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A Somewhat Obligatory Assessment Of: Texas

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This is the last one. Absolutely the last.
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The least you should know about Texas... What's Changed: Every assumption this time last year, or as late as mid-October, favored a post-Vince return to the old straight-ahead, mostly two-back power sets that defined UT's philosophy through Ricky Williams, Hodges Mitchell, Cedric Benson and untold O-line goliaths while the skimpy redshirt quarterback bided his time and did as little damage as possible. The 'Horns were tentative early against Ohio State, bogged down in ineffectual screening even while running pretty well, and conservative again in the opportunistic, defense-driven win over Oklahoma. You can count his six-touchdown show against outmanned Baylor if you'd like, but Colt McCoy didn't really get a chance to make his move until the dog fight at Nebraska, when he broke out with 39 attempts, two touchdowns and a textbook two-minute drill for the winning field goal, and suddenly the kid was indispensible: he threw four touchdowns to get UT out of a 21-0 hole an early interception had helped dig at Texas Tech, had his best outsized stat game (23-29, 346, 3 TD) in a rout of Oklahoma State and opened 4-4 on a touchdown drive at Kansas State, the one that ended in the shoulder injury UT partisans are convinced destroyed their still-beating championship hopes. McCoy was hobbled and had by far his worst game in the frustrating loss to Texas A&M, which, again, Texas still thinks could have been different if McCoy's beaten, ever-resilient body had finished the game.

Coinciding as it does with one of the least effective running efforts of Mack Brown's tenure - no 1,000-yard rusher for the first time - and the untimely exit of well over 100 career starts from three returning members of the `05 champs, McCoy's ascension to spotlight-bathed lead strikes me as simultaneously a little premature and absolutely essential to getting UT back into the BCS. It can never be stressed enough how different McCoy's role in the offense must be from Vince Young's, which we should probably stop talking about, really, but behind that insistence was the assumption that Jamaal Charles would round into an every-down feature back worthy of his freshman promise, complemented by Selvin Young and Hungry Henry Melton when necessary, none of which really happened - it's hard to begrudge Charles his 5.3 per carry, but he only touched the ball about 14 times per game (including receptions) and had his load reduced in the biggest games to twelve carries against Oklahoma, nine at Nebraska, thirteen at Texas Tech, twelve against Texas A&M and a measly four in the bowl game; Young (Selvin, that is) usually picked up the slack, but was less effective by a full yard per carry and has graduated, anyway. And nobody - not Melton, now a defensive end, not nobody - emerged as a short-yardage back, which was a killer at Kansas State (McCoy was hurt on a touchdown sneak after the running backs were stuffed) and Texas A&M (UT's 72-yard opening drive ended with Melton going down on fourth-and-one at the TAMU eight). McCoy needed that help:

Texas 3rd Down Efficiency 2005

Texas 3rd Down Efficiency 2006

Green is above average, red below. Nobody could empty their reservoir of fairness by demanding a repeat of the sensational third down efficiency under Young, which yodeled from afar its mockery at the thick black national average line in every case. The transition to a young quarterback guaranteed the transition from a solid block of green to a little red, and so it did, in the places you'd expect, like obvious passing downs with six yards or more to go, where the conversion dropped by about 10 or 15 percent. McCoy wasn't making a lot of those plays, and wasn't expected to, because the running game was supposed to keep him out of that hole. But the short-yardage measure, with 1-2 yards to go, dropped by about 20 percent, and eventually McCoy was throwing more often (a little more than a third of the time over the season) to pick up the last few precious feet.


Colt McCoy's boyish gumption sweeps Texas off its feet.
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I use that as an example of the larger offensive change, which is this: McCoy, out of necessity and opportunity (his receivers are a pretty first-rate group), has evolved into the role of primary playmaker, who is now expected to make hay of adverse situations. This can be a very good development, and almost certainly will be if Charles' slightly diminished star is in fact back on the rise. Or it could be too much to put on a competitor who reached his physical ceiling very quickly and needs a degree of balance. Nobody seems to have given a lot of thought to the latter case, if McCoy's unavoidable presence in every "darkhorse" Heisman projection is an indication, but UT would probably rather the supporting cast preemptively snuff out the pretext for such skepticism. This is fundamentally up to the offensive line.

