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Why Texas’ decade of mediocrity will likely end under Tom Herman

Look at this chart, which shows the Horns have been a totally average Big 12 team for years. That’s probably ending soon.

NCAA Football: Texas Spring Game John Gutierrez-USA TODAY Sports

This preview originally published May 17 and has since been updated.

Around this time of year, with the preview series moving to the power conferences, my radio requests begin to pick up a bit. And on a lot of these radio hits, one common question is: who do I see as a sleeper? If I don’t have anybody immediate in mind, I can lean on the numbers to see who’s projected to improve by a good margin. Basically, then, my answer will lean on who’s been recruiting well recently and who returns a ton of last year’s production.

I can use that returning production data to paint a story about the potential rise of the SEC East, which has four of the top 10 in that regard. And I can note TCU and Oregon are in the top three of returning production and were awesome as recently as 2014.

I usually note the No. 6 team on the list as well, that squad in Austin with top-20 recruiting, a ton of sophomores and juniors, and a hot new coach.

On January 7, 2010, Texas’ Blake Gideon intercepted a pass by Alabama punter P.J. Fitzgerald two minutes into the BCS National Championship in Pasadena. The Longhorns converted a third-and-1 to the Bama 27, then Tre’ Newton rushed 16 yards for another first down.

Texas entered a four-point underdog, but the quick turnover and an early touchdown would have evened the tables. Texas’ win probability would have been about 50 percent at worst. The Horns were within shouting distance of a second national title in five years.

Instead, those plays were the last of the Mack Brown dynasty, if we can call it that. Brown’s Horns had finished in the AP top 15 for 10 straight years and in the top five for four of the last six. After some early disappointments in the Brown era, results were matching recruiting.

Two minutes after Gideon’s interception, on the sixth play of the ensuing drive, quarterback Colt McCoy was hit by Cory Reamer and Marcell Dareus. His arm went numb, he couldn’t throw, and freshman quarterback Garrett Gilbert entered.

Despite aggressive underdog tactics — following a field goal that put them up 3-0, the Horns successfully attempted a pop-up onside kick of sorts and kicked another field goal after a three-and-out — Texas’ next nine drives produced seven punts and two interceptions. Alabama went on a 24-0 run and won, 37-21.

That was the moment Nick Saban’s dynasty (by any definition) began. It was also the moment Texas became a disturbingly average Big 12 program.

Texas S&P+ progression

That’s a stunning chart, isn’t it? Texas plummeted in 2010 and has spent the last seven seasons playing at an almost perfectly average level within the conference. The offense has seen ups (12th in Off. S&P+ in 2012) and downs (90th in 2014); the defense (seventh in 2011, 62nd in 2015) has done the same. But aside from a stark dip in 2015, the product under both Brown and Charlie Strong was blah-worthy. Average record: 6.6 wins, 6 losses.

Three years of Strong produced a 16-21 record. He was able to instill a culture change of sorts, but the results never came.

Herman was a graduate assistant under Brown in 1999-2000 before moving on to Sam Houston State, Texas State, Rice, Iowa State, and Ohio State. He won a title ring as the Buckeyes’ offensive coordinator, then took the Houston job and proceeded to go 22-4 with wins over Oklahoma, Florida State, and Louisville (twice).

The Texas job is one of the most unique and demanding; we never know how someone will handle it until we see it. But on paper, it’s hard to imagine a better candidate.

He checks virtually every box. And he inherits a team that, through virtue of massive returning production, likely would have improved by quite a bit even if Strong had remained. He brought his awesome defensive coordinator, and while there are plenty of questions — there always are on a team that just went 5-7 — it’s not hard to talk yourself into Herman turning things around quickly.

Then again, it’s been easy to talk yourself into a turnaround ever since McCoy got hurt.


2016 in review

2016 Texas statistical profile.

Strong couldn’t get all of the pieces pointed in the right direction at the same time. After a first-year collapse, his offense improved in 2015, then improved again in 2016. Meanwhile, his defense was awesome in 2014, then mediocre for most of the next two years.

A team with Strong’s 2014 defense and 2016 offense would have ranked 11th in the country in S&P+; a team with his 2014 offense and 2016 defense would have ranked 78th. Hell, that kind of dichotomy existed within just last year’s team.

  • First 5 games (2-3): Avg. percentile performance: 66% (68% offense, 43% defense) | Avg. yards per play: Opp 6.4, UT 6.0 | Avg. score: UT 41, Opp 40
  • Last 7 games (3-4): Avg. percentile performance: 64% (45% offense, 65% defense) | Avg. yards per play: UT 5.8, Opp 5.2 | Avg. score: Opp 26, UT 25

Texas lost tight early games to Cal and Oklahoma because its defense allowed nearly 50 points per game and over 7 yards per play. The Horns lost later tight games to Kansas State, West Virginia, and (gulp) Kansas because their offense averaged barely 20 points per game and 5 yards per play.

