Texas Football: Why the Longhorns Are a Legitimate Big 12 Title Threat in 2012

Matthew Parris@MattESPNContributor IAugust 5, 2012

COLUMBIA, MO - NOVEMBER 12:  Quarterback David Ash #14 of the Texas Longhorns passes during the game against the Missouri Tigers on November 12, 2011 at Faurot Field/Memorial Stadium in Columbia, Missouri.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

The Horns got spoiled.  After winning a national title and being an injury away from another, it’s hard for fans to accept a less-than-stellar Texas Longhorns team. Unfortunately for the Horns and head coach Mack Brown, that’s exactly what they’ve gotten the last two seasons.

Admittedly, Vince Young (2005 Vince, that is) and Colt McCoy (2010 Colt, that is) do not present a vacancy that even the most skilled young QB would want to have to fill. Perhaps in the winning column for Texas is the fact that such a storied football powerhouse is unlikely to stand idly by while other teams play for conference and national championships.  

But can the Longhorns really come back from two straight dismal seasons and win the Big 12?

Texas is now entering year three of attempting to fill the quarterback-shaped void in its offense. There is good news, though: The Horns are now in possession of a running game that can take pressure off of a young QB.

The Longhorns are suddenly loaded at running back as they return sophomore Joe Bergeron, who finished the year with 463 yards on just 72 attempts. Perhaps more importantly, returning is Bergeron’s fellow second-year player Malcolm Brown, the team’s leading rusher with 172 carries for 742 yards and five touchdowns.

Also joining the backfield this year is freshman Johnathan Gray, a stud coming out of Aledo High School in Texas who racked up nearly 11,000 career yards. It is head coach Mack Brown’s hope that this facet of the offense can take some pressure off of the part of the Horns’ game that arguably needs help: quarterback.

For Texas to be competitive in the high-flying, high-scoring Big 12 conference, they will need a true career year from sophomore David Ash under center. Ash has had big shoes to fill, those of current NFL signal-caller and college football legend Colt McCoy.

The pressure may have gotten to him in recent years. Ash threw six interceptions and zero touchdown passes in five regular-season starts last season, but by the end of the season, he was named Offensive MVP for the Holiday Bowl victory over Cal.

It stands to reason that he is tops on the depth chart heading into camp, but there to insert a bit of Texas-sized quarterback controversy is little brother Case McCoy.

While the junior McCoy was viewed initially as heir-apparent to the Texas offense, he still has a lot to learn and prove on the field. Most writers and experts agree that if David Ash is not under center versus Wyoming on September 1, it would be a surprise.

For Texas to win the Big 12, David Ash does not need to be the second coming of Vince Young. He needs to settle in, make good throws and hand the ball off to Malcolm Brown.

Back to help Ash complete those throws are the team’s top two pass-catchers, junior Mike Davis and sophomore Jaxon Shipley. The offensive line returns four starters. On the offensive side of the ball, solid quarterback play could catapult this young team from mediocrity to the Big 12 title game.

On the other side of the line of scrimmage, first-year defensive coordinator Manny Diaz drastically improved the Longhorns' defense throughout the 2011 campaign. The Horns finished the year sixth in the nation versus the run and 11th in total defense.

While the Texas front loses productive linebackers Emmanuel Acho and Keenan Robinson, this unit could still prove to be the best in the conference, as they return several top talents, including star defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat, who had eight sacks last year.

On the other end of the line, senior Alex Okafor returns from a seven-sack 2011 effort, joined by a group of tackles that goes quite deep. Junior Jordan Hicks is the only returning starter at linebacker, but Texas brings in several talented underclassmen, especially sophomore middle linebacker Steve Edmond and outside linebacker Demarco Cobbs.

The secondary loses veteran starter Blake Gideon at safety but is loaded with talent, led by corners Carrington Byndom and Quandre Diggs, the latter of whom led the team in picks last year with four.

The Longhorns were hurting at a very important position, with the loss of Justin Tucker leaving a vacancy at kicker. Cue the Penn State scandal, and here comes Anthony Fera. He’s got experience and was clutch for the Nittany Lions. He brings that talent to the Lone Star State and to a conference that sees many close games decided on special teams.

In a conference that is known for high-flying offenses and porous defenses, the Horns may have the right setup to be the exception, not the rule in the Big 12. As long as a quarterback can emerge and become a leader on offense (and throw a few touchdowns—that’d be great as well), this is a championship-caliber team.