What's the Same: Peter insisted on thrashing his team's new linebackers (poor Rashad Bobino - kid led the team in tackles for loss) most of last year, which I'm in no position to defend or contrast, but there's no denying the optimism about their potential as upper class veterans, or the statistical fact that they were part of the nation's third-ranked run defense, the best in terms of yards and yards per carry since Brown's been here. They also add the scintillatingly-named combo of Sergio Kindle and Roddrick Muckelroy as very fast insurgent reserves, and promote a couple of defensive ends (Brian Orakpo and Aaron Lewis) who played so much in last year's rotation that even without much bigger bookends Tim Crowder and Brian Robison, the front seven essentially returns seven starters. Oklahoma (3.4 per carry) and Oklahoma State (3.5) had a little success running on Texas, but the 'Horns punished quarterbacks (38 sacks) and the only black mark that sticks to the front seven was the clock-grinding, 244-yard ball control clinic A&M administered in November, which makes very little sense in the context of UT's inpenetrable nature everywhere else. Taken as a whole, this front seven is probably in that elite category of trench dominance with USC and LSU (and maybe Virginia Tech), a prerequisite for most champions of the last 15 years or so, but even limiting the deep sets of blazers out of the Oklahoma schools again won't wipe the doubt off the board until it has another chance with the completely intact Aggies.

...and Now the 360...: The secondary in every way was UT's worst of the decade, even with the Jim Thorpe winner at one corner and an all-Big 12 safety who went in the second first round of the draft (Michael Griffin), accolades voted, apparently, by a random selection of the nation's burnt orange sweatshirt clubs, or the union of chap-clad cheerleaders, or something to that effect:

2006 Record
10-3 (6-2 Big 12/2nd, South)
Past Five Years
55-9 (35-6 Big 12)
Returning Starters, Roughly
15 (8 Offense, 7 Defense)
Best Player
The middle of Texas’ defensive line was the strongest point of the team, and the strongest point of the defensive line is the man mountain Frank Okam, a 320-pound force who doesn’t earn the pass rushing glory (just 2.5 sacks in two years, one of them on Matt Leinart in the Rose Bowl), but who does command double teams, close lanes and free up linebackers. He was in and out of the lineup in ‘06 with injuries and as part of the rotation with Roy Miller and Derek Lokey, but a healthy Okam is unanimously pegged as all-Big 12 – all-America by Phil Steele – and a first rounder in next spring’s draft. You can’t rewrite the team’s standard for run defense without this kind of body in the middle.
Bizarre Tradition
Texas hadn’t won at A&M in 18 years when a few desperate students took a very un-Christian visit to a fortune teller before facing the undefeated Aggies in 1941, a game Texas won 23-0 after burning red candles across campus all week. Coincidence? There are no coincidences in football, son. And so the vision of "Madame Augusta" blossomed into the annual "Hex Rally," where, occasionallly, the divine reveals his allegiances, and players lead a rather spirited roll call:

Maybe part of the problem against A&M last year was that the ‘Horns, as aggressively suggested here, got crunk.

Bizarre Item of Dubious Interest
The first Bevo: tastefully memorialized in some quiet, beatific, dignified corner of campus, befitting his pioneering status? Not quite – he was enthusiastically barbecued for the 1920 football banquet to spare the expense (50 cents a day) of keeping and feeding him off-campus. That Bevo was worthless on-campus because a) he was untamed (he had tried to gore a photographer his first day on the job) and b) A&M students had broken into the stockyard where the steer was held after losing to UT in 1916 and branded him with the score "13-0," the 1915 final in TAMU’s favor. Aggie players were invited to attend the banquet a few years later and served the hide with the still-legible imprint.
Texas Pass Defense (Rank)
Comp. % Yds./Gm Yds./Att. Efficiency TD INT
2000 45.1 184.3 (17) 5.3 88.0 (1) 8 17
2001</> 50.7 146.7 (3) 4.8 88.0 (4) 6 15
2002 48.0 165.2 (8) 5.4 96.1 (7) 17 22
2003 47.2 177.3 (9) 6.5 106.5 (18) 14 15
2004 55.2 212.7 (58) 6.6 114.3 (31) 12 13
2005 51.2 172.0 (8) 5.1 96.7 (4) 10 11
2006 58.3 236.2 (99) 7.5 131.8 (75) 21 13

Yes, what a stellar performance those award-winners delivered. 2005 seemed to interrupt the beginnings of a more generous trend, but the seal really broke on last year's secondary, whichallowed 29 passes longer than 25 yards (for point of reference, the '05 team allowed fourteen), at least of which I can attribute off the top of my head as touchdowns against the afore-lauded Ross.

