Fresh on the heels of a thrilling Fiesta Bowl victory early last month, the Texas Longhorns are getting ready to hit the practice fields in preparation for a possible national title run in 2009.
Head coach Mack Brown performed perhaps his best coaching job yet at Texas, guiding the Longhorns to a 12-1 record and a tie for first in the Big 12 South despite having a young, inexperienced team.
The Longhorns, as I doubt any of you have forgotten, were one play away from a berth in the national title game, but were thwarted by Graham Harrell, Michael Crabtree, and the Red Raiders in the final seconds of their contest in Lubbock.
Needless to say, the BCS computers made matters even worse after the Oklahoma Sooners, despite losing 45-35 to Texas on a neutral field, were given the nod over the Longhorns to play Florida for the crown because of their "sexiness" down the stretch of games in November.
However, 2008 was a huge success for the Longhorns.
Quarterback Colt McCoy finished second in the Heisman voting after a record-setting season in which he threw for 3,859 yards and 34 touchdowns to just eight interceptions. Perhaps the most impressive stat is his 76 percent completion rate, which is a new NCAA record.
Defensive end Brian Orakpo was a unanimous All-American selection with his 11.5 sacks. He was also received the Bronko Nagurski and Vince Lombardi/Rotary awards.
Apart from their lone loss to Texas Tech, the Longhorns steamrolled over their opponents, putting up close to 45 points a game.
The addition of Will Muschamp to the staff may have been the most significant move. His sheer passion for the game fired up a defense that a year before was mediocre at best.
Despite the success of the Longhorns in 2008, the ultimate goal wasn't attained, no matter how close they got.
The Longhorns are legitimate title contenders going in to next season, but some issues must be addressed this offseason if they are to receive an invitation to Pasadena next January.
1. Consistent running game
Last season, the Longhorns relied on McCoy to carry the load not only through the air, but on the ground as well. He carried it 136 times for 561 yards and 11 touchdowns. This was unwise, even though he is a very dangerous scrambler. McCoy has strengthened his body, but the wear and tear on quarterbacks occurs a lot quicker than it does with running backs.
Texas returns Vondrell McGee, Fozzy Whittaker, and Cody Johnson next season, which is a pretty good rotation when they are all healthy. Add in thundering incoming freshman Chris Whaley, and the potential is there for a monster running game. A more balanced attack will help the Longhorns establish a much more efficient offense that won't have to rely on the short passing game to serve as a pseudo-running game.
2. Defensive line
In 2008, the Longhorns had the most effective pass rush in all of college football, racking up 33 sacks on the season. Unfortunately, three of the four starting defensive linemen are graduating. Texas loses All-American Brian Orakpo and a superb run-stuffer in Roy Miller.
Defensive tackle Lamaar Houston returns along with sophomore defensive end Sam Acho, junior defensive tackle Ben Alexander, and sophomore defensive tackle Brian Ellis, all of whom have been praised by Will Muschamp. Some talented freshmen enter the fold as well: Defensive end Alex Okafor will be a star one day, while Kyle Kriegel and Calvin Howell will provide some valuable depth this season.
3. Backup quarterback
It is quite clear that Colt McCoy is the heart and soul of the Longhorn war effort. His leadership ability is unmatched by any other quarterback in the conference. What the coaching staff must consider is, who would step in if McCoy went down with an injury? It's happened before (think back to 2006 versus Kansas State).
At the moment, junior John Chiles is McCoy's primary back up. He is an electric athlete, but he hasn't been able to prove he can throw the football, though he went 10-11 on passes he threw last season. The "Q" package failed miserably, so the coaching staff will have to look for new ways to utilize Chiles in order to keep him fresh.
Texas landed a huge quarterback prospect this offseason in Lake Travis' Garrett Gilbert. The young gun led Lake Travis to the state title this past season with both his arm and his legs. He will be in fall camp to challenge Chiles for the backup job, but it is likely that he will be redshirted.
Senior Sherrod Harris is also a viable option on the roster, though he hasn't taken a college snap since 2007. He too is a great athlete who could step in in the event of a serious emergency.
4. Continued improvement in the secondary
With the arrival of Muschamp, the secondary made some vast improvements, but were still viable targets to be scorched by the spread offenses of the Big 12. This group still gave up over 250 yards passing per game, but part of that can be attributed to the fact that either they stuffed their opponent's run game or their opponent never ran the ball at all.
Three of the four starters return, with Ryan Palmer graduating. Sophomore safeties Blake Gideon and Earl Thomas were surprisingly effective in both run and pass coverage (Gideon is still in the witness protection program following the Texas Tech debacle). Senior Deon Beasley looks like he is finally realizing his potential as a shutdown corner, and Aaron Williams looks to fill the void left by Palmer.
This group should be even better this season, but a lot of their success hinges on how effective the pass rush up front is.
The Longhorns hit the practice field Feb. 27, and the annual spring game is set for April 5th.