Texas Football: What Longhorns Must Do to Win Big 12 This Year
Every season Texas' goal, first and foremost, is to win the Big 12.
Winning the Big 12 means a BCS berth, guarantees a Top-10 finish in the polls and, in the case of this year's team, validates the massive culture change that has occurred in the past two years.
Yes national championships are what matter most to the fan base, but that cannot happen without a Big 12 crown. It is the bridge from being just another good team to being one of the best teams.
The competition will be stiff this season with Landry Jones returning for Oklahoma, Kansas State continuing its improvement under Bill Snyder and the rest of the conference fighting tooth and nail for relevance in what is suddenly one of the more competitive conferences.
With that said, Texas has a chance to climb back to the top. But they need to excel in their strengths while covering their weaknesses in order to take advantage of a wide open field.
Here's a look at what the 'Horns need to do in 2012 to become Big 12 champs.
Throw Fewer Than Eight Interceptions
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Last year, Texas quarterbacks threw 15 interceptions against just 12 touchdowns (Jaxon Shipley threw three touchdowns from the wide receiver position). Those numbers must improve in 2012 for the Longhorns to win the Big 12.
The 2012 edition of the Longhorns will focus on ball control, with the offense using the rushing attack to grind out yards as well as the clock, throwing only when necessary and to keep the defense honest. This style of play will often yield low-scoring affairs where the field-position battle is everything, making turnovers that much more crucial to the outcome.
With the running game doing the heavy lifting, the quarterback's job will basically be to minimize mistakes. The heavy load the running backs have to shoulder will undoubtedly lead to more fumbles, so the quarterback does not have the luxury of throwing drives away in the times he is asked to throw. This offense is simply not explosive enough to make up for those kinds of mistakes on a constant basis.
Interceptions can also serve to derail Manny Diaz's efforts to keep his guys fresh because of their nasty knack for giving the opponent a short field and/or preventing defensive players from resting. And make no mistake, this defense is markedly better when it has its rest and does not have to start off in its own territory.
So why is eight the magic number?
Last season, the only two teams in the Big 12 that ran as much or more than the Longhorns were Kansas State (606 attempts) and Missouri (589 attempts). Kansas State threw six interceptions and finished 10-3, good for second place in the Big 12. Missouri threw 11 interceptions and finished 8-5, good for fifth place. Not to say interceptions were the sole difference between the two teams, but both teams threw fewer interceptions than Texas and finished higher in the conference.
Since Texas is expected to attempt roughly the same amount of passes as these two teams did last season, it is fair to say eight interceptions will allow the Longhorns to have fewer than 20 total turnovers for the year. Even if they are only able to duplicate the 12 passing touchdowns from last season, they will have done their job in keeping their mistakes to a minimum, and that is good enough from this group.
Rush for More Than 3,000 Yards
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Ever since the commitment of national phenom Johnathan Gray, Texas fans have been gushing over the prospective three-headed monster in the backfield when Gray joins forces with standouts Joe Bergeron and Malcolm Brown.
They will have to live up to the hype this season if the team wants to win the Big 12.
Last season, the Longhorns were able to accumulate 2,634 yards on the ground, good for 22nd in the nation. This all despite a season-ending ACL tear suffered by Fozzy Whittaker and nagging injuries to Brown and Bergeron.
This season, with Gray around to shoulder the load, Brown and Bergeron should have an easier time staying on the field. Not to mention the added help from speedsters D.J. Monroe and freshman Daje Johnson, who are both expected to take the field often to provide a home-run threat on outside runs and screens.
The added depth is a must for this unit as it will be depended on as heavily as any other backfield in the country. Their ability to pick up positive yards and keep the clock moving will be the benchmark of success for this team by allowing the defense to stay well-rested, taking pressure off the quarterback and opening the door for big play action throws. It all starts with the running game.
If these guys can run for more than 3,000 yards this season, they will find themselves at or near the top 10 in the country for that category and would place themselves among elite rushing attacks such as Oregon and Georgia Tech. Given that this group is definitely more talented than they were last year, the extra 300-plus yards should not be difficult to attain and will make the rest of the team that much better.
Improve Red-Zone Offense
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Last season the Texas Longhorns were downright awful in the red zone, scoring only 71.7 percent of the time and scoring a touchdown only 50.9 percent of the time. Only bottom-feeding Iowa State was worse.
This team has not a prayer of winning this conference if it does not improve in the red zone. And it knows it.
Prior to Fozzy Whittaker's season-ending injury last season, the Wildhorn package was a nightmare for opposing defenses down in the red zone. This offseason, the coaches have made it no secret that they are looking for a player to fill that role in 2012. So far, Johnathan Gray looks most likely to take on the challenge, and the team is also taking a look at Daje Johnson as well as QB Jalen Overstreet.
The only problem is that all three of these guys are freshmen, and it is impossible to expect any of them to completely turn this ship around. In short, a quarterback for this team is going to have to find a way to throw a touchdown from within 20 yards of pay dirt, especially since running lanes get harder to come by the closer you get to the goal line. One can only hope that David Ash has started to figure it out now that he has had some time to mature and look over film.
This team's red-zone woes will not be an easy fix, but doing so will make it head-and-shoulders better than it was last season. As an illustration, the last time the Longhorns won the conference in 2009 their red zone offense scored a touchdown 68.9 percent of the time. In 2010, when the team finished 5-7 and missed a bowl for the first time since 1997, the offense only scored a touchdown in the red zone 44.2 percent of the time.
Though it may be a tall order, fixing this red zone offense is enough to give this team an extra win or two during the season and, if nothing else, being able to finishe the job from in close will improve the entire team's confidence.
Lead the Big 12 in Total Defense
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Last year Texas easily had the best defense in the Big 12, and it will be every bit as good this season if it hopes to carry this team back to the top of the conference.
Seven starters are returning from last year's 14th-best unit in the country, including projected first-round draft picks Jackson Jeffcoat and Alex Okafor. From top to bottom, once again this is the most talented defensive unit in the conference and should be among the best in the country. In fact, seven of these guys are very likely to be All-Big 12 selections this season.
Aside from the talented bookends Jeffcoat and Okafor, this secondary will be the pride of this defensive unit. Kenny Vaccaro is the ringleader of this unit and the heavy-hitter from his safety position, while junior Carrington Byndom and sophomore Quandre Diggs are both good enough to be left on an island with the best receivers the Big 12 has to offer. Against pass-happy teams like Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, these guys will have to be on point to give this team a chance.
The best thing about this team is also the worst. Everything it does hinges on every player going out there and doing their job, and that could not be truer with this defense. If it goes out and gets stops, the offense can go ground and pound. If this defense is everything it can be this season, even if the offense is mired in mediocrity, there is no reason the Longhorns cannot win this conference.
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With the Aggies' departure for the SEC, this is officially the biggest game on the Longhorns' schedule both in terms of rivalry and competition.
Yes, it is an early game on the schedule, but the Big 12 title has a habit of running through Norman, Okla. In fact, the only times Texas has won the Big 12 title in the Mack Brown era were years they beat Oklahoma. Not a coincidence.
The lack of a conference title game takes away some of the impact of this game since the two teams are no longer vying to win the South, but it is a sure bet Texas has this game circled on their its measuring stick for this team's improvement. This is especially true considering Bob Stoops and the Sooners have a historical knack for exposing the flaws on this team.
Best-case scenario, Texas wins this game and carries the momentum of the victory through the rest of the season to a conference. The schedule before and after this game is no cakewalk, but this is more than just a game for the 'Horns. A win here would do wonders for this young team's confidence.