While "sleeper" may not necessarily be the right term, Texas is at the point where it's no longer the hunted program in the Big 12. Schools like Baylor and Oklahoma State have significantly closed the gap between themselves and Texas, and Kansas State has become perennially good without bringing in blue-chip talent.
There's also the emergence of Texas A&M in the SEC. Yes, the Aggies no longer compete for Big 12 titles, but their impact on recruiting and exposure in Texas can't be ignored.
By hiring Charlie Strong from Louisville, Texas wants to widen that gap again and take back the conference and national spotlights. As crazy as it may sound, it's possible Strong could accomplish some of that in year one.
Oklahoma should be the preseason favorite to win the conference after beating Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, but it wouldn't be surprising to see K-State and Baylor receive serious consideration as well. And Texas is right in that second tier.
Making a run at a conference title—Texas' first since 2009—starts on defense. That's where the Horns are strongest and it's Strong's calling card.
Even with the departure of defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat, the defensive line returns Cedric Reed, Malcom Brown and Desmond Jackson. Linebacker Jordan Hicks returns from injury, meaning the Horns' starting defensive front seven should be as stacked as any in the Big 12.
But returning starters are only as good as their improvements, and last season Texas struggled early to stop the run. The first example that comes to mind is BYU quarterback Taysom Hill, who rushed for 259 yards in a 40-21 win over Texas last September.
That was the game that cost defensive coordinator Manny Diaz his job. His successor, Greg Robinson, did a much better job of simplifying things and getting results. Still, mobile quarterbacks proved to be Texas' kryptonite all the way up to the Alamo Bowl, when Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota rushed for 133 yards in a 30-7 win.
In Texas' five losses, the defense allowed the quarterback to rush for at least 95 yards three times. And Texas never faced Oklahoma quarterback Trevor Knight.
Knight, along with Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty and possible Oklahoma State quarterback J.W. Walsh, is one of the mobile quarterbacks Texas may have to contain in 2014. That's not including back-to-back games against Hill and UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley on Sept. 6 and Sept. 13, respectively.
|Texas vs. Mobile Quarterbacks in 2014|
|Date||Opponent||Quarterback||Rushing stats||Rushing TDs|
|Sept. 6||BYU||Taysom Hill||1,344 yards||10|
|Sept. 13||UCLA||Brett Hundley||748 yards||11|
|Oct. 4||Baylor||Bryce Petty||209 yards||14|
|Oct. 11||Oklahoma||Trevor Knight||445 yards||2|
|Oct. 25||Kansas State||Jake Waters||312 yards||6|
Just as stopping the run is important for Texas, having a sound running game is critical for the Horns' offensive success. This is where Texas is strongest on offense with running backs Malcolm Brown, Johnathan Gray and Joe Bergeron.
With Gray recovering from an Achilles injury and Bergeron dealing with "personal issues," according to Texas, depth in the backfield is thinner this spring. That said, it should be a strength once the season rolls around.
The biggest question mark will be the offensive line, where four starters are being replaced. Couple the turnover with the knee injury to tackle Kent Perkins, and Texas is off to a rough start shoring up the O-line.
"Losing Perkins hurts us because he was doing so well," Strong said, via B/R's Taylor Gaspar. "But it now gives us a chance to look at the younger guys and watching them compete and making sure they get enough reps."
If that group can come together, though, the offense can be serviceable and still win plenty of games. That would be the case whether it's David Ash lining up at quarterback or anyone else.
Looking back at Strong's time at Louisville, the Cardinals last had a 2,000-yard rushing season in 2010. That was before Teddy Bridgewater took over at quarterback.
With uncertainty surrounding the quarterback spot at Texas, look for Strong to concentrate on a stout defense that takes pressure off the offense while playing clock management and field position. (Louisville finished in the top 20 in time of possession in the past three seasons.)
Instead of beating teams 40-30, look for Texas to win more games in the 28-21 range. That's how the Horns take back the Big 12 in 2014.
Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football at Bleacher Report. All quotes cited unless obtained firsthand. All stats courtesy of cfbstats.com.
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