Entering fall camp, expectations are tougher to assess than ever at Texas. On one hand, you have a new head coach in Charlie Strong who knows how to motivate talent. Then again, the 'Horns are down eight starters, per PhilSteele.com, and "The Purge" has left them without some valuable depth.
But given the talent that still remains untapped on this team and the current health of quarterback David Ash, there is no excuse for a lack of improvement on last year's 8-5 record. Especially when you consider the 21.6-point average margin of defeat in those five losses.
Looking at this season's schedule, a 9-3 regular season seems like the ceiling in Strong's debut. The team can afford losses to top-15 teams Oklahoma, UCLA and Baylor, per Bleacher Report's latest Preseason Top 25. Road games against Kansas State, Texas Tech and Oklahoma State round out the toughest games on the schedule.
Of those six contests, Texas has to find a way to get at least two victories and be competitive in all losses to prove there has been progress since last season. So long as that happens, losing one in particular is no more detrimental to the season's hopes than any other.
But the timing and circumstances of their tilts with BYU, Iowa State and TCU have the potential to ruin Texas' season if it fails to pull out victories.
Sept. 6: vs. BYU Cougars
Texas' 40-21 loss to the Cougars last season was rock bottom for the program, and all the proof needed to argue for the switch from Mack Brown to Strong. This season's matchup will gauge how much it paid off.
Since the Cougars embarrassed the Longhorns with their 550-yard rushing exhibition, this game has been circled. The players have been hearing about for the past 11 months, and it's been motivational gold for the coaches, according to both Quandre Diggs and Cedric Reed:
Texas CB Quandre Diggs: "I'm a mature trash talker." Also said "if you're a man," players will be ready for BYU.— Brian Davis (@BDavisAAS) July 22, 2014
Cedric Reed admitted BYU loss was used repeatedly this offseason by new coaching staff. "That's all we heard about - BYU."— Max Olson (@max_olson) July 22, 2014
With all of that pent-up frustration from last year's matchup, there cannot be any more incentive for this team to play the best game of football its played in five seasons. Anything less would be disappointing, and a loss would remove the luster from Strong's tenure before he even hits the meat of his schedule.
Oct. 18: vs. Iowa State
After BYU, the Longhorns hit their most brutal stretch of the season with three of their next four games against UCLA, Oklahoma and Baylor. Losing all three is possible, which makes taking care of Iowa State at home necessary for a successful second half of the season.
Kansas looks like the trap game between UCLA and Baylor, but the Longhorns must be wary of the Cyclones. They gave the 'Horns all they could handle last season in Ames, losing because an irreversible call happened to go initially in Texas' favor.
Much like Strong with BYU, Paul Rhoads will have his team motivated to get revenge this time around. If Rhoads succeeds, it could easily be the Longhorns' fourth loss of the season right before two brutal road games against Kansas State and Texas Tech.
This is one of the last games the Longhorns should be comfortably favored, and they can't afford to screw it up with five games left on their Big 12 schedule.
Nov. 27: vs. TCU
TCU on Thanksgiving is Texas' last game of the regular season—and a win the Longhorns will need in order to end it on a high note.
The 'Horns have lost each of their last four regular-season finales, punctuated by their most recent 20-point face-plant against Baylor that cost them the Big 12 title. Though Texas should be bowl eligible, limping into the postseason sets a bad tone, especially on the recruiting trail.
There's also the matter of the seniors, who have endured nothing but disappointment since they joined the program. This is their last home game, which had better yield an inspired effort from their teammates.