What can Texas fans realistically expect from Charlie Strong's first year? It actually has little to do with wins and losses.
That seems odd at a place like Texas, but the reality is this: Texas is a different program now than the one Vince Young led to a national championship in 2005-06. (Mike Finger of the San Antonio Express-News wrote an interesting column earlier this month on why moving on from Young era is a good thing.)
For the first time in nearly 80 years, no Texas players were taken in the NFL draft. That doesn't mean there isn't NFL talent on the team, but it's clear Strong has a lot of work to do—more work than anyone might initially have suspected. Texas is, after all, a job that Yahoo! Sports' Dan Wetzel once said "almost can't be screwed up."
The "what have you done for me lately" mindset has been validated by coaches like Auburn's Gus Malzahn, who took the Tigers to a national championship in his first year. Those are what B/R colleague Michael Felder calls microwave results, and they're not the norm.
Changing 16 years of culture takes patience in an impatient world. What's more is that, according to CBS Sports' Jerry Palm, Texas has one of the most difficult schedules in 2014 (15th nationally):
Charlie Strong's debut season won't be easy. The Longhorns will play the toughest non-league schedule among Big 12 teams, facing both UCLA and BYU. In the league, they get Kansas State and Oklahoma State on the road, as well as the Red River Shootout against Oklahoma.
Palm notes that his strength of schedule rankings are "based on the old BCS SOS formula using last year's data for current year opponents." The idea, then, is to give readers a picture of what teams will be facing this year, not a projection since no team is the same from one year to the next.
Still, Strong won't be easing the Horns into anything. BYU embarrassed the Horns a year ago, and UCLA should be a preseason Pac-12 title contender/dark horse national championship team. Texas has lost to Baylor in three of the past four years, and Oklahoma is always a heated rivalry.
That's just the first half of the season. Trips to Kansas State—who should be near the top of the conference standings again in '14—Texas Tech and Oklahoma State make up the back half of the schedule.
|North Texas||Aug. 30|
|@ Kansas||Sept. 27|
|Iowa State||Oct. 18|
|@ Kansas State||Oct. 25|
|@ Texas Tech||Nov. 1|
|West Virginia||Nov. 8|
|@ Oklahoma State||Nov. 15|
Despite the tough slate of games, getting to a bowl is still a realistic goal for Texas; the only way '14 should be considered a disappointment is if that doesn't happen.
Rather than focusing on wins and losses, Year 1 for Strong should be about three things: quarterback development, defensive improvement and in-state recruiting.
It's no secret Texas has had more than its share of quarterback struggles since Colt McCoy last played in 2009. Thanks to a combination of busts, transfers and misses, the Horns went from a one-two punch with Young and McCoy to a punchline.
David Ash has the most experience and a lot of upside, but he hasn't been able to stay healthy. Sophomore Tyrone Swoopes has only a limited amount of game tape to his name, and Jerrod Heard joins the team later this summer. Unless Swoopes makes up a ton of ground in the coming months, Ash seems like the go-to guy. Ideally, Texas fans should look for more consistency from Ash because of quarterbacks coach Shawn Watson, who did a masterful job with Teddy Bridgewater at Louisville.
Ash may not be Bridgewater, but he doesn't have to be in order to be successful. The redshirt junior has all the physical tools of a touted quarterback and he's shown flashes that he can make big plays. He just hasn't been able to put it all together yet.
Speaking of quarterbacks, if there was a mobile one on the field last season, Texas had a hard time stopping him. The obvious example is BYU's Taysom Hill, who rushed for 259 yards and three touchdowns against Texas in a 40-21 blowout in Provo last season.
Once defensive coordinator Manny Diaz was replaced with Greg Robinson, Texas' defense began to settle. Things were simpler and players executed better. Strong is a defensive guy, and he brought in an excellent defensive staff.
With Hill, UCLA's Brett Hundley, Baylor's Bryce Petty, Oklahoma's Trevor Knight, Oklahoma State's J.W. Walsh and Kansas State's Jake Waters on the schedule, Texas will have plenty of opportunities to show it has improved defensively against mobile quarterbacks.
How many games will Texas win in 2014?
Finally, Strong has to take back the state of Texas on the recruiting trail. There was a time when the Horns owned Texas and everyone else got the leftovers. Not anymore. The Horns still landed eight of the top 50 in-state players this past signing period, according to 247Sports, but Texas A&M got 10—including the top in-state player, Myles Garrett. Baylor, a program showing it's capable of being a power program, reeled in four. In all, the SEC took 16 of those top-50 players, while the rest of the Big 12 took 15.
The recruiting gap Texas once enjoyed has closed considerably.
For 2015, Texas has yet to land a 5-star or top-10 in-state prospect. There's plenty of time, of course, but Strong and his staff are facing a stiff battle.
Texas went out of state for one of its best verbal commits for the '15 class: 4-star pro-style quarterback Zach Gentry from New Mexico. It's a big pickup for the Horns considering the top two in-state quarterbacks, Kyler Murray and Jarrett Stidham, didn't express much interest.
Strong and his staff can't rely on out-of-state prospects forever, though. Getting the best in-state players is how Texas will get back to the national stage Strong promised. It's how Texas will start winning again.
That shouldn't matter as much in Year 1, but at $5 million a year, Strong is going to have to produce quickly thereafter.
Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football at Bleacher Report. All quotes cited unless obtained firsthand. All recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.