EDITOR’S NOTE: In the two weeks leading up to the 2017 college football season, Franchise columnist and co-host John E. Hoover previews the Big 12 Conference. Today: Texas.
In his first team meeting as head coach of the Texas Longhorns, Tom Herman asked a simple but painful question.
How many people in this room have been on a winning team?
Three people, three fifth-year seniors, raised their hand.
Mack Brown’s final season, 2013, ended with an 8-5 record. Charlie Strong’s three years in Austin went 6-7, 5-7 and 5-7.
And yet, there were the Longhorns this week, ranked No. 23 in the Associated Press preseason Top 25.
Is Texas a Top 25 team?
“No, we’re a 5-7 team,” Herman told reporters on Monday, shortly after the poll was announced. “You are what your record says you are. We haven’t played a game yet. So, we’ll pay attention to those as we head down the stretch. But right now, it’s just a bunch of people guessing, right?”
Guessing at what Texas is supposed to be has become an annual rite of summer. Every year, prognosticators and pundits seem certain that this year, this time for sure, the Longhorns are going to get their act together.
And every year — at least every year since 2009 — they’ve been wrong.
No one is forthrightly picking Texas to win the Big 12 Conference this season. But are we safe yet to project the Longhorns into a bowl, at least? There are an awful lot of bowls.
Herman, for all his intelligence and all his self-confidence (which some identify as arrogance), can’t quite answer that one.
“We don’t know how to win really well right now,” Herman said.
Maybe Shane Buechele can help finally turn things around on the Forty Acres. He started every game as a true freshman last season, completing 60 percent of his passes for 2,958 yards with 21 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. He was good last year, but also bad at times. He’ll certainly be better in 2017 — if he’s the starter, that is.
True freshman Sam Ehlinger has had moments of brilliance in practice, and he’s a Tom Herman recruit who came out of Austin Westlake running a system similar to Herman’s. Buechele would seem the odds-on-favorite, but don’t count out Ehlinger.
“As of today, Shane’s starting,” Herman said Monday. “Now, does that guarantee that he’ll start against Maryland? No. He’ll take the bulk of the 1s reps, but if he doesn’t take advantage of them and Sam plays better than him, then that will change. As of now, Shane’s getting the bulk of the 1 reps. Sam will continue to do that. Sam’s playing good and Shane is too. It’s a good battle, but you can tell Shane’s played 12 games of college football.”
Herman said the quarterbacks are “not dymanic” but are “good enough to win with.” Herman likes the competition and has been in no hurry to formally name one the starter.
“That’s a big deal, huh?,” Herman asked Austin media last week. “I’ve said over and over again that if we played a game tomorrow, Shane Buechele will start. We’ll get a depth chart to make it Facebook official. Is that what we’ve got to do?”
What they’ve really got to do is win games.
The ‘Horns bring back three starting linemen, including consensus All-American Connor Williams at left tackle. They also return wide receivers Armanti Foreman and Dorian Leonard, who combined for 817 yards and six touchdowns last season.
There are concerns at running back, where talented junior Chris Warren (366 yards in four games last year) has been unable to get healthy after missing eight games with injury, and Kyle Porter has been hurt this preseason. If those two are right, the UT backfield is strong. Not as strong as last year, when D’Onta Foreman ran for 2,028 yards and 15 touchdowns, but strong.
Defensive coordinator Todd Orlando has 10 starters back from a Texas defense that was just average last season: eighth in scoring defense (31.5 points per game), seventh in overall defense (448.2 yards per game), fifth in rushing defense (189.8 yards per game) and seventh in passing defense (258.5 yards per game). In all, 18 players who have a combined 110 career starts are back in burnt orange.
But with a new head coach, a new defensive coordinator and a new mindset, being a returning starter doesn’t ensure anyone of anything.
Do count on junior Malik Jefferson to finally emerge as the Big 12’s best linebacker, senior Poona Ford to be one of the league’s top defensive tackles and an experienced defensive secondary to be better.
But can anyone count on Texas to win this year? Not yet.
Herman spent the offseason, spring practice and most of training camp changing minds and changing habits. Players tell tales of intense competition in workouts that ended with winners getting choice meals and losers getting substantially less.
“Our coaches have spent an inordinate amount of time getting to know and building relationships with our players,” Herman said. “This spring was very successful in terms of learning how to practice. We grew immensely as a team, and we’re continuing to grow, even more so this summer.
“I feel good that these guys are willing to do whatever we ask them to coming off the three-year stretch that this program has had. They don’t want that to be their legacy. They want to be remembered as the team and the group that turned this thing around. I think we’re well on our way.”
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “Further Review with Hoover & Rew” and can be heard every weekday on The Franchise in Tulsa from noon to 3 p.m. with co-host Lauren Rew. In Oklahoma City, catch him Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings at 10:25 and every Friday afternoon at 4:05. Listen at fm107.7 in OKC, fm107.9/am1270 in Tulsa, on The Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page. Visit his personal page at johnehoover.com.
2017 TEXAS SCHEDULE
- Sept. 2: Maryland
- Sept. 9: San Jose State
- Sept. 16: at USC
- Sept. 28: at Iowa State
- Oct. 7: Kansas State
- Oct. 14: Oklahoma*
- Oct. 21: Oklahoma State
- Oct. 28: at Baylor
- Nov. 4: at TCU
- Nov. 11: Kansas
- Nov. 18: at West Virginia
- Nov. 24: Texas Tech
* at Dallas