The Texas Longhorns kickoff their 2012 campaign in less than a week.
In the second season of the coaching overhaul that re-energized Mack Brown and his program, the Longhorns are in a position to build on their 8-5 season that left plenty of questions to be answered.
With a clash against Wyoming just days away, the excitement around Austin is palpable.
Defense is boss at Texas right now, but with a budding offense that features a carousel of talented running backs, the Longhorns will look for balance by running to set up a passing game that is reportedly improved under quarterback David Ash.
Texas faces a schedule that will open Big 12 play against the conference's toughest opponents. If the Longhorns can escape that early gauntlet relatively unscathed, coach Brown's team could be in for a surprising season with higher expectations.
The 2011 season that saw the Longhorns infuse youth into the program, in more ways than one, set up for an explosion in 2012.
Texas played a wealth of freshmen in its 8-5 year, as the Horns played through the pain, and the payoffs could be coming.
With growth, excitement and expectation all bubbling over on the Forty Acres, the stage is set for a Texas team ready to surprise the nation.
The Longhorns will boast a defense that will stack up to any program in the country. And armed with a running game that will provide a wealth of looks offensively, the only thing keeping Texas from earning the hype is a passing game that has shown little signs of life in recent seasons.
So expect to see those headlines over the course of the season as the Longhorns prepare for an exciting 2012 campaign.
Texas is in a position of comfort in its second year under the Bryan Harsin-Major Applewhite offensive system. Formations are second-nature and execution should only improve. But are the pieces there?
In addition to several second-year coaches on the staff, namely co-offensive coordinator Harsin, receivers coach Darrell Wyatt and offensive line coach Stacy Searels, the Longhorns have bulked up with Bennie Wylie, the program's strength and conditioning coach.
Reportedly, Texas has improved in its passing game, as sophomore quarterback David Ash has made strides before being named the starting quarterback.
But the bread-and-butter of the offense will undoubtedly be the running game.
Lifted by the freshmen additions of Daje Johnson and Johnathan Gray, the two running backs will add to an already formidable duo in Joe Bergeron and Malcolm Brown to solidify the Longhorns' ground game.
If Ash can bring the balance with a young corps of receivers, Texas could take off behind a defense that may be the best in some time.
The two standout pass-catchers are Jaxon Shipley and Mike Davis, but look for the Longhorns to give looks to a handful of receivers out of a multitude of formations.
The Texas defense has made strides in the past few seasons, as they are on the cusp of earning the title of the country's best unit.
Manny Diaz's second-year defense will see over half of its starters return, and though the departed include three heavily productive seniors in Emmanuel Acho, Keenan Robinson and Kheeston Randall, the Longhorns could be in a position to field a better quality product this season.
Preseason All-Conference candidates in defensive ends Jackson Jeffcoat and Alex Okafor, cornerbacks Quandre Diggs and Carrington Byndom, safety Kenny Vaccaro and linebacker Jordan Hicks will provide the brunt of the impact for the Longhorns this season. Filling the holes are a handful of players primed to make the transition into full-time playmakers.
Steve Edmond enters the fold at middle linebacker, a stout run-blocker with athleticism to drop in coverage, and represents that sort of defender the Longhorns have not had in some time.
Demarco Cobbs looks to be the most athletic linebacker on the team. With speed, agility and a great motor, the former running back is in a position to have a solid season.
Defensive tackle, a position of consistent instability for Texas in recent years, is stacked with quality, if not inexperience. In what will be a rotation of seemingly always-fresh bodies, JUCO transfer Brandon Moore, former running back Chris Whaley, junior Ashton Dorsey, sophomore Desmond Jackson and freshman Malcom Brown all bring distinctive assets to the objectives of Texas' interior line.
Look for the Longhorns to field plenty of its two deep to generate more experience among their talented roster.
For what seemed like over a decade, the Longhorns have been in good shoes when it has come to the kicking game.
A solid string of kicking specialists have had a sustained impact for Texas' special teams. Starting with Dusty Mangum, then Ryan Bailey and Hunter Lawrence, Justin Tucker appeared to be the last piece of a quartet of kickers that made it all look easy.
When spring came around, the Tucker-less Longhorns had little to show. But after a couple of incoming transfers, Texas has reason to look up.
Duke transfer Alex King will assume the punting role. Penn State incomer Anthony Fera had been slated as the starting kicker, but an injury has kept him sidelined.
