Thursday, July 5

A stupidly long preview of the Horns

Following the departure of The Greatest College Quarterback Ever, to be replaced by a relatively unknown redshirt freshman named Colt McCoy, the 2006 Texas Longhorns were expected to be a team that ran the ball a lot and won low-scoring battles with a stout defense. A blowout of North Texas in the opener didn't really change expectations, and as the offense was held to a mere 7 points by Ohio State, the view of Texas as a team that would struggle to find an aerial attack solidified. And the numbers would remain modest up through the Red River Shootout, a game which indeed was won by defense (+5 turnovers) and the running game, with a few well-timed TD strikes when the offense was well-positioned. In the second half of the season, something clicked, and McCoy went on to lead a comeback drive against Nebraska, big totals against OK State, Baylor, and Texas Tech, and a comeback bowl victory against Iowa. En route he tied an NCAA freshman TD record (29), compiled a QB rating of 161.8, and actually averaged more passing yards per game than Heisman winner Troy Smith. The Longhorns were able to keep a variation of their option read offense, less option-heavy than with VY but with McCoy a surprisingly viable ground threat. In 2007, Colt McCoy is a top 20 college QB and could arguably be in the top 10.

What's concerning is depth. Two of Texas's three losses last season came in games where McCoy missed significant time, and while the K-State loss is certainly more a defensive collapse than the offense's fault, missing a key leader can affect the play of the entire team. Jevan Snead has transferred from the university, leaving unproven redshirt freshman Sherrod Harris and highly recruited true freshman John Chiles to battle for backup. Although talented players, neither is experienced and the Longhorns do not want to be facing the prospect of another injury to McCoy.

Running Backs
After 11 straight years of having a 1000+ yard rusher, no Texas back in 2006 topped the 900 mark. This is attributable to two factors: Selvin Young and Jamaal Charles splitting time at RB, and Vince Young's departure. Charles will be the primary RB in 2007, and he is faster and more agile than S. Young. Indeed, Charles is certainly a top 10 and perhaps top 5 college runningback. Bruiser-back Henry Melton has moved to defensive end, and while he may come in for short-yardage situations, the burden is squarely on Charles and McCoy.

The result will be a rushing style Texas fans haven't seen in a while. Charles does not have the power of Cedric Benson nor possibly Vince Young, but he has track speed and great moves. The emphasis on him will allow him to develop his game even more, but the lack of a back rotation could have an impact on his freshness throughout the game.

Wide Receivers
Quietly, Texas has had one of the better wide receiver corps in the nation for several years. Limas Sweed grew from Vince Young's third option into Colt McCoy's favorite, grabbing 46 passes for 801 yards and 12 TDs. Young's favorite wideout target, Billy Pittman, saw his yardage decrease significantly, but still hauled in 35 passes and 4 scores. Excitingly, Quan Cosby emerged as the #2 receiver in 2006 and highly touted Jordan Shipley finally had an injury-free season in which he contributed well as a #4 receiver. Any one of their top three WRs is a thread to gain 700-800 yards in a season, and two of them already have.

In 2007 that underrated skill will finally meet with experience as Limas Sweed and Billy Pittman enter their senior years, and Quan Cosby and Jordan Shipley return as a juniors. Sweed is arguably a top 5 receiver in the NCAA, and Pittman a potential NFL draft pick. Indeed, the play of Pittman may determine the success of this group, as his yardage total from 2006 was about half that of 2005. This could be the best trio of receivers in the country.

Tight End
Vince Young loved his tight ends. David Thomas was the leading man for receptions and go-to guy for Texas in their national championship season. Bo Scaife contributed significantly in 2004, as Texas had two major receiving threats at TE that season, both of whom were eventual NFL draft picks. Last season, freshman Jermichael Finley beat out senior Neale Tweedie for the starting spot, on his way to an impressive 31 catches and 3 TDs.

Finley has great size at 6-5 236, great hands and strong athleticism. He showed flashes of being the next great Texas tight end, but as a freshman was not able to have the kind of great season that Thomas and Scaife provided recently. With a year now under his belt, and no longer sharing playing time, he is a strong bet to reel in 40 or 50 catches in 2007.

