2015 has been a year to forget for Texas football fans. Even before Saturday’s tilt with Baylor kicked off, the Longhorns were ensured of a losing record in Charlie Strong’s second campaign in Austin.
What did Texas have to play for in its season finale?
Plenty, apparently. The Longhorns built an early 20-point lead and hung on for a 23-17 upset of No. 12 Baylor at McLane Stadium in Waco, Texas. While Texas finished with a 5-7 record, it was the surest sign yet that the program is on the right track under Strong’s watch.
As Fox Sports' Bruce Feldman noted, this isn't the first big win Strong's Longhorns have produced this year, the other coming against Oklahoma:
"It’s so great that our seniors got a win in their last game," Strong told ESPN's Laura Rutledge on the telecast afterward. "We know we’re not going to a bowl game, but this is really good. I’m so happy for them and our program. We go into the offseason with something to build on. We continue to build."
A year ago, the Longhorns finished 6-7 following a blowout loss in the Texas Bowl to former Southwest Conference rival Arkansas. Their six wins came against North Texas, Kansas, Iowa State, Texas Tech, West Virginia and Oklahoma State. Four of those teams finished with losing records, while the best of the bunch, Oklahoma State and West Virginia, both finished 7-6.
This year, the wins came over Rice, Oklahoma, Baylor, Kansas and Kansas State. Baylor was a Top 10 fixture and a College Football Playoff contender for the majority of the season. Texas is the only team to defeat Oklahoma, which, at 11-1 and No. 3 nationally, is a lock to make the College Football Playoff when the final rankings are announced Sunday afternoon.
Late-game special team miscues cost the Longhorns against Cal and Oklahoma State, resulting in losses by a combined four points to teams that combined to win 17 games this season.
Reverse those decisions, and you’re looking at a 7-5 team with serious momentum entering postseason play.
Saturday was much like the rest of Texas’ 2015 season: far from perfect but effective. Baylor was already on its third-string quarterback, Chris Johnson, following season-ending injuries to Seth Russell (neck surgery) and Jarrett Stidham (broken ankle, fibula).
Texas knocked Johnson out of the game in the first quarter on a scramble, which forced the Bears to turn to fourth-stringer Lynx Hawthorne. The Horns defense harassed Hawthorne, who completed just 10 of 22 passes for 64 yards with two interceptions, adding 66 yards and a rushing touchdown on the ground.
The Longhorns built a 20-point lead late in the second quarter and hung on for dear life, getting only a Nick Rose field goal the rest of the way. But they did so, which showed progress from the late mistakes against Cal and Oklahoma State.
Not everything is rosy in Austin. Strong still has work to do with an offense that averaged only 26.7 points per game entering Saturday, No. 83 nationally, and 145.5 passing yards per game, No. 118 nationally. Strong stripped play-calling duties from Shawn Watson following a 38-3 season-opening loss to Notre Dame, and new play-caller Jay Norvell hasn’t shown signs that he can turn around the offense.
What would be a smart move for Strong? Finding an offensive coordinator with a fast-paced style and following the path tread by both Oklahoma and TCU, each of which experienced turnarounds after installing Air Raid passing offenses.
Doing so could unlock the potential of dual-threat quarterbacks Jerrod Heard and Tyrone Swoopes.
Strong appears secure (for now) at Texas, and a young defense that played 10 freshmen this season should only improve. Status quo is not advised for 2016, but Strong has a program that fell into disrepair in Mack Brown’s final season pointed in the right direction.