You’ve heard about the streak of 10-win seasons. You know about the annual blue-chip laden recruiting classes that have earned him the Mr. February moniker. Yet despite all of head coach Mack Brown’s accolades, Texas has proven that winning the Big 12 is no easy task.
And 2010 won’t be any different.
Gone are the familiar faces of Colt McCoy and Jordan Shipley—of Sergio Kindle and Lamarr Houston. From new leaders on both sides of the ball to offensive schemes, the Longhorn program will be experiencing a major overhaul with fresh looks all over the football field this coming fall.
There is no doubt Texas has the talent to win the Big 12 this year. McCoy’s successor, Garrett Gilbert, comes to Texas as highly regarded as anybody since Vince Young. And though several key leaders are gone from last year’s defense, the Longhorn faithful have full confidence in what Coach Will Muschamp is doing on that side of the ball.
Regardless of the talent, there are plenty of questions left unanswered about the 2010 Longhorns. While most of these questions can’t be answered until the pads come on in September, here are three concerns that could hold Texas back in ’10.
Garrett Gilbert Misses Significant Time
Like most schools, Texas is only going to go as far as their starting quarterback can take them. So it would be no surprise that if Texas were to lose their signal caller, their Big 12 title aspirations would most likely be derailed.
Gilbert, only a sophomore, will be asked to replace college football’s all-time win leader in Colt McCoy. While he has yet to start a single game in his college football career, there is little worry about Gilbert’s ability from those closest to the Longhorn program.
There isn’t a defense on the schedule that will be as talented as what Gilbert faced in his unexpected national championship appearance against Alabama. And he may never face a collegiate defense like that again.
The freshman came out a bit wide-eyed in the first-half of that game. But after he had a chance to get into the flow of the offense, Gilbert was able to find some success in the second-half.
If Gilbert goes down with an injury for any extended period of time, Texas will have to turn to senior quarterback Sherrod Harris, who has had few live-game repetitions, or one of their freshmen (Connor Wood or Case McCoy).
Any of the three would severely handcuff Greg Davis’s play-calling, and none come close to the skill-set that Gilbert brings to the offense. Texas will not be able to survive for long without Gilbert at the helm, especially if he misses time against Oklahoma or Nebraska.
New Offensive Scheme
2004 and 2005 saw Texas finish second nationally in total rushing yards. Since that time, Texas has had one player finish with over 1,000 rushing yards (Jamaal Charles 1,665 in ’07).
Coach Brown has headed into every offseason for the past few years vowing to revamp a less than stellar running game. The coaching staff has wanted an offense that could control the ball, and bleed the clock. They’ve strived for the ability to get tough yardage at will. And for the most part, they’ve been extremely successful on offense.
But most of the Longhorn’s offensive success has come from the arm of Colt McCoy.
Luckily for UT, McCoy was one of the most accurate passers in college football history. Having a couple of sure-handed receivers in Quan Cosby and Jordan Shipley to throw to sure didn’t hurt, either. While the ground game hasn’t been consistent for a few seasons, the Longhorns used their short passing routes in place of their inconsistent running game.
And the result? In the last two seasons, the Longhorns have won 25 games against two losses. They’ve won a BCS Bowl game and a Big 12 title. They’ve played for a national title, and were about a second away from playing for a second. And no team in the nation has scored more points than them over the last two seasons.
So when the offense takes the field against Rice in their season opener, Longhorn fans may not recognize what they see. For the first time since the 2002 season, Texas will be employing a more pro-style, under-the-center offense. At least that is what the Longhorn coaches will lead you to believe.
Since we’ve all heard the same gibberish from the mouths of UT coaches in the past, you’ll have to excuse those snickering in Austin if they don’t buy what the coaches are selling right away.
But after losing McCoy on the fifth offensive play in their national championship game against Alabama, and getting beat by a quarterback that went 6-11 for only 58 yards, Brown and the Longhorns have seen the value in establishing a reliable running game.
The Texas defense, ranked first in the nation against the run coming into the game, was gashed for over 200 yards on the ground.
So the thinking goes that a strong running game, coupled with a dominant defense (both of which they think they could have), will improve the Longhorn’s chances of success in the upcoming seasons.
The face-lift will be a risky proposition. The Longhorns have had a lot of success running their offense out of the spread. And as they say, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
But McCoy, Cosby and Shipley are long gone. Brown and the Longhorns see the value in adapting their offense, and all indications through spring practice support the idea that they are making a conscious effort to make the transition.
And what if said transition fails?
As talented as Gilbert is, and as successful as he is expected to be, the Longhorns can’t ask him to carry the team like McCoy has done for the last two seasons. Having never started a game, there will be growing pains; growing pains that will be much easier to get through with a reliable running game.
If UT can’t find success running the football, opposing defenses will be more likely to sit back and force the young quarterback into mistakes.
A Red October
The toughest stretch of the Longhorn’s schedule begins in mid-September with a trip to Lubbock. After a home game against UCLA, the ‘Horns will play away from home against Oklahoma in Dallas, and at Nebraska.
Texas Tech isn’t expected to make much noise in the Big 12 this season, as they are rebuilding under new coach Tommy Tubberville. And UCLA doesn’t appear too daunting of a challenge at home. But the two-game stretch in the beginning of October will go a long way in deciding the Longhorn’s fate for 2010.
Since the inception of the Big 12, Nebraska has only managed one victory over Texas. Despite the Longhorns lopsided success against the Cornhuskers, most of the victories have been nail-biters. Five of the seven victories have been by four points or less, including the most recent last-second field goal win that sent Texas to Pasadena to play for the national championship.
Playing in Lincoln will probably be the Longhorn’s second toughest challenge of the season, after the annual tilt in Dallas.
After falling short in last season’s upset-bid over the Longhorns, Nebraska believes they can hang with Texas, e specially after their bowl game thumping of Arizona in the Holiday Bowl. In this series, rankings and records really haven’t mattered as there have been plenty of upsets and closer-than-expected finishes.
Nebraska seems to be the only team in the Big 12 that is trending upward. The Cornhuskers lost their star in Ndamukong Suh, b ut everyone believes that Bo Pelini has the Blackshirts reemerging in Lincoln. If Nebraska gets the kind of pressure on Gilbert that they got on McCoy in the Big 12 Championship, it’s highly unlikely that Texas will escape with another win this season.
Texas and Oklahoma have combined for nine of the Big 12’s 14 conference championships, and have represented the South division every season since 1999. Of the past 11 Red River Rivalry games, the winner has gone on to play for the Big 12 crown eight times. Needless to say, the road to the Big 12 Championship usually goes through Dallas.
OU isn’t coming into the 2010 season as favorites to play for the national championship like in recent seasons. But the cupboard definitely isn’t bare in Norman, and there is little doubt that they will be contenders for the Big 12 crown.
Like every other season in recent memory, the Red River Rivalry will be the toughest and most important game for the Longhorns.