Three of the four starters there are gone, and Marcus Griffin's hold on his safety spot is tenuous, and contrary to the handwringing over most wholesale departures in one area, this is probably good news - reversion-to-mean guessing tells us it's virtually impossible extremely unlikely for UT to be as bad again against the pass as it was last year, and the culprits in that slide aren't around anymore, for good measure. The new, as yet unidentified corners are serious cause for concern; if they turn out to be Chykie Brown and Deon Beasley (as opposed to less-hyped, oft-burned Brandon Foster and/or Ryan Palmer), they're also blue chip kinds of guys - as is ex-linebacker Drew Kelson at safety - who should uphold mediocrity at the very least. And mediocrity, for the moment, is a step up, as long as it's occurring in front of them rather than over their head.

Overly Optimistic Post-Spring Chatter: In related news, Texas allowed halfback passes on consecutive plays to beat them for the touchdown that put Kansas State up for good, three weeks after Nebraska went ahead with five minutes to go on a halfback pass. So, thinks Mack Brown, how about we try us some of them halfback passes, or something like that:

Misdirection is the object of a double-reverse, and the Orange offensive squad broke one out during its 38-8 win during Texas' annual Orange-White scrimmage at DKR-Texas Memorial Stadium.

And if Texas coach Mack Brown has much to do with it - the Longhorns will use more gadgetry next fall.

"We've worked really, really hard on running at least two trick plays each practice," Brown said. "We do want to run more trick plays, and we want our defense to see more trick plays, so they can defend them. The kids like it, the fans like it, and I like it."

Until recently, offensive coordinator Greg Davis didn't seem too keen on the thought. But Davis has promised there will be more trick plays next season.

And the player in charge of directing them, quarterback Colt McCoy, seemed excited about mixing in a flea-flicker or two next year.

"We've worked on a lot of trick plays," McCoy said with a smile. "We didn't throw many today."

Trick `em! With the flim flam! Your spring is going well when there's such emphasis on gadgetry, I think, though Greg Davis was careful to stress the fundamentals:

With trick plays so instrumental in college football, Texas offensive coordinator Greg Davis promises to look at more gadgets and run them in critical situations. During the offseason, Davis recognized the Longhorns went stale a few too many times last season, though the tendency that caught his eye most was that the Longhorns scored on 38 percent of their drives, but when the quarterback was sacked, that average dropped to a mere 2 percent. That's important to remember as Texas replaces three starting linemen.

Texas on YouTube: Earl Campbell:

That is all.

See Also: Cotton Bowl memories, courtesy of Jim Nance Nantz ... Mack Brown handles 1920s reporter guy pretty well, or better than Vince Young, anyway ... Kind of a mismatch here ... James Brown rolls left, baby, in the `96 Big 12 Championship ... Stoney Clark saves the Red River Shootout ... And aliens! in Austin. What, no Independence Day-style, uh, fireworks over the watchtower?

Conventional Wisdom: The magazines are split on Oklahoma and Texas in the division, but they are unanimous about UT getting back to a BCS. Athlon, Lindy's and The Sporting News all like the Horns to win the South and the Big 12 at large, but interestingly (because I don't know who other other than the Sooners might be expected to knock them from it), only Athlon has them playing for the mythical championship (and losing this time, to USC, as if that had to be spelled out, or UT partisans cared about predictions in a championship with a No. 1 Trojan team). The highest ranking elsewhere is fifth, but it's top ten all around.

