sack rate).
In the secondary, the Longhorns played a smaller rotation but enough of one that they return experience at every position. Duke Thomas and former walk-on Dylan Haines topped the 2014 unit with ten pass breakups and four picks, respectively. (Haines took one of his picks for a 74-yard return and a touchdown against Iowa State.) They’ll lead a unit comprised of players with a lot of game experience, but few tackles to show for it. Under Bedford’s coaching one assumes they’ll turn out just fine, given that he has a huge stock of four star recruits to choose from.
WANTED: A RETURN MAN
Nick Rose proved an effective field position establisher with 44 touchbacks but could stand to improve his 66% field goal kicking . . . though no one’s going to argue he doesn’t have range. At punter, sophomore walk-on Mitchell Becker is expected to win the duties after Texas lost two punters (and, worth noting, their long snapper) to graduation.
On the receiving end of kicks, Texas will replace two unspectacular punt returners. One would assume Texas would try a speedy receiver (like Foreman or Daje Johnson) to return punts, but Strong hopes a new special teams coordinator can also work on their blocking after special teams gaffes contributed heavily in losses to UCLA and Oklahoma.
WIN THE HOME GAMES
Now for the hard part: turning all this into wins. Texas 2015 Edition will face one of the most vicious road slates I can recall seeing. Of the Longhorns’ six highest projected opponents, they play five away from DKR (Notre Dame, TCU, Oklahoma, West Virginia, and Baylor). Given how high-powered these opposing offenses look to be, Texas’ defense will need to continue to operate at an elite level to give their offense a chance.
Last season, Strong and Co. were able to take care of business against weaker teams, and in order to make a leap this season they’ll need to do so by taking care of the home turf. Win all the home games and Texas is going bowling regardless of what happens in the other contests, and while merely “going bowling” sounds like pretty low aspirations for a program with a heritage as grand as Texas’, the Big 12 is going to be a tough nut to crack for the next several years.