Texas Faces USC, and It Just Feels So Meh

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USC and Texas, the programs that met for the 2005 national championship and produced the greatest title game and arguably one of the best games of all time, resume acquaintances Saturday in Austin.

It’s the type of matchup college football needs. Two iconic programs, with a combined 11 national championships since 1962 and a total of nine Heisman Trophy winners, completing a non-conference home-and-home series that featured an overtime Trojans victory last season. No wonder the executives at FOX were giddy when they were able to select this game for a prime-time national telecast.

Reality and performance often get in the way of expectations. Instead of a game between two 2-0 teams, USC and UT enter the game 1-1 with meh victories and thudding losses. The Trojans are ranked in both major polls, but their popularity appears based more on brand name. The Longhorns, who started the season ranked No. 23, know the feeling. After a face-plant loss at Maryland to start 2018, they’ve exhibited zero qualities of a team capable of significant improvement.

In a week-to-week sport where perception and reality get swapped out like a diva’s wardrobe, what has been evident through two games could change come November. But if Texas is 1-2 Sunday morning, then prepare for a Category 5 Twitter storm.

UT’s home opener Saturday against Tulsa featured the debut of BEVO Blvd., a pre-game tailgating experience designed to get butts in the seats for the opening kickoff (Longhorns fans are notoriously late arriving). Athletic director Chris Del Conte, who has been on the job since January, developed the fan friendly Frog Alley when he was at TCU. By all accounts, the pre-game and in-game atmosphere was improved at DKR.

The fans were treated to Texas jumping to a 21-0 lead. That was the high point. The Golden Hurricane pulled to within a touchdown twice in the second half and if they hadn’t missed three field goals could have sprung the upset. The 28-21 score fell into the “a win is win is a win and better than a loss” file.

As he sang the traditional post-game ritual “Eyes of Texas” with his players, a photo showed second-year coach Tom Herman with what could be described as a 1,000-yard stare. That’s the term used for soldiers who have spent too much time on the front line under fire. (And, yes, the photo in question has been studied and parsed like the Zapruder film.)

Herman said that he deleted Twitter from his phone before the season. Charlie Strong, his predecessor, said that Twitter is contributing to the “downfall of society” (and he wasn’t wrong). While Tweets have yet to be directly connected to any team losing a game, the noise nonetheless has become worth listening to.

Last year, Derrick Foreman, the father of two Longhorns (Armanti and D’Onta) was critical of Herman’s offense and playing time decisions. The sniping was attributed to a father’s frustrations. Now, though, with the same apparent issues dogging the team this season, Foreman’s comments are gaining support (he’s also got the megaphone of a regular podcast).

“I think our guys have done a good job of blocking out all the noise,” Herman said Monday. “They have also done a good job understanding what it takes to win. I tell our staff every Sunday when we meet, we need to go back – whether we win by 50, whether we lose, whether we win by a touchdown – we need to be critical of ourselves.”

Herman, though not via social media, is contributing to the noise level. Fans of the “West Wing” will remember how often the phrase “stay on message” was uttered. At times, Herman’s message appears muddled. After the Tulsa game, he mentioned his team’s inexperience on defense; while two freshman defensive backs had interceptions, the depth chart lists 10 juniors and seniors as starters.

Coach Mensa also took the blame for his team’s desultory second-half effort. Herman explained the slow start at Maryland to the Longhorns being too amped and trying to play perfect. His advice for Tulsa was to relax and have fun. At halftime, though, Herman said he was “pretty hard” on the team while urging them to avoid complacency and finish strong. UT’s response was a second half of tight sphincters.

The Longhorns’ inability to post a convincing victory against a Group of Five school happened the same night when, 90 miles away in College Station, Texas A&M came within a two-point conversion of forcing overtime against second-ranked Clemson. The Aggies, with Jimbo Fisher coaching his second game, were giddier over a close loss than the Orange Bloods were over a seven-point win.

Del Conte is a personable and available AD. That was a positive at TCU but the spotlight burns far brighter on the Forty Acres. He’s already facing the questions about what’s wrong with the Horns. In a conversation with Kirk Bohls of the Austin American-Statesman, Del Conte was dealing about the program’s health and the narrow difference between reasons and excuses.

“We’re two games in,” he said. “I understand everyone’s wants and wishes. They’re no different from mine … I don’t want to get in that conversation (on if this is a rebuilding season). I think we have good players and a good team. We just have to put it all together. The fan base has had a tumultuous last five or six years. I understand that. We’re making progress to get better, and that’s my focus. … All the talk is crazy right now. Tom’s a damn good coach. He understands the hand he’s been dealt.”

(Who knew that Herman was taking over an FCS program?)

Last Saturday, UT and A&M fan bases were squirming but for far different reasons. This Saturday, the USC-Texas game will be played at the same time as the neutral site showdown between No. 14 TCU and No. 4 Ohio State.

Regardless of what happens in Jerry World, the Longhorns are facing a must-win situation. A loss would open the possibility of a 1-5 start. Following the game with the Trojans, Texas will face TCU (at home), Kansas State (on the road) and Oklahoma (in Dallas). The Frogs have won five of the last six games with UT, the Longhorns are 1-7 in Manhattan and the Sooners are favored to win a fourth consecutive Big 12 title.

Instant gratification has replaced perspective, particularly when it comes to a fan base as starved for success as the Orangebloods. Herman has in some ways recruited his own angry mob with his comments and attitude (this week he was asked to respond to fans who think he’s arrogant). Either he is or he’s a victim of the environment.

Two years ago, ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit had this blunt assessment on a GameDay segment that assessed the last coaching change at Texas.

“Well, I think if you’re Charlie Strong, you have to have peace of mind, just because if they ask you to leave, you’re going to get paid well and you’re going to get released. When I say released, you’re going to get released from the cesspool of being in Austin, Texas and the attitude that comes with being the head coach at Texas.

“To me, you chase away Mack Brown after nine years of double-digit wins and you’re going to chase away Charlie Strong and whoever the next guy is, you’re going to chase away that guy. Who would want the job in Texas to be the head coach? Dealing with the boosters, the president, the AD, the insensitive attitude and the way they react to chat rooms and talk shows…”

When Texas made its late-night, last-minute hiring of Herman to checkmate LSU, everyone thought hiring it had hired the nation’s best young coach. That still might be true. Herman will get at least three seasons to prove his worth. That’s how long Strong – who is 12-2 two games into his second season as South Florida’s coach – got.

But if 2018 produces another mediocre season, Herman’s third season had better produce a season with double-digit victories for the first time in a decade at UT. Otherwise, the noise could become deafening.