The Longhorns do have numbers to work with, however, having recruited fruitfully in the past few seasons. Will Russ, Nick Jordan and Nick Rose all have gotten looks during the summer. For now, the Texas depth chart lists King at punter and Jordan at kicker.
Mack Brown made the obvious changes when he brought on a number of young coaches to infuse his program with energy and transformation.
In the second year under Manny Diaz's defense and Bryan Harsin and Major Applewhite's offense, the Longhorns are in a great position moving forward.
The trio of young coaches have re-energized the program and filled the team with the right players to establish a new mode of success for Texas.
An 8-5 season in 2011 left something to build on, and the stage has been set for the coaches to unleash a new brand of Longhorns football.
Keep in mind that the entire staff was kept in tact after their initial season together. The players are acclimated with the direction of each coach, and there can only be improvement from this point forward.
Sept. 1: vs Wyoming
Sept. 8: vs New Mexico
Sept. 15: at Ole Miss
Sept. 29: at Oklahoma State
Oct. 6: vs West Virginia
Oct. 13: vs Oklahoma (in Dallas)
Oct. 20: vs Baylor
Oct. 27: at Kansas
Nov. 3: at Texas Tech
Nov. 10: vs Iowa State
Nov. 22: vs TCU
Dec. 1: at Kansas State
After three warm-ups in non-conference play, the Longhorns are thrust quickly into the Big 12 fire.
Texas opens its conference schedule in Stillwater, Okla. where plenty of questions linger for a new-look offense for Oklahoma State.
The Longhorns then host a Big 12 newcomer in West Virginia, which will have quite an offense to add to the conference's list scorchers.
The annual Red River Rivalry is forever a spectacle, and a home match against Post-RGIII Baylor will be of interest as the Longhorns exit their early-season gauntlet.
Keep an eye on the Thanksgiving match against TCU in Austin.
In terms of a game that the Longhorns are least likely to lose, look no further than the Lobos.
Expect Texas to win its opener against Wyoming, but after an initial game to reassess expectations, the Longhorns will have plenty to look forward to in their second match against one of the worst programs in the FBS.
New Mexico ranked 113th in total offense and a stout 118th in total defense last season, enough of an argument to favor the Longhorns by at least 30 points.
There are valid arguments for a road contest against Oklahoma State and a home match against West Virginia, but nothing takes the form of a toss-up quite like the Red River Rivalry.
However overused the words "throw everything out the window" are in this scenario, there is some accuracy to the statement.
Despite the long list of suspended players and injuries to the Bob Stoops' program, the Sooners field a formidable team virtually every season. In one of the biggest rivalries in recent history, there is no reason to expect a lopsided performance from either team.
The Longhorns' first Big 12 game is a road contest against last year's Big 12 Champion.
Although the Cowboys will have a new look to their offense, the support from their home crowd is enough of a factor if Texas is unable to field a balanced attack.
If the Longhorns can't score on one of last season's worst defenses, then one mistake could become the difference between a win and a loss.
The candidates for offensive MVP probably look something like this: David Ash, Malcolm Brown, Joe Bergeron, Jaxon Shipley.
With the Longhorns spreading its running game across the board, it will be hard for a single tailback to account for huge numbers.
That pretty much narrows the race down to a couple of names. Ash and Shipley are the obvious choices, but Mike Davis could be a dark-horse candidate depending on his consistency. It will be work in progress for the passing game, as much of the success will be interdependent.
But above all else, Shipley has the tools and consistency to become a standout playmaker for the Horns this season. Some quarterbacks make their receivers look good, and some receivers do the same for their quarterbacks. This is probably a case of the latter, as Shipley poses a threat in a diverse ways.
Offensive MVP: WR Jaxon Shipley
The top candidates for defensive MVP include Carrington Byndom, Jackson Jeffcoat, Alex Okafor, Jordan Hicks and Kenny Vaccaro.
Jeffcoat and Okafor are two potentially high NFL draft picks entering their junior and senior years respectively and carry with them high expectations.
Byndom and Hicks are controllers. Nothing is ever too flashy, but they do their work well, and they do it often enough to frustrate their opponents.
But no one on the defensive side of the ball commands more attention and planning than the safety Vaccaro. After returning for his senior season, Vaccaro has become a true leader on defense. Other teams have to know where this guy is at all times, or expect to be lit up.
On a squad stacked with playmakers at every position, arguments could be made for each one.
Defensive MVP: S Kenny Vaccaro
With the offense needing the most help, the discussion boils down to two running backs: Johnathan Gray and Daje Johnson.
