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Texas was at least five years late with the Steve Sarkisian hire.
Not in hiring Sark himself, it would hardly have been a politically viable move to bring aboard the recently fired USC coach in 2015 or 2016 and Texas was already in the process of struggling through the Charlie Strong era. Texas was late in making some of the big picture, strategic moves which would be necessary to match their success in the 2000s.
Here are some of significant changes we’ve seen with the Sarkisian hire before the season even began.
1) Texas embraced a modern, open offensive attack designed to leverage a blueblood program’s ability to dominate in space, down the field, and in the trenches.
The RPO spread offense was embraced by the Big 12 because it was innovative and the run/pass conflict nature of it made it easier to both throw down the field AND run the ball. Those are the analytics holy grails of football, essentially the lay-up at the rim and the corner three-point shot, which coincide with winning football games. It wasn’t a system which necessarily favored small schools over bigger ones, there was just a period where it gave them a boost before the big programs caught on.
That period is over. Oklahoma hired Lincoln Riley in 2015 and he helped the Sooner offense recover the art of run/pass conflicts and quarterback play and they’ve won the Big 12 EVERY year since. In 2019 the LSU Tigers blended RPO schemes with pro-style passing from a 4/5-wide offense and completely torched everyone in the country. The following year Alabama ran Sark’s full-bore RPO spread offense, mixed in with play-action schemes blending pro-style passing with RPO looks and feels. They also torched the whole country.
All of these teams have fielded NFL players along the offensive lines and at wide receiver, making the “defend the run or the pass” nature of spread offense an impossible task for lesser programs. Oklahoma has struggled to solve the defensive puzzle but it didn’t even matter, the rest of the Big 12 couldn’t keep up once the Sooners brought a shotgun to a knife fight.
During this same period, Texas ran an offense of that nature just once, in 2016, and they were only able to approach competency in it. The next offensive coach, Tom Herman, wanted to control games in the trenches and when he did add passing dimensions he was hesitant to fully embrace the spread passing Sam Ehlinger thrived in, preferring to try and take shots on play-action with a bruised quarterback throwing to iffy deep threats.
Meanwhile Dave Aranda and Big 12 coaches are talking about turtling up on offense with multi-tight end sets and wide zone running schemes. What sort of a league will the Big 12 be if the path to competitiveness for the smaller schools is no longer deemed to be exciting shootouts but instead defensive slogs pounding the ball behind mid-sized players masquerading as Rob Gronkowski? It’s a bleak outlook.
2) Texas opened up the pocketbook and hired a top coordinator opposite the head coach’s side of the ball.
There were major “oh, alright…” moments with Texas’ last two head coach hires when they made announcements like, “meet your new offensive coordinator Shawn Watson!” and “we’re bringing Todd Orlando from Houston!”
Orlando was at least an intriguing hire who seemed to be climbing up the ranks of college football assistants before the Big 12 took him apart. The Shawn Watson-led cabal which also included a past-his-prime Joe Wickline and Les Koenning was doomed from the start. Texas was never going to dominate the Big 12 trying to play offense under the direction of those men.
Charlie Strong and Tom Herman both defaulted to becoming heavily invested in play-calling and oversight on their own side of the ball and struggled to hire assistants they could delegate the other side to.
After some early trepidation from Texas fans, Sarkisian put the finishing touch on his staff by hiring legendary Washington defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski with a fat contract worth $1.7 million per year. Obviously Kwiatkowski hasn’t done anything at Texas just yet, but none of the hires by Strong or Herman opposite their own side of the ball matched this one in terms of pedigree or cash commitment.
Short of Herman giving Orlando a massive raise after his early success in 2017, we’ve not seen Texas spend to stockpile coaching talent in this fashion since Mack Brown had the key to the vaults.
3) Recruiting and facilities
Kwiatkowski wasn’t the only big hire, recruiting coordinator Jeff Banks was given one million reasons annually to leave his job at Alabama to run Texas’ recruiting efforts. Then the Texas legislature passed a NIL bill and now the program theoretically stands to be able to compete in the mud pit of SEC recruiting with a boost from above board, endorsement market-based money.
The NIL benefits haven’t materialized for Texas as quickly as hoped but this is really just a matter of time. The Austin area is one of the fastest growing in the country, the Texas economy is in as strong a shape as any in the country due to energy and a highly profitable relationship with Mexico which is growing in importance, and (outside of Austin itself) the ability to continue to spread out and build housing makes Texas THE place for growth in the United States. This isn’t going to translate into major opportunities for endorsement deals and marketability for football stars? Of course it will, UT just moves slowly, as we’ve repeatedly seen.
Of course we’ve also seen the stadium and facilities upgraded and the South end zone closed in like an SEC building. One of the big differences from playing in the Big 12 and SEC is the road atmospheres. As a player the closed in stadiums make you feel trapped and are intimidating in a way even the boisterous crowds of Lubbock, Morgantown, and Stillwater can’t match. I don’t know how often visitors to DKR will feel trapped with the new upgrades, likely more often than in the past.
Playing on the biggest stage (unquestionably the SEC) and in the biggest stadiums is a massive draw and it only makes sense for Texas to be on Broadway.
4) The SEC
With this potential move to the SEC, Texas would be embracing a challenge in a way we haven’t seen from the University too often in its history. The Southwest Conference was sort of a backwater league, much like the Big 12 has become since the turn of the last decade.
The best stretch of Texas football over the last several decades happens to coincide with the period of time when it had the stiffest competition.
As the Big 12 unraveled, so did Texas, cooked by complacency and a lack of purpose or vision for excellence. But when there were giants knocking on the door such as Tom Osborne’s Nebraska? When the risk of an annual beatdown against Texas A&M was real? When Oklahoma appeared next to Texas in the standings for the first time? When the league contained multiple programs with National Championships in the trophy case and the potential to add more? The Longhorns figured some things out and had their best decade of football since the 60s.
The challenge the SEC presents to Texas isn’t in matching the resources and prowess of programs like Alabama, LSU, Auburn, Georgia, etc. It’s in matching their commitment to organizing and deploying those resources to win on the field. Could Texas have drought periods in the SEC down the line where they appear listless and disorganized? Certainly, but the regular challenge would also likely serve (especially initially) to help the burnt orange machine start rolling again. We’re already seeing it.
College football is moving toward the consolidation of the bigger, more resourceful programs, which means the Big 12 has no future. Television’s impact on the sport is in driving questions like, “why don’t the best schools play very often? Isn’t that what everyone wants to see?”
The people commenting on how much tougher it’ll be to win 10 games in the SEC for Texas are wildly missing the point. It doesn’t matter anymore. The chase of perfection against overmatched opponents is no longer the driving narrative of the sport. Now it’s about consolidating the best programs on the same channel. If you’re not on the top channels, how long do you expect to be one of the top programs? As for making the playoffs… we really don’t think the committee will take 2-loss or even 3-loss SEC teams in the future over dipping too far into the non-Power Five pool?
The American South is booming, economically and demographically, just like the state of Texas. The SEC is the most natural fit for Texas and the powers that be clearly made that determination. The only hesitation is whether Texas would be up for embracing the challenge and every indicator is that they are. Chris Del Conte and Texas are embracing Goliath.