The 2015 season is basically over for Texas, but that doesn't make Saturday's game against Baylor meaningless. There's still an opportunity, win or lose, for the Longhorns to get some momentum going into 2016.
Unless a handful of five-win teams decline bowl invites next Sunday, Texas' season will end against the Bears. And that's only if the Longhorns pull off a stunning upset. The game is being played in Waco, and Baylor is a nearly 21-point favorite according to Odds Shark, even with third-string quarterback Chris Johnson getting his second start.
So no—no one outside of head coach Charlie Strong and some Longhorn diehards expects Texas to win (and even that latter group is probably skeptical). Still, showing up and playing with passion and focus has to be a priority.
“It’s still about guys being competitive," Strong said Monday, via Rich Tijerina of the Austin American-Statesman. "We know we have injuries. Even during the (Tech) game, I don’t think a big deal was made about it. I think our guys can still go out and compete. They know it’s their last game, and for the seniors it is their last game. Some of them may never put on a uniform at all.”
Strong has preached the "play for pride" mantra before, but it's as important as ever. It's been a disaster of a season and a setback record-wise. Still, a deeper dive into some of the losses shows Texas wasn't all that far away from turning a corner. There were the blowouts at the hands of Notre Dame, TCU and even Iowa State, but there were also games in which Texas had an opportunity to win. For example:
- Texas lost 45-44 to Cal after kicker Nick Rose missed a tying extra point.
- Texas lost 30-27 to Oklahoma State after going toe-to-toe with the Cowboys all game. An unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty on Strong, one of a whopping 16 penalties on the day, and a mishandled punt proved to be the most costly mistakes.
- Texas lost 48-45 to Texas Tech and was on the wrong end of an immaculate reception by Red Raiders wide receiver Jakeem Grant.
That's not to say the outcomes of each of those games would have been different otherwise, but it goes to show how delicate the line is between a four-win team and a seven-win one. When you're as young as the Horns are, a series of plays can be deciding factors. Knowing how to close a game is a lesson often learned the hard way.
Texas doesn't believe in moral victories, and it shouldn't. As running back Chris Warren III said, Texas is looking to get back to its old ways:
But there is something positive to be said about Texas if it plays Baylor like it did Cal rather than how it played the Horned Frogs. The Bears are right there with the likes of Notre Dame and TCU, which means it would be a step in the right direction for the Horns to not fall insurmountably behind quickly.
Texas has been a mistake-prone team all year, but things were especially rough in November. The Longhorns averaged seven penalties a game, seventh in the Big 12, and were only plus-one in the turnover margin (nine gained to eight lost). Improvement starts with cleaning up those mistakes.
Otherwise, the talent is there. It's young, but it's there. Warren, a freshman, was named the Big 12 Offensive Player of the Week after running for 276 yards and four touchdowns against Texas Tech. The leading receiver on the season, John Burt, is also a freshman. A third freshman, linebacker Malik Jefferson, is the team's second-leading tackler.
A good showing against Baylor will go a long way toward building confidence, but regardless of what happens Saturday, changes are needed for 2016. Anwar Richardson of Orange Bloods reported this week that Strong was targeting TCU co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Sonny Cumbie as Texas' new OC (for the record, Strong said he hasn't contacted Cumbie):
A new identity on offense is critical for Strong's future, as 2016 will likely be a make-or-break season. A massive rebuild like the one Strong is undertaking—he's taken Texas down to the studs both on and off the field—takes more than a year or two to complete. In a perfect world, Strong would get at least four years to show he's the guy. Realistically, however, he'll get three years to take a big leap forward. Back-to-back losing seasons at a place like Texas will put any coach on the hot seat.
Seven, maybe eight wins could be the floor for Texas next year. To achieve that immediate turnaround, hiring someone with a track record like Cumbie is the safest bet, as David Ubben of Sports on Earth tweeted:
There also needs to be continued success in recruiting. The Longhorns have the No. 46 class in the country according to 247Sports with two months until signing day. Last year around this time, Strong got a late, major push in recruiting and will need the same type of push this year.
Otherwise, Texas might be awfully tempted to take a long look at Houston coach Tom Herman, who just agreed in principle to a new contract with the Cougars, according to Joseph Duarte of the Houston Chronicle. Herman, who coached Houston to an 11-1 regular season as a first-year head coach, was briefly connected to the vacant Georgia job by Josh Newberg of 247Sports.
There's a lot that needs to happen for Strong in the next year if he's going to be Texas' long-term answer. None of it will happen overnight. That's been the theme since Strong took the job two years ago. It's all about steps. Believe it or not, Texas has taken some steps in 2015. It was the only team to beat Oklahoma and came close to winning three more games.
Texas' next step involves taking those positive ones forward and showing up against Baylor—and maybe even defying all the odds and coming away with a win.
Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football. All quotes cited unless obtained firsthand. All stats courtesy of cfbstats.com.