Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Big 12 college football countdown: Texas

The program

"We don't keep up with the Joneses. We are the Joneses." -Texas Athletic Director DeLoss Dodds

Texas football is, of course, a big, bold presentation. They cover much of their field during pregame ceremonies with a red, white and blue flag, and it ain't Old Glory, but rather the Texas State flag. They don't have a homely "video board" or "Jumbotron," they have the mammoth Godzillatron, and of course it was bigger than the huge board those silly Aggies put in shortly before it. They have a stadium that holds over 100,000 people, they spend money like crazy in their athletic department and they command a huge fan base.

They naturally have an arrogant, er, proud attitude. Their high-handedness annoyed the old Southwest Conference, and then the Big 12 members, notably Nebraska and Texas A&M. But that's who they are, big and bold, usually winning (second most wins among NCAA FBS programs). Texas is a GIANT burnt orange flag slowly waving back and forth as its band plays "The Eyes of Texas," somehow making a song to the tune of "I've Been Workin' on the Railroad" sound downright regal:

The eyes of Texas are upon you,
All the live long day.
The eyes of Texas are upon you,
You cannot get away.
Do not think you can escape them,
At night, or early in the morn'.
The eyes of Texas are upon you,
Till Gabriel blows his horn!

Texas has largely backed up that swagger, winning 32 total conference titles (2 Texas Intercollegiate League, 27 SWC, 3 Big 12). Texas has four national championships (1963, 1969, 1970, 2005). The 1969 title was the one (in)famously awarded to the 'Horns by Richard Nixon, who attended the season-ending Texas-Arkansas game and essentially declard the winner the national champion. Joe Paterno's unbeaten Penn State team and fans were not amused. JoePa at a 1973 commencement: "I'd like to know, how could a president know so little about Watergate in 1973 and so much about college football in 1969?"

That 1969 title and Nixon visit are just part of Texas' rich football history. Underneath all the bluster and swagger, the fabric of Texas football is pretty cool. It's the decades of games with Oklahoma in Dallas. It's the fierce rivalry with A&M, as even the Texas fight song says "...and it's goodbye to A&M!" (Now THAT could have some double meaning soon.) It's also the cool lighting system for Texas' tower, including special lighting for wins over A&M and championships. It's Bevo and "Texas Fight" and, of course... the chaps.

Best player ever

Vince Young, QB
Obviously, Texas has plenty of candidates for this, such as the program's two Heisman winners, Earl Campbell and Ricky Williams. Tommy Nobis, a legendary two-way player from the 1960s is another option, or even Bobby Layne, Colt McCoy or Derrick Johnson. But I'll go with Vince Young. He was an incredible 30-2 as a starter, racked up over 6,000 passing yards and 3,000 rushing yards and finished second in the 2005 Heisman voting.

But even more, he lifted a program that couldn't get over the hump. Texas hadn't won a national title since 1970 when Young stepped onto the "Forty Acres" campus. The comma after the "1970" on the national title list at the stadium was screaming. It seemed like they might never beat Oklahoma again. But he was at his best under pressure. He converted a 4th and 18 late in the game against Kansas in 2004 when they had to have it, preserving the team's BCS bowl hopes. I saw in person when he ran to convert a 3rd and 30 against Mizzou in 2005. Then came his transcendent moment in Pasadena in early 2006. Trailing a juggernaut USC team by 12 with six minutes to play in the national title game, Young rallied Texas, scoring the go-ahead touchdown on a fourth-down run that remains as one of the most famous plays in college football history.

2011 outlook

After 9 straight 10+ win seasons and at least nine wins in each of coach Mack Brown's first 12 seasons at Texas, 2010 was an absolute disaster. Texas plummeted to 5-7, including a 2-6 record in conference play, finishing dead last in the Big 12 South. The Longhorns lost all four conference home games and five home games total, including stunning defeats to UCLA, Iowa State and Baylor. Kansas State, who has pretty much owned Texas in recent years, rolled to a 33-0 lead over the Longhorns, who simply looked helpless.

All that being said, I think Texas will come roaring back in 2011. Last year, the Longhorns actually outgained their Big 12 opponents by 53 yards per game. They were atrocious because they hemorrhaged turnovers (-12 turnover margin last year). Simply put, with their defense, they almost can't have a turnover deficit that massive again this year.

One of the key culprits in the turnover crisis was quarterback Garrett Gilbert, who threw 17 interceptions last year as a sophomore. You may recall former Longhorn quarterback Colt McCoy threw 18 picks as a sophomore, then became an extremely productive quarterback as a senior and junior. I don't know if he'll be Colt McCoy, but I do think Gilbert will make quite a leap forward this season. With a lot of highly regarded, if unproven, talent around him, Gilbert could be merely an average Big 12 quarterback and the team should hum along just fine. He just can't shoot the offense in the foot over and over.

I also expect Texas to get a boost from true freshman running back Malcolm Brown. Texas has had a hole at running back since Jamaal Charles' last season, in 2007. (Seriously, are/were there no running backs among all those Texas high school programs we hear so much about?) McCoy's running ability covered this up, but it was exposed last year (9th in rushing yards in Big 12 games). I could see Brown posting about 1,200 rushing yards, taking a lot of pressure off the quarterback.

On the other side of the ball, Texas could have a dominant defense. Linemen Kheeston Randall and Alex Okafor; linebackers Keenan Robinson, Emmanuel Acho and Jordan Hicks; and safety Blake Gideon (yes, the guy who dropped that giftwrapped interception vs. Tech in 2008 is still around) give Texas a crowded stable of playmakers.

Lastly, two crucial coordinator hires should help Mack Brown and his Longhorns. After losing defensive coordinator Will Muschamp, who went to be the head coach at Florida, they brought in the youthful Manny Diaz, who had success in the same position at Mississippi State (3rd in the SEC in points allowed in conference games last year). The 'Horns also brought in Bryan Harsin to be co-offensive coordinator with Major Applewhite. Harsin has been the offensive coordinator at Boise State for the last 10 years, calling the plays for the last five. Boise State, you may know, has scored quite a few points over the past decade.

The big question: Will Texas bounce back in 2011? As I stated above, I think they will, winning nine or 10 games and finishing tied for third or better in the league. However, I could also see myself being dead wrong here. Texas had plenty of talent last year and still collapsed. They could lose all their confidence again this year. For my money, this is not a program that responds well when dealt a blow early in games (example: Little House on the Kansas State bullying and dominating the glamourous Longhorns in recent years/throughout Bill Snyder's tenure). But I'll still call for Texas to get back on track. They have to play OU in Dallas and at rival Texas A&M, both very tough. How high they finish will hinge quite a bit on how they do against Oklahoma State at home (Oct. 15, week after game with OU) and at Mizzou (Nov. 12).

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