The undeniable goal of the Texas Longhorns' 2013 season is to win the Big 12 conference. But inconsistent quarterback play and the Oklahoma Sooners remain an obstacle that could derail that goal once again.
Since winning their last conference title, the Longhorns are 22-17 and in desperate need of a statement season. Head coach Mack Brown's 10 consecutive 10-win seasons seem like a distant memory, and the 'Horns are losing their status as the state's top program.
But a Big 12 title and the accompanying BCS berth in 2013 would change all of that. But to do so, the team has some serious obstacles to overcome.
Can Ash continue his improvement in 2013?
There is no denying the fact that the quarterback is the most important position on the field. And for Texas to reassume its status as the conference's best team, quarterback David Ash must find a way to avoid the major mistakes that have plagued him over the past two years.
In his junior season, Ash returns as the Big 12's most experienced thrower after a sophomore campaign highlighted by significant improvement. He went from being an erratic turnover machine to a 67 percent passer with 19 touchdowns against only eight picks.
But the stats do Ash a favor. He still had his moments of utter futility, with half of his picks coming against Oklahoma and TCU, two of the Longhorns' most miserable losses. The other half came in games that were decided by five points or less.
Sure, picks against top competition are going to happen, but Ash needs to take a step forward in 2013. Specifically, he needs to have a game against Oklahoma or TCU that is totally mistake-free, because that is what it takes in the toughest of contests.
For Ash, this goal is well within reach. Major Applewhite is one of the best quarterback coaches in the business, and even Colt McCoy had interception problems (18 in 2007) before he cemented his legacy as one of the best. Ash just needs to put in the work.
The return of Hicks should make the Longhorns much more effective along the front seven.
The primary issue that prevented Texas from being a 10-win team last season was the worst run defense in the conference. If it has any intention of being a contender in 2013, this issue simply must be resolved.
In 2012, the Longhorns were far and away the worst team in the conference at stopping the run. They gave up 215.6 yards per game on the ground, worst in the conference by more than 12 yards, and five yards per carry, just a fraction better than Kansas. They also gave up 200-yard rushing games to five different conference opponents, something that is simply unheard of at Texas.
The main factor in play here was the loss of junior Jordan Hicks, the only returning starter at linebacker. After he went down against Ole Miss, everything came apart with zero starts among any of the remaining options at the position.
This season, Hicks will be back on the field along with fiery sophomores Peter Jinkens and Dalton Santos, both of whom bring more speed to their respective spots. These additions, along with a healthy Adrian Phillips at safety, should amount to a much more effective counter to the Big 12's best backs.
Mason Walters and the rest of the offensive line must do a better job of run-blocking in 2013.
In Big 12 play, the Longhorns had a hard time paving the way for their talented ball-carriers. In order to win the conference, this must change in 2013.
The 'Horns are coming off of a season that saw them finish eighth in the conference in both yards per game and yards per carry. And behind teams like Kansas and Iowa State, to boot. The talent was there with Johnathan Gray and Joe Bergeron (Malcolm Brown was a non-factor in conference play), so the blame almost exclusively falls on the offensive line.
The big uglies up front had trouble lining up and pushing the competition around, with the opposite taking place against Oklahoma and TCU. This issue should be largely alleviated in 2013, as Texas recruited one of the best offensive lines in the country and will not play favorites in terms of playing time. For example, two-year starter Trey Hopkins would be on the bench if the season started today.
If Brown can stay healthy and the line can create the space, Texas should be among the better rushing teams in the conference, or even the nation. But if neither holds up, this team is in hot water.
Texas has always had the talent. And though Mack Brown has done great things for the program, his self-doubt and lack of creativity have crippled the Longhorns. If this team is to reclaim the Big 12, keeping up with the Joneses is not going to cut it.
When they won the 2005 national championship, did all but win it in 2008 and returned to the championship game in 2009, the Longhorns were innovators. With Vince Young and Colt McCoy running the show, the 'Horns were an offensive juggernaut that spearheaded the nationwide movement to the spread offense.
But after his crushing defeat at the hands of Alabama's power attack in 2009 and a disastrous 2010 campaign, Brown began to doubt himself. First, he traded out longtime offensive coordinator Greg Davis for Boise State wunderkind Bryan Harsin, signaling his move from the spread attack he pioneered for a more balanced pro-style attack.
The result was two years of 17-10 football and back-to-back 40-point blowouts in the Red River Rivalry. Now Harsin has moved on and Major Applewhite has stepped in, moving Texas back to the spread with a more up-tempo attack. In other words, Texas is more or less emulating the offense that Oregon and several other Big 12 teams have been running for years.
So what is Texas' edge going to be? The saying goes "monkey see, monkey do," not "championship coach see, championship coach do." The 'Horns have to find a niche and do something on the offensive side of the ball that gives the opposition nightmares in preparation.
Two extremely talented running backs, a hybrid player with 4.34 speed and a backup quarterback that can mow over a linebacker would all be a good place to look.
Just like every season, there are some gimmes on the Longhorns' 2013 schedule. But there are also at least three games that will be decided by 10 points or less. In those contests, the lack of a reliable kicker could prove critical.
After having four consecutive nail-drivers at kicker, the Longhorns are in danger of the position being a liability for the second consecutive season. Without an incoming recruit at the position, Nick Jordan and Nick Rose are all Texas has at the position. Rose has never kicked a field goal in a college game, and Rose made a mere 60 percent of his attempts in 2012, with only one make from beyond 40 yards.
Both kickers were decent in the spring game, though neither player connected from any sort of distance. If neither significantly improves by the fall, Texas might be better served using four downs on the opponent's side of the field.
Following the program's third arrest since the new year, questions are arising about Mack Brown's control of his team. In order to prevent an issue during the season, now is the time for him, and the players, to get a grip.
Just in the past month, Texas has lost two probable starters to serious legal problems. Cayleb Jones is likely done at Texas after fracturing the jaw of a tennis player, while Kendall Sanders is facing a suspension following last week's DUI arrest in College Station. The only winner here is Connor Brewer, who looks like a saint in comparison with his public intoxication charges.
But this is not just a bad couple of months. Just during the 2012 season, Daje Johnson was suspended for a game for violating team rules. Then, the day before the Alamo Bowl, both Case McCoy and Jordan Hicks were sent home for being out past curfew following a sexual assault accusation that was later recanted.
This is an alarming trend for Brown, whose teams have largely been able to stay out of the wrong headlines. He and this program cannot afford for a player to go down for non-football reasons. He needs to get his guys back on the straight and narrow before something even worse takes place.
Bob Stoops and the Oklahoma Sooners have been the bane of Mack Brown's existence since he began at Texas. And to win the conference, history says he has to beat them to do so.
During his tenure, Brown has won two Big 12 championships. In both of those seasons, he beat the Sooners, two of the six times he has managed to do so in his time at Texas. In fact, in the six seasons in which he has won at least a share of the Big 12 South, he has done so without beating OU only twice.
The Sooners are not going away any time soon and will certainly be standing in the way this October. Especially after consecutive humiliating defeats, Brown and the 'Horns have to get it done in 2013 if they want to win the deep Big 12 conference.