Defense Holds The Key To A Texas Longhorns Revival

The last eight years have been hard ones for the proud football program at the University of Texas. Consider the following numbers put up since Colt McCoy left campus following the 2009 season…

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*Texas is evenly split between winning seasons and losing seasons, at four apiece.
*Texas is a sub-.500 team within the Big 12, with a 35-36 record in conference games.
*Texas has won as many as nine games just once and never hit the 10-win plateau.
*Texas has finished as high as second in the Big 12 just once and never won the league.

Furthermore, they come into this season having to replace three key playmakers on defense—Malik Jefferson at linebacker, Poona Ford up front and DeShon Elliott in the secondary. And sophomore quarterback Sam Ehlinger still needs to prove beyond a doubt he’s the right guy to run the offense of second-year head coach Tom Herman.

All of that sounds pretty bleak, which is what makes the expectations Las Vegas has for this year’s Texas team more interesting. The Longhorns have an Over/Under on wins of 8.5, and their odds to win the conference title are a relatively short 7-2. Both numbers are second-best in the Big 12 behind Oklahoma.

In short, despite the personnel losses and uncertainty, the Longhorns are expected to reach heights they’ve only gone to once in the past eight seasons. And what’s even stranger is that in looking over this team, I think that expectation sounds perfectly reasonable.

While Texas loses star power defensively, they still return plenty of experience. The defense is loaded with senior starters and the secondary is a particular strength. The Longhorns bring back three starters at DB and they’ve added an outstanding recruiting class. Five of the top 100 incoming freshman in the nation are Longhorn defensive backs. If the vets don’t produce, the kids will get a chance.

The Longhorns have continued to recruit at a high level throughout this eight-year downstretch. Their talent base is rivaled only by Oklahoma within the confines of the Big 12. That’s why I’m not as concerned about the loss of last year’s playmakers—their simply has to be other elite talent ready to step in. And if there’s not, the boosters would have some justification in their impatience.

Texas played terrific defense a year ago—in today’s Big 12, giving up only 21.2 points per game is darn near on an ‘85 Chicago Bears level. And against today’s offenses in this conference, having your talent concentrated in a deep secondary is a good place to be.

Finally, I don’t want to overstate the uncertainty at quarterback. Ehlinger needs to clean up his mistakes and become more efficient, but that’s to be expected for a player entering his sophomore season. I think his improvement can be assumed until we see otherwise.

The schedule won’t be easy. Texas has a road-neutral game at Maryland to open the season on the Saturday before Labor Day. The Longhorns host USC two weeks later and conference play opens on September 22 against TCU. By the time Texas gets to their traditional October battle with Oklahoma, we’ll already have a good feel as to where Herman’s program is at in its second year.

I’m not predicting great things for Texas this year, but they have the look of a team that will at least live up to modest expectations. Come to think of it, maybe that alone qualifies as “great things” in Austin, at least for now.