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Texas is a QB away from a 10-win season. As usual.

Tom Herman’s first season could have gone worse, but a limited offense remained the holdup.

NCAA Football: Texas Tech at Texas
Sam Ehlinger
John Gutierrez-USA TODAY Sports

[This preview has been updated since its publication in June.]

For most of six years, the Longhorns had been led by two incredible QBs: first Vince Young, then Colt McCoy. They created a pretty easy recipe for Mack Brown: recruit well, place a great QB behind center, and poof — you win a lot of games.

A lot of games. After winning nine games in each of his first three seasons, Mack Brown’s run through the 2000s was otherworldly. The Horns won at least 10 games each season and pulled off five top-five finishes and a national title between 2001-09. Brown was such a good recruiter that winning only one title felt almost underwhelming. But in Texas’ rich history, only Darrell K Royal could match this sustained success.

Since the moment McCoy left 2009’s title game with a dead-arm injury, Texas is 53-48. The Horns have finished ranked just once (19th in 2012), and they have had basically two solid offenses (2012 and 2016).

Texas’ struggles haven’t all been the fault of the QBs, of course. It’s almost impossible to remember the last time a Texas offensive line was anything beyond average, and the Longhorns’ star recruit-to-star player ratio at WR is, shall we say, substandard. And in the moments when the offense had its act together, the defense seemed guaranteed to fall apart.

Still, QB has been an obvious issue. UT has cycled through a countless number of Next Great Hopes. Garrett Gilbert took over for McCoy in the title game as a blue-chip freshman. David Ash was a freshman when he was anointed. Jerrod Heard, Shane Buechele, and Sam Ehlinger were freshmen, too. And one after another, they all lost their jobs to the next Next Great Hope.

The last three are still around, though. Heard will finish his career as a receiver, and Buechele and Ehlinger are fighting it out for the starting job in 2018. The battle, and the injuries and demotions that came with it, defined quite a bit of Herman’s first season. Buechele started Game No. 1, Ehlinger started Nos. 2-3, Buechele No. 4, Ehlinger No. 5, etc. Ehlinger was the better of the two late in the year, but neither distinguished himself in the spring.

Oh yeah, and Herman signed two new four-star Next Great Hopes (Cameron Rising and Casey Thompson) this past winter.

Texas found its defensive footing under new coordinator Todd Orlando, improving from 60th to 21st in Def. S&P+. The Horns return most of last year’s two-deep on that side, and anything less than a top-20 finish would be a surprise.

But it’s all about the offense. It ranked 99th in Off. S&P+, unacceptable under any circumstances. If Herman and coordinator Tim Beck can figure out the right buttons to push, every game on UT’s schedule is winnable. The Horns are projected 27th overall in S&P+, are favored in nine games, and are only narrow underdogs in two others. A good offense could mean 10 or more wins for the first time since, well, you know.

NCAA Football: Texas Bowl-Texas vs Missouri
Tom Herman
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports


2017 Texas offensive radar

Herman and Beck followed the “play it safe and protect your young QB” script as well as they could. Buechele and Ehlinger combined to complete 60 percent of their passes, and Texas was pretty good at creating third-and-manageable situations — they ranked 49th in average third-down distance (6.8).

I just listed all of Texas’ offensive strengths. The Longhorns were typically good for a couple of deeper passes per game, but they weren’t consistent enough in the intermediate passing game to produce enough big plays to win games. They weren’t efficient enough, either.

2017 Texas offensive efficiency & explosiveness

Within the Big 12, Texas was less efficient than everyone but Baylor and Kansas and less explosive than everyone. The Horns finished 106th overall in success rate and 109th in IsoPPP. They were bad at creating scoring opportunities and worse at converting them, and they were dreadful to start each half — 115th in Q1 S&P+ and 117th in Q3 S&P+. Without question, their best weapon was punter Michael Dickson, who had such a big leg that he added a first down’s worth of yardage to each Texas drive.

Dickson’s gone, though. The training wheels are off.