Depth is a concern here as the #2 TE, Peter Ullman, has caught just two passes in his two years at Texas! Freshmen are not expected to contribute significantly in 2007, meaning what we are likely to see here is a lot of sets featuring just one TE and three WR. This has become the staple formation for Texas over the past two seasons, so it is nothing new.

Offensive Line
Texas has grown accustomed to having one of the five best offensive lines in the nation for several years. In their national championship season, the Horns were the #3 rushing team in the nation and gave up just 14 sacks. Although the rushing yards decreased (more due to VY's departure), the sack total only rose to 19 and this is with a less ground-savvy QB.

However, Lyle Sendlein, Justin Blalock, and Kasey Studdard are all gone in 2007, and they were the unquestionable anchors of Texas's mammoth lines of 05 and 06. Cedric Dockery returning at RG is a plus, and the center is replaced by a senior, but LG and RT will both be manned by sophomores with about half a season's worth of experience.

Whatever flaws there are with the 2007 Texas offense, parts will be traceable to the offensive line. It will not be a horrible drop-off, but I also would not call this a top ten unit.

Offensive Outlook
In 2003-05, Texas finished no lower than 6th nationally in rushing ypg, averaging over 240 ypg every year. That number fell to 170 ypg and 30th overall in 2006. Passing improved dramatically between 2004 and 2005, then surprisingly stayed at that same level in 2006 at about 230 ypg.

Texas would prefer to be a balanced team, getting about half their yardage running the ball and racking up some big gains with their option plays and Charles' outside speed. No doubt the ground game will continue to be a major contributor to the Longhorns' success, its degree depending upon the skills and strengths of a somewhat new offensive line. But realistically, their offensive talent is stacked towards the air game, so you can expect Texas to throw the ball half the time or more as was their formula during the second half of the 2006 season.

The bottom line is that what was supposed to be a conservative, questionable offense in 2006 wound up being 5th in the nation in scoring, behind two WAC and two Big East schools. All of the skill players except for Selvin Young are back, and Colt McCoy is no longer a freshman. In 2007, Texas will be mentioned along with Louisville, LSU, Michigan, USC, and West Virginia as the best offenses in the nation.

Defensive Line
Texas is accustomed to dominating this side of the trenches as well. In 2005, Texas arguably had the best offensive and best defensive lines in the country, the latter of which was sometimes overshadowed by an offense racking up 50+ ppg. Between 2003 and 2005 the Horns gave up between 3.1 and 3.6 ypc over each season, with total rushing ypg depending on how much defenses wanted to test the Longhorn secondary; in 2005, the defensive backfield featured 5 future NFL draft picks, 2 future Thorpe winners, and teams opted to run again and again rather than facing those defensive backs. The secondary struggled in 2006, but the defensive line was stellar giving up a measly 2.3 ypc and becoming the #2 rushing defense in the country.

Big name departures include Tim Crowder and Brian Robison, known for his kick blocks and turnover recoveries as well as outstanding speed. However Texas recruits very well at this position, and both men stepping up are juniors with signficant playing experience.

The defensive ends do seem undersized at 248 and 260 lbs apiece, but the middle will be next to immovable with Okam and Miller. Orkapo and Lewis both do have significant game experience over the past two seasons. Because of his size, Henry Melton (6-3, 268) may eventually compete for a starting spot after having switched over from HB, and Thomas Marshall (6-6 290) has both size and experience at DE should teams try to exploit size in the power running game. The two-deep is made up of three seniors, three juniors, and two sophomores. Overall, the unit will remain in the top five nationally.

Texas has produced a lot of great linebackers lately, big names being Derrick Johnson and Aaron Harris. Chizik shifted the Longhorn linebackers' focus from size and run stopping to speed and shutting down the outside. With a dominant defensive line this has come with little reprocussions in the running game, save for LenDale White's performance in the 06 Rose Bowl.

Everybody returns from last season, and everyone in the two deep is a legitimate starter. Their speed has been shown off the last two seasons, but these guys have also beefed up as only one player on the two-deep is shorter than 6-2 or less than 230. Projected starters Bobino and Derry each had 70+ tackles last season, and were the leading tacklers outside of the oft-tested secondary. Sophomore backups Kindle and Muckelroy have significant playing experience, and the starters are all jrs and srs. I believe this will wind up being another top five group nationally, although their rankings place them in the bottom half of the top ten.

