Still Waiting on the Return of Texas Football

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Over hype, under deliver.

Since 2009, the last time that Texas was relative on the national stage, that’s been the best way to describe the Longhorns’ football program. After coming within a shoulder injury to quarterback Colt McCoy of winning two national titles in four seasons, UT’s bad break in the Rose Bowl against Alabama has perpetuated itself into “just another team” mediocrity.

The most-profitable athletic department in the country has spent much of this decade selling sizzle. A bungled athletic director hire (Steve Patterson) and a football hire (Charlie Strong) that was doomed from the start (and not that it was Strong’s fault) kept Texas on a treadmill to mediocrity.

Just one for instance: Over the last five seasons Texas has 31-32 record accomplished with 60 players who were four- or five-star recruits with that talent producing 11 NFL Draft picks. Over the same period, Boston College is 31-33 and has had 14 players drafted while signing a total of four recruits ranked four- or five-stars.

When you’re a name-brand school that compares unfavorably to an FBS Catholic school that isn’t Notre Dame, people are gonna point and stare.

The Associated Press pre-season poll was announced Monday and for the second consecutive season the Longhorns are ranked No. 23. Last season, they were coming off a 5-7 record in 2016; last season they finished 7-6. There are a handful of teams that might rate making the top 25 but when a school like Texas often gets the benefit of the doubt. It’s better than being unranked; UT’s one-time rival and all-time little brother Texas A&M missed out on the pre-season poll for the fourth consecutive season.

That Aggies dumped a boatload of cash into Jimbo Fisher’s back account in the off-season but that didn’t impress the voters.

Since 2010, the Longhorns have been ranked before the first kickoff five times and unranked four times. Only once in that span has UT finished ranked in the final poll. In 2012, Mack Brown’s final season, Texas was ranked No. 18; it had been ranked No. 15 in the pre-season poll so even that final ranking was below expectations.

After Strong’s three mediocre seasons, Texas decided it had its perfect coach when it swiped Tom Herman from Houston (and LSU, which was left to hire Ed Orgeron). A rising star in the coaching profession, Herman didn’t promise a national championship in Year One but the stories coming out of Austin were universally positive.

From full support from the administration to state-of-the-art lockers to demanding championship urine, Herman appeared to have all the right answers. Despite little to go on but hype, voters in the AP poll considered the Longhorns to be worthy of ranking.

That lasted until Maryland 51, Texas 45 in the season opener.

The rest of Herman’s first season was trying to settle on a starting quarterback, patching together an offensive line, explaining why talented wide receivers couldn’t get open and defending offensive coordinator Tim Beck, who struggled to call a cogent series of plays.

Texas football has exemplified the phrase, “all hat, no cattle.” Talk is cheap and winning more than you lose is expensive. While Herman and his staff have proven to be excellent recruiters – again, that’s the talk – it’s time to see results, even if it’s just Year Two.

In May, Herman told Jake Trotter of ESPN.com that “I think there is legitimacy to teams learning how to win. And we’ve got to do a better job of coaching them and teaching them how to win … The buy-in level now is just through the roof.”

At his news conference at the start of pre-season practice, Herman said that based on the eye test, there’s a “marked difference” in his team compared to this time last year.

Strength coach Yancy McKnight has been praised for his off-season work with the UT roster. There were 46 players who vertical jumped over 30 inches, contributing to a team average of 31. 5 inches. There were 40 Longhorns who power cleaned 300 or more pounds and 50 squatted 500 or more pounds.

If Texas wants to compete in Olympic weight lifting, then maybe the program is on the right track.

Herman’s first season came down to woulda/shoulda/coulda. Whether it’s words, reasons or excuses, Texas lost four games it led going into the fourth quarter, five of its six losses were by less than a touchdown and two defeats came in overtime.

“One of the things we’ve talked about and pushed in workouts is being able to finish,” senior tight end Andrew Beck said last month. “For a lot of us it’s mental. And to get there, it’s about the physical. We’ve been going ‘plus two.’ If a drill goes 10 yards, then we go 12. If we don’t, then we do the drill again. If a coach doesn’t call it, one of the players will.

“Finishing games, it’s a mental barrier to break through. You get to the fourth quarter, you’re tired, you have to learn to strain. We’re looking to prove we can finish.”

Herman has been a member of Mensa since 1998. His news conference verbosity often translates unloading his brain’s overflowing knowledge. Herman comes off as someone always trying to claim “smartest guy in the room” status.

One such moment came during Herman’s podium time at Big 12 media days. Kirk Bohls, veteran columnist of the Austin American-Statesman, asked the UT coach a question similar one asked in the same setting the previous year. Here’s the question:

  • Oklahoma had four All-Americans last year and came within an overtime of getting to the championship game. You had one All-American, a punter who is gone. How many elite players that you feel you have on this roster that can be difference makers and win championships?
  • For nearly 10 seconds, Herman sat silently. One could almost hear his brain cells scrambling to assess UT’s depth chart. (Your Veteran Scribe can type the answer in less than 10 seconds – one, two, three at the most.) It was as though Herman wanted the perfect answer.
  • Finally, this: “Some. I mean, I don’t know. You kind of put me on the spot there, I haven’t tallied up difference makers and championship level guys.”

Herman’s not wrong. The 2018 roster doesn’t compare to the schools that have made the College Football Playoff. What Texas and Herman’s staff must prove this season is that progress is being made. Eight wins in the regular season is a must. And it won’t be easy.

Texas opens at Maryland and in Week Three hosts USC. A 3-0 start in non-league play is essential because the Longhorns’ first three Big 12 games are against TCU, Kansas State and Oklahoma – three teams that have dominated Texas of late. The Frogs have won five of the last six, the Wildcats seven of the last 10 and the Sooners six of the last eight.

Since 2014, Texas has a total of 23 victories. During that same four-year span, Georgia Southern – which started playing at the FBS level in 2014 – has won 25 games.

Like the Boston College comparison made earlier, this is the sort of gotcha anecdote that earns cynicism about pre-season rankings.

For much of this decade, optimists who understand Texas being back in the national picture is good for college football – and they’re correct – have often repeated a three-word mantra: Texas football is back.

Until the Longhorns the .500 neighborhood, that’s going to remain a punch line.