AUSTIN — In 2014, Charlie Strong’s first Longhorn team began the season 2-4. That team battled to win four of its next six to make its way to the Texas Bowl, in which Arkansas ran over the Longhorns.
In 2015, Strong’s second team once again began the season 2-4, and won three of the next six, missing a bowl but likely saving Strong’s job with a win over Baylor.
In 2016, Texas began the season 3-3, a miniscule improvement. That team fizzled out in embarrassing fashion down the stretch, missing a bowl for the second straight year and ultimately resulting in Strong’s removal from the job.
In 2017, Tom Herman’s first Longhorn team has started the season 3-3. Each year of Strong’s three-year tenure was a fight to get to bowl eligibility. At the midway mark of 2017, Herman’s first team is in that same fight.
At this point, Herman does have one important distinction from his predecessor; Strong never made it through the first three Big 12 games with a winning record. Herman has done that in Year 1, with Texas sitting tied for second one-third of the way through the Big 12 slate.
Ahead of the Longhorns are the No. 10 (Oklahoma State Cowboys), No. 4 (TCU Horned Frogs), and No. 23 (West Virginia Mountaineers) ranked teams. Between the higher extreme and the lower one sits Texas Tech, who just dropped out of the AP poll. Past the Red Raiders on the spectrum sit two teams in Kansas and Baylor that have combined for one just win.
“I think the beauty of having such a difficult schedule is that they do stay engaged,” Herman said. “The engagement is not the problem. It’s the going out every Saturday and playing that schedule. I looked in our 12-game schedule; we’ll have played seven teams that were at one point in the top 25 and four teams that at one point were in the top 10. It doesn’t get much tougher than that, and especially in this four-week stretch to play three Top 10 teams in a four-week stretch, that’s tough.”
“But our guys, I think they kind of like it. I think they want to prove their mettle, so to speak, and get to display some of that growth each and every week.”
He’s recruiting very well, he’s competing in tight games, and has only had one game that made fans question if there really was any on-field improvement.
“I’ve had numerous players tell me that they feel closer to their teammates now than they ever have, which is big,” Herman said about rebuilding. “We also understand that this is a process. This is a journey. We’re building a program; not a season and not a team and not a game. We need to be mindful of where we’re headed and the journey that we’re on but also be urgent with how we get there so that we can win and win now.”
Plenty of encouraging details, but football is a game of wins and losses, and Texas has to find three more on the schedule to gain an opportunity to do something Texas has not done in five years; win a bowl.
UT attempts to win its fourth game of the season at home on Saturday against Oklahoma State. The Cowboys’ offense, led by quarterback Mason Rudolph and wide receiver James Washington, will force a Texas defense to cut back on the lapses that has cost precious points on the scoreboard.
“We’ve got to be more assignment-sound in coverage and if that means we run less coverages, then that’s what that means,” Herman said. “But let’s at least, you know, don’t be a ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’. Let’s be a master of a couple of things.”
It’s not much of a stretch to assume the games against Baylor and Kansas will add numbers to the win column, but finding that all important sixth win is tough with the schedule ahead. This year, that might be good enough for Herman. Their goal in ensuing years?
“We’ve never said we want to make a bowl game or we want to beat Oklahoma or we want to beat USC,” Herman said. “We said we want to be in the conversation for the Big 12 title in the month of November and December. Every year, if we are in that position, then we’ll have considered that season a success dependent on the different variables that happen in each season.”