Defensive Backs
The 2005 Texas Longhorn secondary has so far had two Thorpe winners (Huff, Ross) and five players drafted into the NFL. That season they shut down Ohio State and Texas Tech's passing games, forced Matt Leinart into a 1:1 TD-Int game, and wound up being one of the leading teams in terms of opponents' QB rating.

Last season, Cedric Griffin and Michael Huff were gone, but the Horns had three starters with significant (if not starting) experience and a fourth Marcus Griffin who was expected to fill in well. But something went wrong. When Tarrell Brown was suspended from the Ohio State game, no backup cornerback was able to cover the Buckeyes' #2 receiver. Iowa State managed 300 passing yards, then Baylor and Nebraska consecutively, before Texas Tech scorched the secondary for 519. The deep ball was a nightmare in Texas's upset loss to Kansas State, and numerous secondary mix-ups nearly cost them the Alamo Bowl. In the end, the unit ranked 97th in passing ypg allowed, giving up 236 ypg which is the most in school history. Their efficiency ratings place them more in the middle of the pack, as some of that yardage was a result of the defensive line shutting down any semblance of a running game by the opposition. But it cannot be denied that this unit was a disaster, save for brilliant play aginst Oklahoma.

This season the safeties are great. Marcus Griffin returns for his senior year and Drew Kelson transfers back from linebacker which will make this unit fearsome in run support. Speed a concern? Kelson's most famous highlight is covering Reggie Bush one-on-one on a fly route, keeping in stride and nearly picking off the pass. Both the deep pass and run support provided by these safeties will be excellent.

There is also a position called cornerback. Last season, Texas's corners went no deeper than Aaron Harris and Tarrell Brown, both of whom were drafted into the NFL this April. Ryan Palmer and Brandon Foster are a jr and a sr, but poor performances in 2006 have lead Texas to tentatively have Chykie Brown (rFr) and Deaon Beasley (So) as starters. To the credit of Texas's likely starters, both were very highly recruited players out of high school (top 20 and top 10), which Palmer and Foster were both not, so as they gain experience that will allow their higher skill/potential to blossom. In any case, this is Texas' greatest concern. Moving into the top 25 in terms of passing ypg would be a nice goal, top 50 would be a mild success.

Defensive Outlook
The question aside from "How well will Teas' secondary hold up?" is "How well will the Longhorn defense perform without DC Gene Chizik?" Chizik, defensive coordinator of the AUburn Tigers during their unbeaten season before transferring to Texas to DC their national championship season, took a transfer to head coach at Iowa State. His record the past three seasons is impressive - a combined record of 36-3, an SEC Championship, a Big XII championship, three bowl victories, and of course a national championship. Statistically, the 04 Auburn defense was #1 in the country in scoring, 05 Texas finished #8 but was #4 going into their showndown with USC, and overall the three teams have given up an average of 15.3 ppg. Each of those years his defense has produced the Thorpe winner.

However, some Longhorns fans questioned his conservative schemes and playcalling as being an issue in 2006. Replacement Duane Akina has spend seven years with the team and is known for a more aggressive style. That aggressive style will be a double-edged sword, not forcing the secondary to stay in coverage as long per play, but at the risk of leaving inexperienced corners on an island.

In any case, I expect improvements in the linebackers (who were already good) and the secondary (which needed it), and probably about a standstill at defensive line. The Texas defense should be better than it was in 2006, but could still be vulnerable against passing attacks like Nebraska and Texas Tech, as well as Nebraska/Missouri in a potential conference championship.

Special Teams
With the exception of the 2004 squad which had major coverage unit problems, Texas' special teams groups typically flirt with top 10 to top 15 ratings. Over the past six seasons Texas has averaged four kick blocks per season, which means that the block units alone are providing a potentially game-changing play about once every three games. However, the most active blocker, Brian Robison, has graduated.