Strong demoted defensive coordinator Vance Bedford a month in, and the defense turned itself around just in time for the offense to collapse.

There was a brief offensive renaissance against Baylor and Texas Tech, when D’Onta Foreman rushed for a combined 591 yards and five touchdowns. But the offense was piloted by a true freshman quarterback (Shane Buechele) working behind a line that was both banged up (nine different linemen started at least one game) and young (38 starts went to freshmen and sophomores). That’s the perfect recipe for diminishing returns.


Offense

Texas offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

In hindsight, the 2016 offense looked exactly as you’d expect in terms of when it did (and didn’t do) well. I mean that in two different ways.

  • It looked good in September and mostly bad in November.
  • It looked good on standard downs and woeful on passing downs. The Horns ranked 12th in standard-downs success rate and 114th in passing-downs success rate. If they could keep their freshman quarterback on schedule, things were fine. The moment they couldn’t, the drive ended. Not even McCoy was ready to pull off constant passing-downs magic as a freshman.
NCAA Football: Texas at Texas Tech
Shane Buechele
Michael C. Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

So now here comes the quarterback whisperer. Herman helped Ohio State win a national title with a third-string QB in 2014 and turned Houston’s Greg Ward Jr., a part-time receiver who caught 15 passes in 2014, into one of the most valuable quarterbacks in the country.

Major Applewhite — Herman’s coordinator at Houston, who took over as head coach when Herman left — had a role to play in Ward’s success. And Herman’s new coordinator, former Ohio State co-coordinator Tim Beck, didn’t exactly leave Buckeye fans crying when he left.

Still, Herman gets the benefit of the doubt until proven otherwise, and Buechele is an exciting lump of clay. Even with the second-half fade, and even while taking a few too many sacks and throwing too many interceptions, he threw for nearly 3,000 yards, complete 60 percent of his passes, and hinted at decent scrambling ability (46 percent of his non-sack carries gained at least five yards).

Eight of nine linemen with starting experience return, including left tackle Conor Williams. [Update: One of them, tackle Brandon Hodges, is transferring to Pitt.]

And Buechele gets his top three targets back. Granted, Dorian Leonard, Armanti Foreman, and Colin Johnson combined for merely 7.1 yards per target with a decent but unspectacular 48 percent success rate. But continuity is huge for a passing game. Plus, other options like converted quarterback Jerrod Heard, inconsistent junior John Burt, and blue-chip sophomore slot Devin Duvernay (13.3 yards per target) could play more of a sustained role.

Notre Dame v Texas
Brandon Shackelford (56), Connor Williams (55), and Armanti Foreman (3)
Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

So that leaves two primary questions: What does UT have at running back now that Foreman is a Houston Texan, and what happens if Buechele gets hurt? Ward was always dealing with nagging injuries, as Houston’s QB-intensive offense got him hit quite a bit, and the Horns’ QB situation is perilous after Buechele. There’s four star freshman Sam Ehlinger ... and that’s about it.

There are more options at running back, at least. Big Chris Warren III was nearly as efficient as Foreman but lacked explosiveness due to some combination of nagging hamstring injuries and being 250 pounds. Four-star sophomore Kyle Porter showed a little pop in limited carries, and four-star freshman Toneil Carter was in (and hurt) for spring. UT doesn’t boast quite as many blue-chippers at running back as you’d guess, but three four-star guys is more than most have.

Defense

Texas defensive radar

A quick perusal of Texas’ returnee data tells you quite a bit about the Longhorns’ early-2016 defensive struggles.

  • Seven of the top nine linemen return, and six are either sophomores or juniors. [Update: One of them, big DT Jordan Elliott, is transferring to Missouri.]
  • Seven of the top eight linebackers return, and six are either sophomores or juniors.
  • Eight of the top 10 defensive backs return, and seven are either sophomores or juniors.

The trend smacks you in the face. This was an absurdly young defense, one that was awful early but decent over the second half of the season. It wasn’t disruptive against the run — 93rd in stuff rate, 81st in power success rate, 78th in rushing success rate — but did a lovely job of combining big-play prevention with a top-notch pass rush.

Now coordinator Todd Orlando takes over a unit with extreme continuity. Two years ago, in prepping for his first year at UH, Herman told me, “I've gotta tell you, I think I hit a home run in getting Todd Orlando.” Orlando proved his boss right. Houston ranked 25th in Def. S&P+ last year, combining solid (if passive) pass defense with dominant run D.

