After a surprisingly successful 2008 season, the Texas Longhorns are counting down the days before they can get back onto the field and seize what they thought was rightfully theirs last season…a spot in the national championship game.
Anything less than a ticket to Pasadena will be a major disappointment to much of the Longhorn faithful. The Rose Bowl has been very kind to the Horns in their recent trips and this 2009 version has the pieces to return to the Promised Land. But like most championship teams, the Horns are going to need a little luck to go with their dazzling skill.
The 2009 non-conference schedule doesn’t provide much to fear for the Longhorns. The Horns will be looking to oil the machine, and fine tune a few kinks along the way before they get into the meat of their conference schedule.
First on the slate for the Longhorns will be the Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks, and they will pose little threat to the championship aspirations of Texas. UT boasts a 13-0 record all-time against the Sun Belt Conference, with an average margin of 27 points per game. The two teams have never played against each other, but the Warhawks are 0-10 against other Big 12 teams.
ULM will be led onto the field by quarterback Trey Revell. Revell has struggled his first two years on campus, fighting bouts of inconsistency and whip lash from being yanked on and off the field. Running back Frank Goodin topped 1000 all-purpose yards last year, and the Warhawks return six of their top seven receivers. Up front, Ryan Dercher will anchor an offensive line that returns four.
On the other side of the ball, ULM will switch from a 4-3 to a 3-3-5 to plug the holes in last season’s porous rush defense. Senior nose tackle Aaron Williams has been compared to Warren Sapp, and coaches are hoping he can be a similar run stopper. Fellow pre-season All Sun Belt Conference team member Aaron Moore will lead the pass rush from the defensive end position.
The Hawks most talented unit on the defensive side of the ball will be their secondary. If senior safeties Josh Thompson and Greg James regain their eligibility over the summer, ULM will return all four starters from last year.
Despite taking the best secondary and most experienced offensive line from the SBC into Austin, the Hawks just will not threaten the Horns. Colt McCoy faces more talented competition everyday in team practices. McCoy made a gentleman’s wager in the off-season with Kirk Herbstreit, betting that he could improve upon last season’s 76% pass completion. This should be a game where he can pad his stats.
The Horns hope to establish a more consistent running game this season, and you can bet that Mack Brown and Greg Davis will try to get it rolling early in the opener. There will be pressure on UT's backfield to produce a steady, more consistent rushing attack that is not led by quarterback McCoy.
McCoy did his best Vince Young impression last year, leading the team in passing and rushing yards. But the Horns don't want to risk injury to their Heisman-contending quarterback any more than they have to. Sophomore Cody Johnson showed flashes throughout last year, especially in short-yardage situations. Vondrell McGee also looked solid at the end of the year after he recovered from an early season ankle injury. Highly touted freshman Chris Whaley could see some playing time late.
Last season, the Horns led the nation in sacks, with uber-talented Brian Orakpo spearheading the effort. Orakpo is now drawing paychecks from Daniel Snyder in Washington, so somebody will have to step up and replace his production.
Hello, Sergio Kindle.
The all-everything senior could have opted for the NFL Draft last season himself, but decided to stay around the 40 acres to improve his skill set and draft stock. Kindle will be the center piece of the Longhorn defense, moving around the field from defensive end to linebacker. The speed and power of Kindle match Orakpo's skill-set, it will just be a matter of consistency for the senior defender.
When ULM has the ball, their best chance lies with their ability to run the ball and keep it away from the high-octane Longhorn offense. ULM can’t get behind early, because UT’s pass rush and secondary is too talented to allow them back into the game. A shutout is highly likely for the Horn’s D, as they should come out with a fiery swagger and set the tone for the rest of the season.
The Burnt Orange faithful will travel to Wyoming for their season’s road opener, where the Cowboys are 5-2 recently against BCS schools. New head coach Dave Christensen scored 31 points against the Longhorns as Missouri’s offensive coordinator last year.
Wyoming will look eerily similar to the Warhawks. The quarterback spot is far from settled, and the position was largely responsible for a -22 turnover deficit. The top returning running back for the Cowboys is Darius Terry and his 43 yards. The wide receiver position looks equally as dire, with sophomore Brandon Stewart totaling only 251 yards last season. Just like the Warhawks, Wyoming returns four starters from their offensive line.
