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Realistic Expectations for Tom Herman at Texas in 2017

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistDecember 14, 2016

AUSTIN, TX - NOVEMBER 25: Shane Buechele #7 of the Texas Longhorns passes the ball against the TCU Horned Frogs at Darrell K Royal -Texas Memorial Stadium on November 25, 2016 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Chris Covatta/Getty Images)
Chris Covatta/Getty Images

"Texas is back, folks," ESPN's Joe Tessitore said as the Longhorns claimed a thrilling season-opening overtime win over then-No. 10 Notre Dame.

But we're not jabbing anyone here. It was a reasonable thought in the moment, given Notre Dame's preseason hype and Texas' excellent performance in the debuts of quarterback Shane Buechele and offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert.

Reality just had a different plan. Notre Dame dropped off the national radar, and another seven-loss campaign led to Texas dismissing head coach Charlie Strong and hiring Tom Herman.

The former Houston head coach guided a pair of terrific seasons 165 miles to the east, posting a 22-4 record. So how quickly should the Longhorns expect a similar level of success?

Because of Texas' tradition and pride, expectations are always high. Herman is an exciting coach, but 2017 is more likely to be a developmental year than a time to contend nationally. Still, the Longhorns should be a thorn in the Big 12.

Herman's arrival has sparked the Texas program off the field.
Herman's arrival has sparked the Texas program off the field.Eric Gay/Associated Press

That said, there are some unknowns. The players will probably buy in to Herman's style, but that's not guaranteed. Future opponents may lose more underclassmen to the NFL. An unexpected breakout team may complicate the schedule.

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But we have a decent understanding of Texas' outlook.

Thanks to Strong, roster talent is not an issue. His recruiting classes ranked 15th, seventh and third, according to Scout.com. It's a matter of turning that potential into production.

However, the Longhorns will need to replace their biggest contributor. D'Onta Foreman—who rushed for at least 124 yards in every game and totaled 2,028—is headed to the NFL.

The bright side is that most starters return, highlighted by Buechele. His freshman campaign wasn't quite memorable, but he showed the ability to lead. Under Herman, the offense will be efficient yet creativewhich is much needed after Gilbert's play-calling lost variety late in the year.

Buechele has displayed a downfield touch that's difficult to teach, and the offense doesn't lack options there. As long as he beats out incoming 4-star prospect Sam Ehlinger, we'll see plenty of this from Buechele next season.

Regardless, Texas must find a go-to receiver. Eight players recorded at least 18 catches, and seven of them return in 2017. But that's the pleasant way of framing the situation, as Armanti Foreman led the team with just 420 yards.

In each of the last two seasons, Houston had one target eclipse 90 receptions. Can one of Texas' wideouts come even close? Bigger numbers will be expected from Foreman, Devin Duvernay, Collin Johnson and John Burt.

Tight ends weren't a focal point under Gilbert. And although the position isn't featured in Herman's offense, either, the role is much larger comparatively. Houston's Tyler McCloskey caught 35 passes for 369 yards and five touchdowns in 2015 and 2016 combined.

But the aerial attack needs a reliable complement on the ground.

Chris Warren III should be the starting back, with Kyle Porter and Kirk Johnson factoring into the rotation. They're particularly important because Buechele, while mobile, isn't a threat to handle a large volume of carries. They'll run behind an offensive line led by second-team AP All-America tackle Connor Williams.

Ian Boyd @Ian_A_Boyd

Texas fans that want a glimpse into what a Shane Buechele/Tom Herman Texas offense could look like should put on some Penn State film.

The offense has flashed its potential yet must improve. But the most glaring problem is a mediocre defense that ranked 95th nationally and allowed the 89th-most points per game.

The top priority should be sustaining the pressure. The Longhorns collected 91 tackles for loss with 41 sacks, and the seven players with three-plus sacks are all back in 2017. That doesn't even include Anthony Wheeler, Poona Ford and Naashon Hughes.

Plus, Malik Jefferson has played middle linebacker out of necessity. Herman could unleash the NFL-caliber talent similar to how Houston deployed Steven Taylor—just faster and more instinctive—as an inside presence with a larger edge-rushing role.

However, flashy stats are only meaningful if a defense backs them up with reliable tackling. That didn't happen in 2016.

And it's also what complicates predictions. Nobody can say with 100 percent confidence how the team improves in that regard; guessing correctly is exactly that—a guess. But Texas' level of success—or lack thereofwill be a direct reflection of the defense.

Cutting down on missed tackles will decrease yards per game allowed, yards per play, red-zone chances and explosive gains.

Notable 2016 Texas Defense Stats
CategoryYPGYPPPPG3D%RZ%20+ Gains30+ Gains
Value448.35.6331.538.385.17030
Nat'l Rank9562T-8953T-68T-113T-86
cfbstats.com

In the spread-heavy Big 12, that's much easier said than done. But for now, the schedule looks more than manageable.

For Texas, the objective is simple: Win the games you're supposed to win, and try to steal another one or two.

Herman needs to knock off San Jose State and Maryland to begin the campaign. Otherwise, external noise will be hovering around the program leading into an early road test against USC.

Conversely, if the Longhorns roll through nonconference play at 3-0, get ready for championship chatter. Don't be so quick to believe it—though with Iowa State and Kansas State after a bye week, the premature takes would have a brief run.

A four-week stretch that begins on Oct. 14 against rival Oklahoma will shape Texas' season. After traveling to the Cotton Bowl, the Longhorns will host Oklahoma State and then travel to Baylor and TCU.

Looking at it 10 months away, a 2-2 record would be a respectable result. Although the offense can be excellent, expecting the defense to consistently hold up against top Big 12 competition isn't wise. The unit will improve, but expecting that on a weekly basis is approaching "wishful thinking" territory. 

Rounding out the 2017 slate is a showdown at West Virginia sandwiched between games against Kansas and Texas Tech. Nothing is a given against those teams, but getting two at home is a plus.

An initial look at the schedule suggests five likely wins, two probable victories, three toss-ups and two acceptable losses. If Texas wins the games it's supposed to win, that's seven. Add a toss-up victory and an upset, and there's nine.

Herman's first year will bring renewed excitement, and that feeling is going to build as he hits the recruiting trail. But in 2017, Herman will be leading what was a young and inconsistent team. Eight regular-season wins with a noticeable Big 12 impact is realistic.

Anything less than seven victories would be a problem. But if the team nears double digits, Texas will be closer to "back" than it's been since Mack Brown resigned.

              

All recruiting information via Scout.com. Stats from cfbstats.com or B/R research. Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

Follow Bleacher Report CFB Writer David Kenyon on Twitter @Kenyon19_BR.

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