The Texas Longhorns hired Charlie Strong, who overachieved at Louisville, to help them reach the expectations that they have have been unable to reach over the past four seasons. His debut season will fall short of the program's high standards but not without exhibiting progress.
“The last few years they've been knocked down," Strong told CBS Sports' Jeremy Fowler. “We need to get them built back up."
Strong inherits 13 starters from last year's 8-5 squad, which is tied with 17 other programs for 69th in the nation, according to Phil Steele. Six of those returnees come from the offensive side of the ball, with another seven on defense.
Excluded from those figures is the murky quarterback position. Already a risk due to a history of concussions, David Ash suffered a Jones fracture in his foot late in the spring that could sideline him until the fall.
Ash's latest complication leaves Texas with sophomore Tyrone Swoopes and incoming freshman Jerrod Heard as the only real options at the position. Their zero combined starts and an offensive line that is replacing three starters won't make for a winning formula in the Big 12.
Fortunately, the 'Horns will be able to lean on one the conference's best running games. All-Big 12 back Malcolm Brown returns for his senior year, and Johnathan Gray is expected back from his ruptured Achilles in mid-June. Together, Brown's power and Gray's elusiveness will provide a formidable one-two punch out of the backfield.
Charlie Strong said RB Johnathan Gray, LB Jordan Hicks "should be ready to go by mid-June."— kbohls (@kbohls) April 28, 2014
As for the defense, the front-seven will have to do much of the heavy lifting for Strong's area of expertise. Though not the deepest group, bookend Cedric Reed and tackle Malcom Brown will lead a stout defensive line that will be tough at the point of attack.
Backing up the frontline is a truly two-deep linebacking corps, where past injuries have allowed young players to gain valuable experience. Even if Jordan Hicks goes down for a third-straight season, there is enough talent here for Strong and his staff to work with.
In all, that leaves Texas with potential deficiencies chiefly at quarterback, but in the secondary and along the offensive line as well. Those are three areas where underperformance could be disastrous for the 'Horns.
Given the schedule, that leaves a best-case scenario at 9-3 with the worst outcome being a 6-6 finish.
|Opponent||B/R Post-Spring Rank||2013 Record||Returning Starters|
|Oklahoma (Dallas, TX)||6||11-2||14|
|at Kansas State||21||8-5||10|
|at Texas Tech||24||8-5||12|
|at Oklahoma State||N/A||10-3||9|
University of Texas Athletics and PhilSteele.com
As shown above, Texas will play five teams that appear in B/R's Post-Spring Top 25. How the 'Horns fare against those five teams, as well as Oklahoma State, will determine the course of their season.
UCLA and Oklahoma represent the toughest matchups, returning a majority of their starters as well as electric quarterbacks Brett Hundley and Trevor Knight. The 'Horns will get each of them in an early four-week stretch that also includes Baylor, which returns Offensive Player of the Year Bryce Petty.
Following that stretch, Texas gets a one-week break against Iowa State before facing formidable road tests at Kansas State and Texas Tech, two programs that closed 2013 as hot as anyone in the conference. The Longhorns' last big test comes against Oklahoma State, who embarrassed them at home last season by a 38-13 margin.
Although teams like Kansas, Iowa State, West Virginia and BYU all gave Texas fits last season, these are the six games that Texas absolutely must play well to win. Because, and let's face it, there's no way Strong is going to let the Cougars' Taysom Hill rush for another 259 yards.
It's all about the quarterbacks in the Big 12. And if Texas doesn't have one, then dropping those six key games to finish 6-6 is a real possibility.
The Longhorns have other issues. The offensive line still need sorting out after giving up four sacks to the second team in the spring game. And safeties Mykkele Thompson and Josh Turner have never been sure tacklers in the open field.
All of those issues can, one way or another, be sorted out by the fall. Lacking a reliable quarterback, though, is no easy fix.
Of the past 10 recipients of the Big 12's Offensive Player of the Year Award, nine have been quarterbacks according to Sports-Reference.com. Per CollegeFootballPoll.com, eight of those quarterbacks led teams either to the Big 12 championship game or the outright title, with Robert Griffin III being the lone exception in 2011.
Now, David Ash is not the best quarterback in the conference, but he is probably closer to that distinction than Tyrone Swoopes. Though he showcased some of his awesome potential in the spring game, Swoopes still threw two picks against the second-team defense. Those are the types of growing pains that Texas will have to expect with Swoopes, whereas Shawn Watson told Burn Orange Nation's Wescott Eberts that Ash was getting a grip on the offense prior to his injury.
Here is what I feel about it, David was beginning to get it. He has really worked hard in the offseason studying and I can't beat him out of my office, he is always there. He is like my chair in my office and every time I turn around he is in it. That's good because he has worked really hard at learning what we do and most importantly he is going to know how.
The worst thing that can happen to Texas here is for Ash to either be unavailable or go down with another ailment, then Swoopes prove unable to handle starting duties. Not only would Texas lose a majority of those six key games, but the pressure would be on to throw the freshman Heard into the fire.
And if all that happens, going 6-6 would be a distinct possibility.
Even though this a flawed team, a consistent quarterback makes it good enough for nine regular-season victories.
Since he was the guy through much of the spring, getting David Ash back to 100 percent is the best course of action for the program. He has the most experience and is the best passer on team.
That said, don't sleep on Swoopes either. The 6'5" sophomore adds a dual-threat wrinkle to the offense that the defense has to account for on every play, and his development as a passer gives him an outrageous ceiling. The bottom line is that if the coaches didn't think they could roll with Swoopes in Ash's stead, then they would have offered Max Wittek a scholarship.
How many games will Texas win in 2014?
As long as either Swoopes or Ash can effectively move the ball, Charlie Strong has proven he can get the chance to turn talent into Ws. The offensive line must improve, but is in good hands with coach Joe Wickline, and cornerback Quandre Diggs can cover up some of the deficiencies in the secondary. Not to mention that Strong can run his 3-3-5 defense with a hybrid linebacker, such as incoming freshman Edwin Freeman, to make up for his lack of size at safety.
Though this team will struggle with its early-season gauntlet of UCLA, Oklahoma and Baylor, the 'Horns have the talent to steal one of those games and then handle the rest of their schedule. With Strong running the show, ending up with nine wins and three losses is more than plausible.