Say this for the almost-always overrated and sometimes laughably overhyped Texas Longhorns: Not this year.
And you probably thought Steve Sarkisian hadn’t accomplished anything in his first season in Austin. Turns out a 5–7 debut that included a bevy of blown leads and the school’s longest losing streak in 65 years has more traction than the seeds of progress he appears to have planted this off-season.
Conversely, AP voters are bullish on Texas A&M and Baylor, ranked sixth and tenth, respectively. They’re buying Houston, too, which will open the season ranked number 24 in its final season before joining the Big 12.
You may be asking yourself what all of this means. First, it signals the start of college football season, which is the most wonderful time of the year. Nothing against the Dallas Cowboys, Houston Astros, or any other professional team, but college football is the sport Texans care most about. So any little nugget of news—even if it’s a preseason poll of sportswriters—is an opportunity to debate, taunt, second-guess, and bellyache.
First things first: this is Jimbo Fisher’s fifth season in College Station, otherwise known as put-up-or-shut-up time. He has recruited superbly and positioned the Aggies to challenge for a berth in the College Football Playoff. But the Aggies’ SEC records under Fisher—5–3, 4–4, 8–1, and 4–4—haven’t quite satisfied A&M fans. “We won eight games last year. That’s not enough for us,” Fisher told reporters last month. “At the beginning, we had a lot of critical injuries. I’m not satisfied at all.”
A&M begins the season ranked sixth for a second straight season, but like Texas this year, the Aggies finished out of the AP Top 25 in 2021. That was supposed to be Fisher’s breakthrough season, and while the Aggies did upset then–number one Alabama in College Station, they lost conference matchups with Arkansas, LSU, Ole Miss, and Mississippi State. Since then, Fisher has made all sorts of headlines, one time by getting in a controversial (or entertaining, depending where you sit) back-and-forth in which he hinted Alabama coach Nick Saban might have bent a rule or two along the way and criticized Saban’s character: “Some people think they’re God.”
That little spat threatened to overshadow an off-season in which Fisher signed the nation’s top-ranked recruiting class and solidified pretty much all of the roster’s problem areas, especially the offensive and defensive lines, as well as at quarterback, where LSU transfer Max Johnson and heralded freshman Conner Weigman join Haynes King to give the Aggies a completely different playmaking dynamic. “You have to have depth and that’s one of the harder positions to get depth at,” Fisher said during the July SEC Media Days. “I think we have three highly talented guys and capable guys to be able to go into [the season]. It’s going to be very exciting.”
Fisher won’t have to wait long to see if his team lives up to expectations. A&M’s schedule is brutal. The Aggies host number sixteen Miami at Kyle Field in the third game of the season, followed by four straight SEC contests: Arkansas at neutral site Arlington, then Mississippi State, Alabama, and South Carolina, all on the road.
As for Texas, the Longhorns received 164 points in the AP poll, which put them at number 27, behind, among others, Kentucky, Wake Forest, and BYU. This is about as dramatic as long, hard falls get. Texas won at least ten games nine straight times under former coach Mack Brown between 2001 and 2009, going 101–16 in that span. In twelve seasons since, Texas has only managed one ten-win finish.
Yet hope still abounds among UT diehards. In an unusual twist, the Longhorns ranked eighteenth in the preseason AFCA Coaches Poll, primarily because one voter gave them a number one vote. Coaches cast those ballots with the guarantee of anonymity, so it may take a long time to out the merry prankster.
Here’s the bottom line: Texas doesn’t belong in the Top 25. Beyond the program’s elite recruiting classes and dazzling facilities, beyond its ability to lap the field in the race over name, image, and likeness (NIL) spending, UT just hasn’t done football very well for a long time. The Longhorns have finished unranked in eight of the last twelve seasons, with four different head coaches during that stretch. Of the four ranked finishes, Texas only ended the year higher than nineteenth once.
For any program besides Texas, this season might be about rebuilding from last year’s 5–7 disappointment. That’s not life in Longhorns fantasyland. Sarkisian was hired by athletic director Chris Del Conte despite a lackluster 46–35 record in previous head coaching stints at Washington and USC.
Sarkisian had a stellar off-season on the Forty Acres, bringing 35 new players onto the team, including the nation’s fifth-ranked recruiting class and arguably the best overall player in the transfer portal, Ohio State quarterback Quinn Ewers. “We’ve got a very hungry team that is willing to take the necessary steps and go the extra mile so that they don’t have to feel that agony,” the coach told reporters earlier this summer. “Just culturally as a team we feel different a year later.”
The Longhorns and Aggies have occupied so much oxygen that it’s easy to overlook a Baylor team that’s arguably better than the both of ’em. Head coach Dave Aranda established himself as one of the best coaches in the land last season with a style that was so consistent and understated that the Bears were easy to overlook. He built strong relationships with his players and gained trust from every corner of the locker room. Among his coaching peers, Aranda also has a reputation for being a bit of a defensive genius.
Baylor won the Big 12 championship in 2021 after being picked to finish eighth. That season ended with a 21–7 Sugar Bowl victory over Ole Miss, the most significant victory in program history. Baylor finished ranked number five in the nation, the Bears’ highest ever. This year, they could be even better. Quarterback Blake Shapen emerged at the end of last season by, among other things, completing his first seventeen passes in the Big 12 championship game.
Heading into its 2022 campaign, Baylor has returned every starter on its defensive line and added transfer Jaxon Player, a two-time all-conference selection at Tulsa. The team’s offensive line returns three six-year seniors and reigning Big 12 Offensive Lineman of the Year Connor Galvin.
“I think momentum on both sides, players and coaches, you’re feeling it,” Aranda told reporters earlier this month. “I think you see attention to detail . . . the enthusiasm of all of it, when you’re starting off, for sure is going to be there. But, you know, it’s mixed in with maybe some wisdom, some expectation. And then we’re awfully grateful that there’s some high standard in there, too.”
As for Houston, the Cougars’ challenge will be to win back-to-back road games at UTSA and Texas Tech to start the season, then run the table in the American Athletic Conference. The Cougars reeled off eleven straight victories last season after opening with a loss to Texas Tech. With senior Clayton Tune back at quarterback, fourth-year head coach Dana Holgorsen just might have a team capable of making a case for inclusion in the Playoff.
“I’d say we are on track,” Holgorsen said at AAC media day. “We’re a very old, veteran football team. Very player-led. I’ve talked less in 2022 than I have in the first three years because we have eight captains who are old and do a really good job of leading this team. The more of that they do, the better off our team is going to be.”