NCAA Football: Texas at Texas Christian
Shane Buechele
Andrew Dieb-USA TODAY Sports

We’ll start with the positives: Ehlinger and Buechele are both back and will have a sturdier line. Not a single Longhorn lineman started all 13 games last year — a remarkable anti-feat, honestly — and nine started at least one. Five of those nine are back, including a pretty proven guard in senior Patrick Vahe, and Herman added Rice graduate transfer Calvin Anderson, a three-year starter and honorable mention All-Conference USA performer, in the offseason.

That’s six guys with 102 career starts, plus four-star sophomores Patrick Hudson and J.P. Urquidez, JUCO transfer Mikey Grandy, and three incoming four-star freshmen for new OL coach Herb Hand. I’m not going to proclaim sudden greatness, but it’s perhaps safe to say that the line will improve.

We’ll say QB will, too. Ehlinger looked solid in late-2017 wins over WVU in Morgantown and Missouri in the Texas Bowl, combining to go 23-for-34 for 248 yards, three TDs, and one interception in those games. Granted, those games were won primarily by the defense and Dickson, but the offense was under control and got efficient performances from both Ehlinger and running back Daniel Young, another freshman.

It’s still hard to figure out what Texas has at the skill positions. Young had his moments late in the year, but neither he, junior-to-be Kyle Porter, or sophomore Toneil Carter generated any sort of consistency over the course of the season — they all had a marginal efficiency of minus-8 percent or lower.

Cal transfer Tre Watson could bring some more steadiness at RB, but he still only averaged 4.9 yards per carry for the Golden Bears in 2016, and while incoming freshman Keontay Ingram was a four-star prospect, freshmen aren’t known for their efficiency.

The receiving corps has its own set of issues. Last year’s two leading receivers, juniors Collin Johnson and Lil’Jordan Humphrey, both return, but four of the next six guys on the totem pole do not. Heard is the No. 3 leading returnee, and he averaged a paltry 4.7 yards per target.

Johnson is a decent No. 1 target; he averaged 14.2 yards per catch, but with only a 55 percent catch rate and plus-8 percent marginal efficiency (below average for a No. 1 WR). His improvement could depend on defenses having other weapons to worry about. Humphrey was a unique (a 6’4, 220-pound slot receiver) and dreadfully inconsistent weapon last year. He had a combined 13 catches for 217 yards against Kansas State, Oklahoma, and TCU; he had 24 for just 214 the rest of the year.

Between a mixture of disappointing former star recruits (senior John Burt, junior Devin Duvernay) and four-star freshmen (Brennan Eagles, Joshua Moore, Al’Vonte Woodard), another threat or two needs to emerge.

Texas’ offense doesn’t need to suddenly become top-20 for the Longhorns to win a lot of games. But the Horns will have to generate more first downs just to account for Dickson’s loss in the field position battle, and they’ll have to improve to at least a top-50 level to avoid being an albatross.

NCAA Football: Texas at Texas Christian
Lil’Jordan Humphrey
Andrew Dieb-USA TODAY Sports


2017 Texas defensive radar

Just imagine what Texas’ season numbers might have been without Maryland. The Longhorns began by getting torched by a Maryland offense that no one would ever see again: one with a healthy Tyrrell Pigrome behind center. The Terrapins’ numbers went into the toilet after losing not only Pigrome, but also his backup, and that guy’s backup, and, for a while, that guy’s backup too.

By the end of the year, that made it appear to opponent-adjusted S&P+ that Texas’ defense got lit up by a far worse Maryland offense than the one it actually faced on the field. That Texas ranked 21st in Def. S&P+ despite allowing 51 points and 8.3 yards per play to a team that ended up 113th in Off. S&P+ tells you how good the Horns were the rest of the year.

They were the only team all year to hold either Oklahoma or Oklahoma State under 30 points. They took on a Missouri that had averaged 51.3 points per game during a six-game win streak and gave them all of 16. In seven wins, they allowed just 15 points per game and 4.6 yards per play.

In the absolutely stupid offensive environment that is the Big 12, Texas came the closest to matching defensive efficiency with big-play prevention.

2017 Texas defensive efficiency & explosiveness

It’s a good news, bad news situation heading into 2018.

On one hand, UT returns a vast majority of last year’s two-deep — four of last year’s five primary defensive linemen, three of five linebackers, and six of 10 defensive backs.

