Texas finished fourth in the Big 12 preseason polls, garnering eight first-place votes in the process. Entering 2013, in a wide open Big 12, the Longhorns are again a team in transition. This time it is an offensive-philosophy move toward blending tempo with power as Major Applewhite grabs full control of the offense.
After a season that saw mixed results and the 'Horns finish 9-4, the same questions that existed a season ago are present in Austin, and then some. Mack Brown's squad is still looking for an offensive identity to cling to, and now, after last year's issues and some key losses, the defense is being questioned, as well.
Questions are never good. Especially, not at a time when so many need Texas to return to its 2004-2009 form. Mack Brown, if you listen to folks like Matt Brown of Sports on Earth, needs Texas to get back to being a power. Texas, the school that just witnessed rival Texas A&M grab a major foothold in the Lone Star State, needs Texas to get back to winning big.
Even the Big 12 needs Texas to get back into the driver's seat of the conference.
How do the Longhorns do it?
It starts with their on-field identity. Texas, one of the top five programs in college football, has to know what it is on both sides of the ball. Whether the Longhorns want to go spread or a pro-style multiple-attacking scheme matters not; they just have to find something and stick to it.
As Major Applewhite grabs the reins full-time, he seeks to employ elements of the pro-style attack while blending in an up-tempo approach, at times. Until we get to see it for a full season, we will not know if this is the answer.
However, what we do know is that Texas has the ability to field a team capable of being the best every time the players step off the bus. The Longhorns can be bigger, faster and stronger than any team they face. With that in mind, and given the makeup of the Big 12, Brown and staff should stick to the using power on offense.
The conference is not built to stop the power attack. Kansas State's physical approach proved that over the last couple seasons. Texas, when it pushed teams around on the ground, proved the same point: The Big 12 is not built to stop a gritty physical attack. There are not enough quality defenders in the league to shut down a team that muscles up at the point of attack.
Texas' issue is sticking with that approach. Build off of the power game, use play-action passing to help quarterback David Ash be successful and get wide receivers open over the top. Applewhite, in 2013, has to remain steadfast in his belief that the Longhorns can move bodies at the point of attack, gain critical yards on the ground and that Ash will make smart decisions downfield.
If the plan does not work early, do not panic. Instead, do what other teams dedicated to the ground-and-pound attack do in this situation: keep delivering body shots to the opponent. Do not abandon Johnathan Gray, Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron. Rather, lean on the offensive line and work to wear down the opponent as you search for its weaknesses.
Of course, the flip side of this is being able to lean on the defense, something that must be corrected in 2013 for Texas to start its climb back toward the top. Last year, entering the season, everyone expected Texas' defense to be among the nation's best.
What the college football world saw was a team that gave up big yards, in big spots, and was rendered ineffective by the opposition and, at times, by its own players and coach.
Manny Diaz stunted his team out of position, the Longhorn defense refused to take good angles or make tackles and the result was a unit that gave up over 400 yards a game and close to 30 points a contest.
Those numbers will not get the job done. In fact, the 'Horns are five points higher than any BCS champion prior to 2012 and 18.3 points above last season’s champions, the Crimson Tide.
On the path to returning to prominence, fixing the defense plays an integral role for the Longhorns. It starts with getting simple and taking care of the little things. That means less stunts, less exotic blitzes and more focus on run fits, more making sure players tackle and pursue correctly and more trusting the players to make plays.
Running stunts and linemen games, plus throwing the kitchen sink at opponents in blitz packages, generates pressure, but it also leaves large areas of vulnerability. In the Big 12, where everyone plays in the shotgun and quarterbacks are getting the ball out quick, those vulnerabilities turn into first downs and touchdowns.
Especially when the defense is missing tackles all over the field.
For both sides of the ball, "sticktoitiveness" is the name of the game. On offense, that means running the ball, punching opponents in the mouth and letting David Ash build off of the run game. With the defense, that means doing the little things right like tackling, making run fits and taking good angles.
If Texas can do those things this season, then the Longhorns will be back on the track toward the top. That also means Mack Brown and Manny Diaz will remain in Austin to keep pushing the progress. That means getting the recruits they need to build a team capable of qualifying for and winning the four-team playoff. It also means developing players to improve their power advantage in the trenches.
However, if the 'Horns are not dedicated about finding an offensive identity, or paying attention to defensive detail, then both Brown and Diaz could be out of work in Austin come January 2014. Although there is no clear leader in the Big 12, the conference is stocked with offenses that can exploit poor defensive play and, as they score, make Texas abandon the run game.
Thus, 2013 for Texas is about taking the next step toward the upper echelon of the sport. Last year ended on a positive note, despite disappointment along the way. This year, Texas has to get consistent as the team pushes to position itself to be a 2014 playoff-caliber contender.