The 2013 college football season is upon us.
The Texas Longhorns' 2013 recruiting hall recently reported for the summer, signalling the very beginning of what is widely seen as a make-or-break season for the 'Horns.
Going into its third year of a rebuild that began following the 2010 season, Texas returns 19 starters on a team that suddenly is one of the most experienced in the FBS, much less the Big 12. In a down year for the conference, as seven of the 10 programs are transitioning to new quarterbacks, Texas has the right pieces and perhaps the fortune to make a run at a conference title.
But just how many wins can the Longhorns get?
Texas has shown some marked progress since rebuilding. After the 5-7 season that sparked the reconstruction, the 'Horns went 8-5 in 2011 before going 9-4 a season ago. With Texas about to embark on a season that will have it loaded with veteran players across the board, double-digit wins is hardly out of the question.
Let's glance at the schedule:
New Mexico State
at Iowa State
Oklahoma (in Dallas)
at West Virginia
Broken down into tiers of difficulty, Texas' playlist might look something like this.
Tier 1: New Mexico State, at Iowa State, Kansas, at West Virginia
Texas has to be slated to win all of its games in Tier 1. New Mexico State is simply not good. Neither is Kansas, and the Longhorns draw them at home this year.
The road games could make Texas a bit queasy if the right set of circumstances show up, but they should be the heavy favorites against both Iowa State and West Virginia, as both will be ushering in new quarterbacks. Texas is 4-0 in Tier 1.
Tier 2: at BYU, Ole Miss, Kansas State, Texas Tech, at Baylor
If the Longhorns are to have a statement season, Tier 2 is critically important. There are no pushovers in this group, especially in Texas' non-conference matchups.
The 'Horns blasted Ole Miss in Oxford last season, but the Rebels are expected to turn in a very respectable season nonetheless. A road game against a very well-coached BYU team could end up being a nasty thorn for Texas to handle. The Cougars lost plenty from their No. 3-ranked defense in 2012, but it will not be a picnic for the Longhorns.
If Texas loses one of these games, it will be BYU. Chalk it up as an unlikely, however.
As for Texas' three conference opponents in this tier, Baylor might be the key.
Kansas State is now without quarterback Collin Klein, a huge offensive producer. John Hubert at running back is nice, as is Bill Snyder's defense, but where will the big points come from in an offensive conference? Texas has not beaten Kansas State since 2003, but that will change come late September.
Texas Tech, meanwhile, is under new coaching blood in former-quarterback-turned-head-coach Kliff Kinsbury. Expect plenty of offense, but Tech's defense has been its weakest link in the past.
Baylor is Texas' final game of the season, and if we have learned anything about head coach Art Briles, it's that he knows his quarterback talent. Both Nick Florence and Robert Griffin III were plug-and-playable options, it seemed, and even though the Bears will be going with a new quarterback in 2013, the offense is still very much the same and poses a big threat late in the season.
The Longhorns are more likely to lose one game in Tier 2 than they are to sweep the entire five-game set. After two tiers, Texas is 8-1 with three games remaining.
Tier 3: Oklahoma, at TCU, Oklahoma State
The most likely losses on Texas' schedule will come in its top tier.
A road game against a TCU team is no walk in the park. Gary Patterson's Horned Frogs came into Austin on Thanksgiving night last season and came away with a win. Now in its second year in the Big 12, TCU is no slouch. Texas beats them on paper, but football is played on a field.
Oklahoma State is the rival favorite to win the Big 12 this season, and its offense is a huge reason why. The Pokes have put up at least nine wins in each of the past five seasons and have to command respect offensively. Texas gets them at home this year, which helps tremendously. It will be a clash of perhaps two of the conference's top offenses.
The Oklahoma game is as good a guess as anybody's. Texas has not won at the Cotton Bowl in three years, with the past two contests resulting in blowout losses. The Longhorns have the tables turned on the Sooners this year, with Bob Stoops' program undergoing some big changes on both sides of the ball, but every player will come to play.
The Longhorns will lose at least once in their three matchups here. Importantly, if Texas loses just one of these, depending on the victor, it could jeopardize its title hopes.
In a roll of the dice, Texas will beat both schools from Oklahoma this year but will lose to TCU for the second year in a row. That puts the Longhorns at 10-2 on the year with a good shot at a Big 12 title and a BCS berth. Texas is 10-4 in bowl games under Mack Brown and has lost just twice in its last 11 bowl game appearances. History wins here, for Texas.
Over/Under Wins Regular Season: 9.5
Over/Under Wins Including Bowl Game: 10
A 10-win season might be just what the doctor ordered for Mack Brown's program, and a trip to a BCS game would justify talk of Texas' resurgence. But then again, with some lingering uncertainties going into the season, an unexpected stumble against the wrong opponent could have the Longhorns fall out of contention.