On the other, they have to replace their best lineman (tackle Poona Ford), their linebacker (Malik Jefferson), and best safety (DeShon Elliott). The seven major departures accounted for nearly half of last year’s havoc plays. And fall injuries and a suspension are likely to leave the linebacking corps at less than full strength, at least for the start of the season.

NCAA Football: Texas at Baylor
Breckyn Hager
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

It’s still hard to even pretend to worry about Orlando’s second defense, though, isn’t it? The Longhorns should still boast a combination of experienced play-makers in cornerback Kris Boyd (17 passes defensed), safety Brandon Jones (four TFLs, two pass breakups), outside linebackers Gary Johnson (six TFLs, two sacks), ends Charles Omenihu and Breckyn Hager (combined: 16 TFLs, eight sacks, four breakups). Aside from Jones, a junior, they’re all seniors.

They’ll be pushed, too, by recent star recruits. Herman signed four-stars at each level and loaded up in the secondary. Jones, Boyd, and seniors P.J. Locke III, Davante Davis, and John Bonney should be able to hold the fort this year, but we should get a glimpse of the future as guys like five-star safeties Caden Sterns and B.J. Foster and four other four-star freshmen fight for playing time. (Sterns probably won’t have to wait till 2019 to shine.)

Orlando crafted a top-25 defense at Houston, then topped his ratings at UT despite the horrid start. I’m guessing that, barring a huge run of injury, he’ll post a new high Def. S&P+ ranking this fall.

NCAA Football: Kansas at Texas
Kris Boyd
John Gutierrez-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

The last time we saw Dickson in a Texas uniform, he was putting on maybe the greatest single-game punting show we’ll ever see. He pinned Mizzou inside its 15 a whopping 10 times, allowing the Horns to win easily despite getting outgained by 110 yards and averaging just 3.9 yards per play.

It won’t surprise you to learn that Dickson ranked first in punt efficiency last year. Joshua Rowland was pretty good in the kickoffs department, too.

Despite this, UT ranked just 62nd in Special Teams S&P+ because Rowland was unreliable on any field goals of distance and because of major all-or-nothing tendencies in punt returns.

Rowland’s back, as are kick returners Kris Boyd and Kyle Porter, but without Dickson, it’s hard to imagine the Horns’ rankings improving.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep vs. Maryland 80 11.3 74%
8-Sep Tulsa 108 21.3 89%
15-Sep USC 15 -1.9 46%
22-Sep TCU 22 0.7 52%
29-Sep at Kansas State 61 5.2 62%
6-Oct vs. Oklahoma 9 -9.9 28%
13-Oct Baylor 50 8.2 68%
27-Oct at Oklahoma State 19 -4.8 39%
3-Nov West Virginia 43 7.1 66%
10-Nov at Texas Tech 47 3.0 57%
17-Nov Iowa State 46 7.5 67%
23-Nov at Kansas 103 15.2 81%
Projected S&P+ Rk 27
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 53 / 20
Projected wins 7.3
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 5.5 (43)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 16 / 14
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 8 / 1.7
2017 TO Luck/Game +2.4
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 67% (77%, 57%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 7.1 (-0.1)

Last year, we saw plenty of signs of the Hermanesque coaching we were getting used to at Houston. UT was strong in field position and defense. The Horns held something in reserve for the big games, as Herman did at UH. In six games as an underdog, they overachieved by an average of 7.8 points against the spread, winning twice and beating the spread five times. They nearly beat two power conference champs in USC (lost in OT) and Oklahoma (lost by five), both away from home.

They also slightly underachieved as favorites. And if things go according to plan, they’ll be favorites far more than underdogs this year.

This is a big year in Austin. We’ve seen false starts before. After Brown’s Longhorns collapsed in 2010, they rebounded to 9-4 and 17th in S&P+ before regressing. Charlie Strong looked like he had a nice foundation going after his first year, then went 5-7 twice.

Herman’s offense was lethargic, conservative, and inconsistent last year, but there was still promise because of youth on O and occasional dominance on D. Now it’s time to actually build on that promise. 2018 could be the year that Herman either lifts off or begins falling into the same weird traps that befell Brown and Strong. I’m betting former, but latter’s on the table.

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