Heading into their final bye week of the season, the No. 15 Texas Longhorns have now equaled their win total from last season with two regular season games left to be played. For a team that looked like it was on the brink of disaster just three weeks ago, this resurgence is rather impressive.
Between the embarrassing 63-21 loss to Oklahoma and barely escaping with a win against the lowly Kansas Jayhawks, the Longhorns were a 6-2 team that felt much more like 2-6. Heading into a tough close to their regular season, it seemed things were destined to get worse.
Instead, the Longhorns have catapulted back up the college football ranks after handling the then-No. 20 Red Raiders and a well-coached Iowa State team. Now the 'Horns are not only looking at the possibility of their first 10-win season since 2009, but they have a good chance at playing spoiler to No. 1 Kansas State's BCS hopes.
This resurgence has reinvigorated the fanbase and, most importantly, given the entire Texas team the confidence that it had lacked for so much of the season. Now with a bye week to prepare for TCU, it is time to gear up for what could be an unbelievable closing run for this team.
Here are the top five reasons for this team's impressive turnaround this season.
Nearly nonexistent for the previous two seasons, Texas' improvements in the downfield passing game have completely revamped this team's offensive attack.
For the first time since Colt McCoy left after 2009, the Texas Longhorns have a consistent downfield passing game courtesy of David Ash and his receivers, Mike Davis and Jaxon Shipley. Davis has been a monster all season and should have no problem cracking the 1,000-yard mark in 2012 and has gone over 100 yards in three of his past four games. Oh, and he is averaging nearly 20 yards per catch.
While Davis has been delivering the highlight-reel plays, it has been Shipley's emergence that has taken this passing game to the next level. Shipley had eight catches for 135 yards against Iowa State, which made it difficult for the Cyclones to help too much on Davis and gave him room over the top.
Not only do these two receivers give this offense some quick-strike ability that has been sorely missed, but it prevents opposing defenses from stacking up against the very talented backfield. When the receivers and backs are playing their best, this offense becomes a well-oiled machine that is really hitting its stride as of late.
Expect Gray to lead this team in rushing for a long, long time.
The 2012 Texas recruiting class, ranked No. 3 by ESPN, has lived up to the hype so far and is a big reason why this team has enjoyed this recent success.
We all know about top running back Johnathan Gray, who now leads the Longhorns with 607 rushing yards and is averaging 5.3 yards per carry. Gray has been the starter the past three games and has emerged as the most complete runner in this very talented Texas backfield. But how about the other fresh arrivals?
Daje Johnson and his 4.3 speed have already delivered some of the most exciting plays of the season with 377 total yards on only 38 touches. Johnson has not been the awesome force he was to start the season as of late, but you have to be impressed with his playmaking ability and how tough he runs with the ball.
However, the two most impressive Texas freshmen of late have to be on the defensive side of the ball with Malcom Brown and Peter Jinkens. Brown has been getting more and more playing time as the season has worn on, delivering at least one play a game that really jumps off the screen.
Meanwhile, Jinkens, a supremely athletic outside linebacker, got the start against Iowa State and responded with a career-high eight tackles stepping in for the injured Kendall Thompson.
I will even throw Nick Jordan a bone here. The freshman kicker that hit only three of his first seven field goals this season came in against ISU and hit two in relief of no-show transfer Anthony Fera.
Even when things were looking bleak for this Longhorn team, one could look for optimism in this group of freshmen. But now that things are turned around due in large part to these young guns, you start to realize just how good this team could be in a year or two.
The biggest difference defensively for the Longhorns over their past two games? Definitely their ability to stop the run.
The 'Horns are still ranked No. 98 in the country in run defense, as they surrender about 200 yards per game and five yards per carry to opponents, but they have been much better of late. They held the Red Raiders to 179 yards on 4.2 yards a pop, then followed that up by holding Iowa State under 150 yards and held a team under 300 total yards for the first time since Week 2.
It may not seem like much of an improvement, but it is an improvement you can see clear as day on the field. Mainly because guys are not out of position and missing easy tackles as a result. And now that the front seven are showing that it can at least keep the opposing running game in check, you can see a marked improvement in the secondary.
If you can stop the run, you have a chance, and the Longhorns are finally starting to do just that after an abysmal start to the season. Credit the maturation of the linebackers for this turnaround, as well as the rest of this defense for the clear attitude change we are seeing on the field.
The second driving factor behind Texas' much-improved defense is the resurgence of one its best players: corner Carrington Byndom.
After a very strong sophomore campaign, Byndom was expected to emerge as the conference's premier shutdown corner and find himself being selected in the first three rounds come April. Instead, he came out as a defensive liability in giving up two touchdowns of 75 yards or more and missing routine tackles on a weekly basis. Add in the similar struggles of safety Adrian Phillips, and this Texas secondary was about half as good as it could have been for most the season.
Then Byndom found his game against Texas Tech, breaking up three key passes and blocking a field goal that effectively sealed the upset for the Longhorns. Byndom then followed up his strongest game of the season by picking off a Steele Jantz pass in the first half against Iowa State and breaking up another.
If Byndom can continue to play more like the player we remember from a season ago, this defense will exponentially improve. Opposite Byndom is Quandre Diggs, another Texas corner with shutdown potential, and their collective ability to man up on the outside allows the Texas safeties to help out in the run game. It also forces opposing quarterbacks to think more about where they want to go with the ball, giving guys like Alex Okafor more time to get to those quarterbacks.
We have all seen the impact a shutdown corner can have on a defense with Darrelle Revis and the Jets, so do not overlook Byndom's importance to this Texas defense.
The biggest improvement I have seen in these Texas Longhorns over these past couple of weeks is that they have simply come together as a team. And it is showing in all facets of their performance.
I am not sure if this is the result of these guys no longer feeling sorry for themselves, cutting out the noise being made in the media or if something just clicked. But this is not the same Longhorn team that got beat 63-21 at the Cotton Bowl. The offensive line is blocking with an absolute vengeance, the entire defense has started hitting people and the entire team has a different confidence than it had to start the year.
I chalk a lot of this up to this team just deciding to go to war with what it has rather than what it should have. This team lost its best linebacker in Jordan Hicks in the third game of the season, lost arguably its best offensive player in Malcolm Brown in Week 4 and then lost Jackson Jeffcoat for the season against Oklahoma. Then, instead of taking those hits on the chin, this team kept holding on for someone, especially Hicks, to return and right the ship.
Now that Hicks is out of the equation for the rest of the season, the team has moved on and is getting contributions from unexpected places. Heck, even Brown has been an afterthought in the Texas offense now that Johnathan Gray is starting to flex his muscles in the running game. The team has made the most of its situation rather than waiting for something or someone to save the day.
Even if that is not the case, this team is certainly playing together and playing for each other. Everyone is playing hard, and the communication, especially on defense, is miles from where it was even three weeks ago. Which is why the 'Horns are now playing with house money as they position themselves to play BCS-buster in their final game of the season.