Last season Texas found a reliable kicker in the Nebraska game, Ryan Bailey. This came as a great relief as Greg Johnson had struggled on FGs. However, Johnson was a strong punter, and Trever Gerland will need to add about 2 yards to his average to provide the same level of punting. Quan Cobsy was the leading KR man, and he will likely step in to replace Aaron Harris at PR as well.

Provided Gerland is a solid punter, Texas's special teams will be strong but not spectacular; another finish in the 10-15 range.

Final Verdict
The final step from pretender to contender involved a) Vince Young's maturity as a passer and his eventual decision to make every play a broken play and b) Gene Chizik's conversion of the defense from Big XII-style power to SEC-style speed. Obviously both Young and Chizik are gone, but Texas's success will be based on similar things this year. Colt McCoy needs only slight improvements in his passing production to make this the nation's top offense, which may come from experience alone. Defensively, better raw talent coupled with a more aggressive scheme will need to be a winning formula in order for Texas to have 0 or 1 losses rather than 2 or 3.

Of Mack Brown's 22 losses in 9 seasons, 11 have come to top 10 opponents and five against Oklahoma specifically. They are 9-13 against opponents with 10+ victories, which isn't really bad (winning 10+ games tends to mean 2 or fewer losses, so it's a slanted sample) but not great either. Of those 22 losses though, only one has been against a team that wasn't bowl-eligible, and 4 total against teams with fewer than 8 victories, so they're not likely to fall to the completely random upset.

Sleeper Game: 9/8 vs TCU
In TCU's 22-3 run over the past two seasons, they are 4-0 against the Big XII with wins over Oklahoma, Iowa State, Baylor, and Texas Tech. Nonetheless, Texas will be expected to win this game and to win it comfortably. TCU feels like they have something to prove as, despite those wins and a 2-0 bowl record, they are still not a highly-regarded team. While Texas easily surpasses TCU in terms of talent, it will be difficult for them to match the Frogs in terms of motivation for this game.

Revenge Game: 9/29 at Kansas State
Last season, K-State embarassed Texas's defense in a 45-43 upset. Expect this loss to be on Texas' minds, as their near-loss to Kansas in 2004 was leading up to a 66-14 blowout in 2005. This game also has minor statement potential as it is the weekend before the Red River Shootout. This one could be ugly.

Statement Game: 10/6 vs Oklahoma (in Dallas)
Despite improvements by Nebraska and Missouri, the Big XII remains a two team conference in terms of the battle for top dog. Since 1999, either Texas or OU has represented the Big XII South in all 8 conference championship games, and 6 of those 8 times it has been the winner of this game that has gone on to play in the conference championship.

October and November:
It's true that most of Texas's season will be defined from opening kickoff through the OU game, and then in a possible conference championship and whatever bowl game they play in. But the forgotten part of the season has three potential roadblocks. Nebraska and Texas Tech should have excellent passing games, which plays at Texas's likely defensive weakness. However, these teams also managed a combined 25 yards rushing against Texas last season. Texas A&M won probably more due to McCoy's injury than anything else, but in a rivalry game anything can happen, and nothing gets Aggies fired up like playing against Texas.

If Texas loses to OU, Nebraska on 10/27 could be considered a barometer game.

Jury Says:
On paper, Texas either wins all of their regular season games or loses just to OU.

Practically speaking, with a freshman QB OU is in a poor position to exploit Texas's major weakness, and Texas plays two teams who may be inferior talent-wise but love to pass all day. Bump that up to three if Texas plays in the conference championship in a rematch against Nebraska or against Missouri. Fortunately these games are deep enough into the season to allow the secondary to gel.

Bottom line is, despite their level of talent, it's tough to see Texas going unbeaten. Barely more than one BCS conference team does it each season, and there's four or five teams that are more likely candidates. But anything more than two losses would probably require extraordinary circumstances, like another injury to McCoy. Likely outcomes are 10-12 wins and 1 or 2 losses.

Title Aspirations?
With Texas's weak schedule and low (for potential NC contention) starting ranking, the Horns would need to go unbeaten to get into the BCS championship. The Horns should be slight favorites against OU and will have 2 months to get their secondary in shape before facing a major passing threat. I would actually give the Horns about a 25% chance of running the table during the regular season - due to extreme offensive firepower, excellent front seven and solid safeties, and a favorable schedule. Not likely but certainly not shocking if it does happen.