The Cowboy defensive front will be among the most experienced lines in the country, with 3 senior starters returning. Talented Gabe Knapton returns to lead the linebacker core after totaling 92 tackles a year ago. Last year’s defensive MVP, Chris Prosinski, is expected to build upon his 88 tackles and 12 pass breakups.
New game, same outcome. The Cowboys should struggle against an aggressive Longhorn defense, and can only hope to play keep-away from the Horns. Christensen found a way to put up four 2nd-half touchdowns in Austin last season, but there are no Jeremy Maclin types in this bunch. UT could start the season with back-to-back shutouts.
McCoy, again, ought to face little resistance in this contest and improve upon the chemistry with his receivers. Fiesta Bowl Hero, Quan Cosby, will be missed dearly, but there is no lack of talent among the new crop of receivers. As Brent Musberger constantly reminds us, long time roommate and fishing buddy of McCoy, Jordan Shipley, will be the star of this group. Juniors Brandon Collins and James Kirkendoll, and sophomore Malcolm Williams should step-up and be huge contributors to the passing game this season.
The running game will continue to roll, and Coach Davis should have his way with the Cowboy defense all game long.
The Horns will face-off against Texas Tech before they play their next non-conference foe, the Miners of UTEP. The Miners come to Austin after they out-gained the Horns in their ’08 meeting and stayed within striking distance for three quarters.
UTEP will be led by strong-armed quarterback Trevor Vittatoe. Last season, Vittatoe threw for over 3,200 yards and 33 touchdowns. Almost half (14) of those went to Kris Adams, the 6’3” receiver who also had 958 yards. The offensive line returns nine of ten off of their two-deep from last year, and they will need every bit of that experience to pave the way for their very green, 2nd year running back Daniel Palmer. No back returns with more yards than Palmer, and he totaled just 132 yards.
If the Miners have any chance of beating UT, they will have to win in a shootout. UTEP is in the second year of their switch to a 3-3-5 defense. The front 3 are vastly undersized and the secondary returns a group that ranked 104th in the country last season.
Another stroll in the park for the Longhorn offense. They should do whatever they want, whenever they want against the undermanned Miners. McCoy will have ample time to throw against the Miners, facing no discernible pass rush. The Horn’s receivers should have little trouble getting open against the overmatched secondary. When the Longhorns run the ball, the O-line will average a 50 pound weight advantage over the front line of the Miners. If anybody is going to separate themselves as difference makers from the Horns backfield, it should be apparent by this point of the season.
The non-conference finale against the UCF Knights will in the midst of UT’s conference schedule. Their last meeting was in ’07, where running back Kevin Smith led the comeback bid against the Horns. Quarterback Rob Calabrese is coming off a season in which he completed only 39% of his passes. UCF’s receivers are big and physical, but don’t expect Calabrese, or anybody else, to get them the pigskin with their lack of competency. Running back Bryan Harvey ran for over 150 yards in a game against Marshall last season, but he won’t see many lanes this season. Harvey will be running behind an O-line that returns only 28 total starts and ranked No. 111 in the country last season.
The defensive line of the Knights should be tops in C-USA, as they return 7 of their top 8 players. The linebacker core is solid, but the secondary of UCF may consist of 4 true freshmen in the two-deep.
The toughest test for Bevo’s bunch in this contest will be staying focused in the middle of the conference schedule. Texas may think it can afford to exhale after a series of games against OU, Mizzou, and OSU, or they could be caught looking forward to Robert Griffin and the Baylor Bears. But this team has showed that focus is not an issue, and they should be firing on all cylinders at this point in the season. Another big win is in store for the Longhorns in this late season non-conference game.
The Texas Longhorns will not see any real threat to their championship run during the non-conference schedule. What their opponents will test, however, is their ability to play to a standard, rather than playing to an opponent’s level. If the Horns can find a consistent running attack against their weaker opponents and continue their improvement on defense, there will be no controversy at the end of this football season. UT will be playing in Pasadena in early January.