Best-Case: Texas ought to be the favorite in every game (see above and below), even if it has virtually no chance of repeating the absurd dominance of the `05 champions, and has to be an elite contender. They were close even after the loss last year to Ohio State, save two damning factors in the year-end losses: a) McCoy's shaky size/health and b) a tendency to lapse on defense, in the form of repeated big plays allowed at Kansas State (and Ohio State and Nebraska earlier in the year) and an inability to get Texas A&M off the field. McCoy has supposedly bulked up, etc., and dealing with injury is an inherent issue everywhere; but as much as it needs its quarterback in big games, Texas also needs its defense to make the elite leap the Ds at Oklahoma (2000), Ohio State ('02), LSU ('03), Auburn ('04) and Florida ('06) made in their recent championship runs. There's no way to predict that sort of surge, except to note the presence of the required talent (obviously) and circumstances (in this case, viable experience and a new coordinator), but all of the above teams won big with defense in lieu of a Heisman-quality offensive Hercules, and Texas will have to do that, too. Man for man, Texas has the drop on everyone it plays, so if the consistency is there under Akina, and the expected version of healthy Colt is there for clutch heroics when the time inevitably comes, the specific opponent won't matter until the mythical title game.


The schedule: It's Good!
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Worst-Case: UT got a good idea last year of the danger lurking outside Oklahoma, which hadn't been present the previous two years. So there's not only Oklahoma to worry about, and a slightly older version of the A&M team that won in Austin last year, but TCU, Nebraska and Oklahoma State, too, at least one of which is guaranteed to scare the hell out of UT or, in the right circumstances, send it back to the Holiday Bowl in three-loss purgatory.

Non-Binding Forecast: Texas is used to the idea of a one-game season; this year, barring insurgency out of TCU and/or Oklahoma State, it should expect its fate to hinge on three games: one home (Nebraska), one road (Texas A&M) and one neutral (Oklahoma). Last year's respective close call and upset notwithstanding, UT is more talented and therefore the de facto favorite in the first two until Nebraska finally pulls out an elite win under Bill Callahan and A&M finally shows some staying power; both will have to be better on offense this year than they were last year to keep up with a healthy McCoy. I have to admit I'm a little baffled by the Oklahoma love in the division, too, given the Sooners' serious issues at quarterback and overhaul of its front seven. OU's offense seems destined to be even more one-dimensional than last year, and it only scored ten points against Texas last year.

So on one level, I'm hesitant about Texas' liabilities on the offensive line and in the secondary, one of which seems destined to blow up a championship run without the central, dominant lean-on-me figure the last champions had in Young. On another, though, McCoy apparently expects to assume that role, and might in more Heupel-like fashion (sorry - he's the most relevant recent championship doppelganger for Colt), and the front seven on defense and offensive skill talent is so well-positioned that if UT stops Oklahoma from running and doesn't snap a ball over the punter's head or something, I don't know where that loss will be. I tentatively like UT to beat Oklahoma here, and therefore win the division, and therefore win the conference, and therefore, with this schedule, to be one of the two or three best contenders to play USC for the mythical championship. But also, with no Ohio State-level pelts to bag outside of the conference, the Horns are much better off if the competition for that spot is with the West Virginia/Louisville winner than with LSU or Michigan, unless UT's trail of notable dead - TCU, Nebraska, Oklahoma State (or Texas Tech) and A&M - are all padding their resumes for the cause in the meantime. - - -
Previous assessments, absurd, reasonable and otherwise:

March 12: Tulane March 13: Baylor March 16: UCLA March 20: Kentucky
March 21: Oregon March 22: Arizona State March 23: BYU March 27: Missouri
March 28: Troy March 29: Iowa State April 3: Alabama April 4: Akron
April 5: Cincinnati April 9: UL-Monroe April 10: Army April 11: Syracuse
April 18: Florida April 20: Southern Miss April 25: Southern Cal May 1: North Texas
May 3: SMU May 8: Nevada May 14: Tennessee May 21: TCU
May 24: Notre Dame May 29: UAB May 30: Georgia May 31: Temple
June 1: Houston June 12: Wyoming June 14: Nebraska June 25: Florida International
June 27: Oregon State July 2: Michigan July 6: Washington July 9: Boise State
July 11: Georgia Tech July 12: South Carolina July 13: Ohio State