Now if you are going to lose your conference and still play in the BCS championship, the Big XII is the place to do it (Nebraska 01, Oklahoma 03) -- nevermind what happened to both of those teams. But again realistically, Texas needs to finish 13-0 to land a spot in that game - they do not have a great preseason ranking nor a particularly strong schedule. Missouri and Nebraska should contend for the Big XII North title, and as a Texas fan, Missouri is much more threatening. They return 9 starters on offense to Nebraska's 6 (both return 5 on defense). Missouri's offense features a dual threat jr QB, a fast sr RB, and jr's and sr's across the board with the exception of one lone soph on the o-line. Their top five rushers and top three receivers, along with nine of their top ten receivers, are all returning. This is a very explosive and very balanced group, much like Texas. They have the advantage of not facing Texas during the regular season and having Nebraska at home. If I am a Texas fan - which I am - I'm rooting hard for Nebraska and Oklahoma to both defeat Missouri back-to-back... and perhaps for Texas Tech to finish their division championship hopes the following week. Fortunately, Nebraska does not face Oklahoma.

In all, I would give Texas about a 40% chance of winning the Big XII -- 55% odds they beat OU, and if they are in the conference championship about 80% odds of winning it. The missing 4% is of course the odds of two conference upsets... completely intentional math discrepancy, of course ;-)

So let's be optimists here and assume that Texas goes 13-0, crushing Oklahoma and Nebraska like red-jerseyed stepchildren. What are their odds of actually winning the title?

The answer, of course, is that it depends on who they are playing. Texas is not the best team in the nation, but they are a top ten team who could improve to be a top five team. Sometimes the best team doesn't win. Of the teams that are probably better than Texas, LSU has a killer schedule... you can say the same thing of anyone else in the SEC who might be better than Texas; indeed, only LSU has a realistic hope of emerging from that conference unbeaten.

Louisville and WVA play against each other, and with their defenses their winner could lose another game to random upset. Michigan faces Oregon in September (ie, when they're good), Penn State, Wisconsin, and Ohio State. USC has road games at Nebraska, at Oregon, and at Cal in addition to a rivalry game with an experienced UCLA. Notre Dame could even be a sleeper game for USC, just because a) it's in South Bend and b) Notre Dame hasn't beaten USC since 2001, so they might be due to win another before the decade's over. Between the three of these teams (counting "Louisville-WVA winner" as one team), I don't think that more than one will go unbeaten. So Texas being in the title game depend on a) the Horns going unbeaten and b) somebody knocking off LSU. Although if Michigan and USC both lost, Texas could wind up ahead of an unbeaten Big East team due to SOS.

In my opinion, Texas would actually like to face West Virginia in the BCS championship. (well, they'd like to face Temple, but of the likely contenders WVA) WVA is not a thread to exploit their secondary, and they do not really have a power running game. Their offense plays into Texas's defensive strengths. Their own defense has been questionable across the board.

Next would be Louisville. Despite a great passing game, the Cardinals' own secondary is very suspect, having two converted WRs playing the safety spots and not a lot of size up front. Rutgers and Wake Forest also showed that at least part of Louisville's big offensive numbers are due to the team they typically play. Texas would be favored in either matchup, but not by a wide margin.

Michigan and USC would be interesting matchups, for different reasons. Michigan and Texas are very similar, with incredible offensive talent but questions of defense - specifically, questions in the secondary. This would be a very close matchup. It could likely come down to a contest between Colt McCoy and Chad Henne. Luckily, Henne is 0-53 in big games.

USC would be interesting because it could feature the nation's top-ranked offense and top-ranked defense, and it could come down to how Texas's inexperienced secondary fares against USC's inexperienced receivers. In reality, though, I can't imagine USC not having a good receiving corps by midseason. And defense gets the edge in this game.

LSU would not be an interesting matchup. LSU would simply destroy Texas with all of their WR speed and probably the nation's best defense.

So if Texas wants to win the national title, they need to a) go unbeaten, b) hope LSU loses, and c) probably hope USC loses. I'd say that's only slightly better odds than a transport winning a defensive battle against a fighter, which Chris can tell you is unlikely but definitely possible.