Gray, the Gatorade Male Athlete of the Year, is a spark at running back that brings the lightning to compliment Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron's thunder. A shifty, between the tackles kind of back that can catch will become a great addition to the running back carousel the Longhorns have.
Johnson enters the fray as a one of fastest players in the program. Fit into the mold of a D.J. Monroe, Johnson could break it with his willingness to block and ability to catch out of the backfield. All this meaning Monroe may be in a position to lose touches.
With the type of hype surrounding Gray coming into the program, the vote goes to Johnson merely from a distant perspective. Gray looks to have a solid freshman season, if the running game indeed takes off, but Johnson coming in as an absolute firecracker with the ball in his arms could surprise more than a few.
Newcomer of the Year: RB Daje Johnson
Right now, it has to be senior safety Kenny Vaccaro.
Any argument for Jackson Jeffcoat or Alex Okafor is probably valid and well-warranted, but Vaccaro is the type of defensive playmaker that offenses have to plan around. A ball-hawk, a hard-hitter and an overall athlete, Vaccaro plays with a "recklessness" that surely has gotten the attention of several NFL franchises already.
It all could come down to who has the best season this year. A breakout campaign for any of those three, and it could catapult them up NFL draft boards.
Best NFL Prospect: S Kenny Vaccaro
Senior safety Kenny Vaccaro: @KennyVaccaro4
Sophomore cornerback Quandre Diggs @qdiggs6
Senior wide receiver Marquise Goodwin: @FlashGoodwin
Head Coach Mack Brown: @UT_MackBrown
Freshman linebacker Peter Jinkens: @RIPS_SHIRT_OFF
The Longhorns are +2000 to win the 2013 BCS National Championship.
They are +400 to win the Big 12.
Texas' over/under for wins is set at nine.
Alabama is +350 to win the 2013 BCS NC
Florida State is +650
LSU is +365
Oklahoma is +600 for the 2013 BCS NC and -115 to win the Big 12.
USC is +250
The Longhorns will be bowling again this postseason, but how good of a bowl will they receive?
A look at the schedule merits at least six wins at first glance. These include Wyoming, New Mexico, Ole Miss, Kansas, Texas Tech, and Iowa State.
A Baylor team gutted of Robert Griffin III and Kendall Wright surely cannot produce the same kind of offensive numbers, and with a questionable defense to boot, the Bears may be very vulnerable after a successful season in 2011. Win number seven.
Games at Oklahoma State and Kansas State are tough road contests, enough of a hazard to have the Longhorns come out of this set with a split. Now we're up to eight wins and a loss.
That leaves Oklahoma, West Virginia and TCU.
Oklahoma is a virtual toss-up. For the sake of skepticism, let's count it as a loss.
West Virginia is a huge question mark being its first year in the Big 12. If the Longhorns' defense can stand up to a well-run offense lead by senior quarterback and Heisman candidate Geno Smith, Texas could snake out a win in Austin against a good Mountaineers team.
It would be hard to fathom that TCU, Texas A&M's replacement in the conference, could march into Darrell K. Royal Texas Memorial Stadium on Thanksgiving and leave with a win. But as hard as it is, it may be equally as difficult to put something like that past head coach Gary Patterson.
If we are consistent with our skepticism, one of West Virginia and TCU could be a loss, although on home ground.
If the above is a sound argument, that would post a 9-3 mark for the Longhorns, which is probably not the record that could win the Big 12, but would merit an acceptable bowl bid like the Cotton or Holiday.
Defensively, the Longhorns will be stout. Loaded with playmakers all over its two deep, Texas has a chance to field the best defense in the country under second-year coordinator Manny Diaz.
If the reports are true about the Horns able to stuff the run up the gut, their team speed around the edges and athleticism will do the heavy lifting until the Texas offense gets going. We've all heard that one before.
Offensively, Texas will look to be balanced, but the run will set up the pass. With weapons all over the backfield, including the big backs in Brown and Bergeron and the quicks in Gray and Johnson, the Longhorns have an opportunity to really set a physical tone.
How well the offense gets going is all up to the recently named starter, sophomore David Ash.
If his development and comfort in the passing game is as improved as some say it is, Texas could be in for quite a season on both sides of the ball.
Having said that, the Longhorns face a hearty schedule with the meat of the Big 12 coming at the beginning of conference play.
If we're talking conservative, 9-3 is the mark. A more liberal evaluation would conclude that the Longhorns find a rhythm early with three wins in non-conference, setting up for a successful 10-2 campaign.
Final Prediction: 10-2.