KANSAS CITY – There’s a reason why Texas retired Vince Young’s jersey this month. But can the 2008 Longhorns return to championship form without Superman behind center?
Coach Mack Brown begins his second decade in Austin with a squad that, relatively speaking, is flying about as far beneath the radar as his first couple of teams. It’s not uncommon for Texas to trail Oklahoma in preseason polls. It’s just that Brown’s bunch is now staring up at the likes of Missouri and, according to some, Texas Tech and Kansas. The fact wasn’t lost on Brown during a recent vacation in the North Carolina mountains. That’s when a tourist recognized him and announced that Georgia and Florida were the top two teams, according to one preseason publication.
“Where is Texas?” Brown asked.
“I didn’t notice.”
Brown’s conclusion: “I figured it meant we weren’t up there very high.”
Exactly. Brown’s club is relatively unnoticed three years after it was the center of the college football universe. Unproven running backs and just five returning defensive starters have much to do with it. Even so, some pigskin pundits have suggested Brown’s program has grown stale despite the fact that the team has sported five Top 10 finishes in seven years. His program’s seven straight 10-win seasons is the best mark in college football during that span. Brown acknowledges that his club will be underdogs more than once in 2008, but believes that his team remains positioned for championship hardware.
“In modern-day college football the good teams are always really close,” Brown said Wednesday during the Big 12 Conference Football Media Days. “The year Oklahoma won the national title (2000) they were 7-5 the year before. There are other examples. Everybody thinks that when a team has an 8-4 season, the reaction is, ‘Oh my gosh! It’s over. We’ll never win again.’ A team may have missed a few field goals or fumbled too many times and still have your best team coming back. The really good teams are never far away (from a championship). You want to stay in that mix. You have to be consistently good to be great. We want to stay that way so that when it bounces right, things will go our way.”
Most preseason polls place Texas anywhere from No. 8 to No. 22. In other words, it’s hard to know what to make of a team that seems bereft of the proven playmakers it once boasted. Texas also faces what Brown described as the “toughest schedule since we’ve been here.” Nine bowl teams from 2007 dot a schedule that includes road trips to Texas Tech, Colorado and Kansas. The Horns also get Oklahoma and Missouri — the preseason favorites to win their respective divisions — in consecutive weekends.
“It takes a lot to get back to that (2005) level,” QB Colt McCoy said. “We have a ridiculously hard schedule. The Big 12 is tough. We just have to take it one day at a time. We know how good we can be. We just have to do it.”
If Texas emerges as a championship-caliber club, it probably won’t be because McCoy had to overachieve by lifting his program above deflated expectations; it has more to do with a Texas defense playing more like, well, a Texas defense. The fact that Texas fielded the worst pass defense in program history last season is well documented.
“We have done a horrible job of defending the pass the past two years,” Brown said. “We’re not sure all the reasons why. We’ve addressed it and we’ve worked hard at it. We’ve been in the Top 10 in stopping the run the past two years. People have thrown more against us because we’ve been good at stopping the run, but we have to do a better job of stopping the pass and forcing more turnovers. We’ve not gotten pressure on the quarterback and, a lot of times, you get your turnovers when you put an offense in a long-yardage situation.”
Enter one Will Muschamp. Widely regarded as one of college football’s top assistants, Muschamp’s emphasis on disrupting a quarterback’s timing and disguising coverages might be the difference between, say, an 8-4 season and an 11-1 BCS berth. (If Texas can score 30 on the road at Texas A&M, or 42 at Kansas State in 2006, it ought to win the football game unless sabotaged by a defensive collapse.)
“Will brings name recognition and toughness,” Brown said. “His NFL experience (Miami Dolphins) gives him the ability, that some college coaches do not have, of disguising. With the quarterbacks and spread offenses in our league, we needed to do a better job of getting pressure on the passer. We have to do a better job of stopping the passing game and forcing more turnovers.”
Injuries are also the great equalizer in days of college football parity (one could argue that the only thing that kept West Virginia from playing Oregon for the 2007 national title game was late-season injuries to their respective quarterbacks). The injury bug especially hurt Texas last season at receiver and along the offensive line; the previous year injuries at quarterback and on the defensive line were devastating.
“The year we won it all,” Brown recalled, “we had just one guy (DE Brian Orakpo) that missed a game. The past two years, I bet we’ve had 27 injuries. You have to be really fortunate and, at the same time, you have to be really good.”
Brown continues to insist he will not use “injuries” to excuse a loss. (He is convinced injuries are simply an unfortunate part of the game and, therefore, Texas should build the kind of depth to mitigate the impact of injuries.) Instead, he keeps a weekly tabulation of turnover margins as well as the ratio of explosive plays as that, in his estimation, determines the outcome more than any combination of factors.
Last season’s loss to Oklahoma, for example, stemmed from two critical turnovers. It was also a pick-six and special teams breakdowns that spelled doom in last year’s conference-opener against Kansas State. The meltdown at A&M was so inexplicable and inexcusable that Brown, of course, shook up his staff and demanded higher levels of accountability. So far, all indications are that the spirited effort resulting in the Holiday Bowl win against PAC 10 co-champ Arizona State has carried over into the spring and deep into the summer months, even if preseason predictions do not fully reflect this.
Ultimately, it may be the attitude adjustment that gets Texas back to championship form in 2008.
“It sounds like some people don’t think we’re going to win the conference,” Brown said. “Some people don’t think we’re going to be a Top 10 team. As you look at the schedule, it looks like a very, very difficult task for us. I think there’s a little buzz within our team over the fact that some don’t think we’re ready for that.”