NCAA Football: Texas Christian at Texas
Breckyn Hager (44) and Charles Omenihu (90)
Brendan Maloney-USA TODAY Sports

Oliver was a major force in that run defense, and nobody that good will be wearing burnt orange this fall. But the Horns have options, that’s for damn sure. Four returning linemen recorded at least 4.5 tackles for loss in 2016 — they’re all at least 270 pounds, too, which means the shift to a system with three down linemen might hold — and three returning linebackers logged at least 8.5.

While the line doesn’t boast as much blue-chip talent as you would think (only one of the top four returnees was a four-star), the linebacking corps is loaded with both athletic potential and increasingly proven production. And last year’s sophomores are this year’s juniors.

Between Breckyn Hager and Anthony Wheeler, a reliable middle linebacker/anchor should emerge, freeing up Malik Jefferson and either Naashon Hughes, Edwin Freeman, or Jeffrey McCulloch to make plays on the outside. Jefferson was maybe Strong’s biggest get as a recruiter, and Freeman/Hughes/McCulloch combined for 14.5 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks, and lots of tackles in space.

It appears Texas will operate from a base nickel defense, and if the OLBs and defensive ends like Malcolm Roach, Charles Omenihu, and Chris Nelson can make some distracting plays, the secondary should be able to do some damage.

The cornerback position is less proven than you’d prefer; Kris Boyd is a keeper, but neither Holton Hill nor Davante Davis were successfully aggressive, and despite an awesome pass rush, the Horns still allowed a 61 percent completion rate with only 10 interceptions.

Granted, the pass defense improved immensely — 179.7 passer rating allowed over the first five games, 113.6 thereafter. And safety could be a massive strength; the trio of Jason Hall, John Bonney, and P.J. Locke III combined for seven tackles for loss and 20 passes defensed last year.

Still, if the pass defense disappoints, it will be because of the corners. I don’t expect it to, though; after ranking 41st in Rushing S&P+ and 38th in Passing S&P+ last year, I’m betting the Horns move into the top 30 in each category.

NCAA Football: Texas at California
Kris Boyd (2) and John Bonney (24)
John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

Part of the curriculum at Urban Meyer’s School for Gifted Game Closers is creative, relentless special teams. Ohio State has one of the better units in the country as often as not, and Houston ranked a decent 29th in Special Teams S&P+ last fall.

Texas, meanwhile: 68th. Michael Dickson’s punting was incredible, but Texas gave away points in the place-kicking department and in kick returns. Perhaps it isn’t the end of the world, then, that UT will have a new kicker and new kick returner this year. Dickson and his 47-yard punting average are back. I

t’s hard to guarantee improvement, but UT almost certainly won’t get worse at special teams.


2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
2-Sep Maryland 72 18.7 86%
9-Sep San Jose State 105 28.0 95%
16-Sep at USC 7 -9.7 29%
1-Sep at Iowa State 57 8.8 70%
7-Oct Kansas State 35 9.8 71%
14-Oct vs. Oklahoma 5 -8.1 32%
21-Oct Oklahoma State 22 4.5 60%
28-Oct at Baylor 28 3.2 57%
4-Nov at TCU 21 -0.6 49%
11-Nov Kansas 107 28.4 95%
18-Nov at West Virginia 69 11.7 75%
25-Nov Texas Tech 66 15.0 81%
Projected S&P+ Rk 16
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 12 / 36
Projected wins 8.0
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 7.5 (37)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 19 / 15
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -3 / 2.0
2016 TO Luck/Game -2.1
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 82% (84%, 80%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 6.8 (-1.8)

“Texas might turn things around!” is neither an exciting nor new response to a common radio question, but it’s what I’ve been coming up with. The Horns have all the experience they lacked a year ago, and they are now being led by a guy who turned Houston around so quickly that he nearly got them into the Big 12.

If Buechele gets hurt, or if the run game can’t produce a lot of big plays, you could see a Texas offense that is limited in the same ways that Houston’s was at times. But I would be shocked if the defense didn’t take sustained steps forward, and I’m willing to bet that the Buechele-Herman marriage works.

S&P+ is even more confident than I am. The combination of returning production and recruiting has UT poised to rise all the way to 16th this year, which would make them the favorites in about nine to 10 games. And considering that there are still almost no seniors projected to start — two to three on defense, three to four on offense — that would set the table for massive hype in 2018.

We don’t know yet about how Herman will perform at program maintenance. And hell, while he’s maybe the most amazing underdog coach in the country, he wasn’t all that great as a favorite at UH. The Cougars did lose to UConn in 2015 and get hammered by SMU last year, after all.

Still, there’s so much to like about this marriage, and it’s not hard to see Texas somewhat deserving major hype in 2018. That’s a scary thought.

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