Whenever a new coach is hired, hype builds. Whenever a big brand like Texas makes a change, renewed visions of national prominence are destined to follow.
Given that Steve Sarkisian just helped Alabama win a national championship as the offensive coordinator, the expectations for his tenure can hardly be higher. He was the premier play-caller in the college game last season, and Texas fully anticipates that strength will return the Longhorns to greatness.
But a healthy program doesn't fire a coach.
After thanking Captain Obvious for that analysis, consider that first-year coaches rarely have a legitimate contender. Recent outliers are Urban Meyer at Ohio State in 2012 and Gus Malzahn at Auburn in 2013, but Meyer replaced stopgap Luke Fickell and Auburn enjoyed two of the luckiest plays ever during a runner-up season.
In theory, sure, Texas has a shot to thrive in 2021. However, two factors are most important: what the Longhorns have and who they need to beat.
On offense, Texas has youth. Though many contributors return, they're mostly inexperienced or haven't maximized their potential.
Most notably, quarterback Casey Thompson—the unofficial but expected starter—dazzled fans with a four-touchdown day in relief of Sam Ehlinger during the Alamo Bowl. While excellent, it's the only meaningful action of Thompson's career.
Running back Bijan Robinson looks the part of a superstar, but he basically had three excellent games last season. Joshua Moore and Jake Smith are a good foundation at receiver, but neither averaged more than 60 yards per game. Six returning linemen held first-string roles at some point in 2020, but the most effective blocker—left tackle Samuel Cosmi—headed to the NFL.
Could they all mesh perfectly? Possibly! Sarkisian has a more flexible and creative offense than his predecessor, Tom Herman, and the right quarterback can dramatically elevate a team.
The more likely scenario, however, is this offense will endure a few rough moments in 2021 and build toward 2022.
While the defense has more experience, it's facing a greater transition. This is due in part to replacing All-American edge-rusher Joseph Ossai, key lineman Ta'Quon Graham and safety Chris Brown, and incoming coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski will change the scheme, too. Rebuilding the Ossai-less pass rush is paramount for the Longhorns.
On the bright side, Texas should be strong up the middle with D-tackles Alfred Collins, Keondre Coburn and T'Vondre Sweat, along with top linebackers Juwan Mitchell and DeMarvion Overshown.
But to suggest the Longhorns will have an elite defense is probably a stretch; the revamped pass rush is concerning. And without a top-tier defensive unit, the offense needs to pick up the slack. That's a substantial ask for Sarkisian in Year 1.
Then, consider the competition.
Specifically, look at six-time reigning Big 12 champion Oklahoma and 2020 runner-up Iowa State. Oklahoma is a consensus threat for the national title, and veteran-led Iowa State is a logical contender. Plus, TCU has been an absolute thorn for Texas with a 7-2 record as Big 12 competitors.
And the Longhorns host zero of those matchups.
Oklahoma is always at the Cotton Bowl, of course, but Texas travels to TCU and Iowa State. Throw in a nonconference clash with Louisiana—which beat Iowa State last year—and trips to Arkansas and West Virginia, and this schedule is generally unkind.
Now, that's not to create a built-in excuse for Sarkisian this fall. If the Longhorns fall to all three of Oklahoma, Iowa State and TCU, that's a lost season. But a 2-1 record would be superb, and a 1-2 mark would be manageable if Texas handles the rest of the conference like it did in 2020.
Sarkisian should be judged on legitimately competing with the league's top tier, beating TCU and avoiding upsets elsewhere. If the Longhorns lose to West Virginia, for example, balancing that with an OU or Iowa State win is necessary.
Though the roster is built to win nine or 10 games and should be expected to accomplish that, winning a Big 12 championship is an awfully high bar in 2021. Texas is better positioned for a surge in 2022 after developing a quarterback, improving the offensive line and unlocking a consistent pass rush.
He may have inherited a respectable roster, but Sarkisian has issues to address at Texas. He deserves some patience—not an "it's cool to finish 6-7 in your first season" level of leniency.
If the Longhorns flirt with 10 wins, as they should, be ready for a hype train to scream out of Austin next offseason.