It’s been asked approximately 25,000 times on sports radio, TV, podcasts, message boards, and social media platforms since Saturday’s upset in the Cotton Bowl: “Are the Texas Longhorns back?”
Well, it depends. In terms of college football relevancy, absolutely. If you want to check their score on ESPN’s website, it will now be on the front page with the nation’s other top teams instead of tucked into a marginalized drop-down menu. So in that sense, sure.
The Longhorns have slain three in-conference dragons this year. The convincing win over TCU ended a 1-5 slide in face-offs against the Frogs dating back to 2012. The closer-than-it-should-have-been road victory over Kansas State was UT’s first since October 19, 2002. And though the Longhorns have hung tough with the Sooners every year since 2012, they entered the Cotton Bowl on Saturday having won only two of the last seven match-ups.
And then they beat the Sooners. Convincingly, for three quarters, and then not, but they still won. All that plus a non-conference win over storied power USC? The Horns are back, baby!
. . . but back to what? Are they a legitimate threat to win the Big 12 title this year? Might even greater glory be in store for this team?
As of right now, they are marginally the Big 12’s front-runner. West Virginia is the only other team with an unblemished in-conference record, and the Longhorns won’t have to travel to Morgantown, where the Mountaineers are 19-4 dating back to the 2015 season (versus a downright mediocre 11-10 on the road.)
Should Texas win out until they meet, you have to think Vegas will peg the Horns as slight favorites in that game, and a larger one in their remaining contests—hosting Baylor and Iowa State and traveling to Texas Tech, Oklahoma State, and Kansas—all of which are eminently winnable games, if not gimmes, save for the last. (Yeah, I know, I know, 2016. Never again.)
Unlike recent years, Texas’s schedule was front-loaded this year—neither TCU nor one of Art Briles’ revved-up Baylor squads lurk on the back end of this season’s slate. Looks like stiff winds swelling the sails and smooth seas ahead. On the other hand, Texas’s main rivals face choppy seas and high winds. West Virginia hasn’t played TCU or Oklahoma, and Oklahoma has not yet played TCU or arch rival Oklahoma State.
Given all that—looking at the relatively easy schedule and penciling in nothing but wins every weekend and another in the conference championship game—some of the more cockeyed optimists among the Orangeblood faithful are talking NCAA playoff.
And this is where we have to counsel caution, temperance, a curbing of enthusiasm. Slow your roll, y’all.
Watching this offense grow up has been one of the joys of this season for Longhorn fans. Quarterback Sam Ehlinger seems to have grown out of last year’s propensity for downright operatically devastating blunders at the end of close ballgames. Freshman running back Keontay Ingram is easily the most talented running back to suit up for the Horns since Jamaal Charles.
The trio of Collin Johnson, Lil’Jordan Humphrey and Devin Duvernay may well be the top three to simultaneously split out wide for UT in program history. In Humphrey, you have a huge target who’s also a yards after catch machine, as befits a former high school running back—the way he dragged what seemed like the entire Oklahoma defense for an extra ten yards called to mind peak Roy Williams, who did much the same to Oklahoma State. And the line is much improved. Finally, a Texas QB has the luxury of throwing from a clean pocket every now and then, unlike oh, say the last decade or so, when the Longhorn lines were as leaky as crab nets.
So, what’s not to like? It seems like this has been the case since Mack Brown left, but this is still a young team, especially on offense, where only three seniors—linemen Patrick Vahe and Elijah Rodriguez and tight end Andrew Beck—are key contributors. Our best running back was a Carthage Bulldog this time last year, and Ehlinger is a true sophomore who has displayed a tendency toward disastrous hero-ball at times. And so far, the offense has been mercifully spared from injuries. Sometimes that luck holds for whole seasons. Other times it does not, and Texas, as a program, is not yet capable of sliding in blue-chip replacements all over the field on offense.
With the loss of the best player at every level of the 2017 defense to the NFL—defensive tackle Poona Ford, linebacker Malik Jefferson, and safety DeShon Elliott—the Longhorns were bound to fall off a bit. And they have, but not enough to offset the vast improvement of the offense. According to the Football Outsiders S&P+ ratings, this year’s Longhorn offense ranks fifty-first in the nation, as opposed to ninety-ninth last year; 2017’s defense finished twenty-first, while this year’s is only thirty-fifth so far, with some of the most dangerous offenses in the conference ahead: Tech and West Virginia both rank in the top ten of S&P+, while Oklahoma State and Baylor are fourteenth and twenty-second respectively. That’s been against lesser competition than Texas has faced, admittedly, but those teams are bound to rack up yards and score points.
And another thing: the computers don’t like this year’s Longhorns as much as the coaches and sportswriters do. In the latest AP poll, the Longhorns cracked the top ten for the first time since the fourth week of the 2010 season, coming in at number nine. (The coaches peg them at fourteenth.)
However, according to the venerable Sagarin computer ratings, the Longhorns come in at number sixteen, and that more newfangled S&P+ algorithm drops them all the way down to number 38. It’s hard to credit that rating too much, as somehow the Longhorns fell eight slots after beating Oklahoma, whose rating in that same system remains unchanged. And the two teams immediately ahead of Texas in that same ranking? TCU and USC. Not only do both of those teams have two losses, but they’ve both lost to the Longhorns.
But when there is such a glaring discrepancy between what the computers see and the resume test, there is cause for concern—a reason to question yourself before you declare a State of Backness.
What’s more, Tom Herman has a history of playing down to his level of competition, which is one of the most talked-about trends in betting circles. At the University of Houston, Herman’s Cougars were underdogs five times and they won all of those games. Every last one of them. Gamblers marvel at Herman’s knack for upsets. He is now 12-1 against the spread when his team is not favored, and nine of those ATS wins were outright victories. (TCU and OU being the latest.)
On the other hand, UH was beaten outright by Navy (a seventeen-point underdog), UConn (under ten points), and lost a 22-point expected win against SMU.
Nothing has changed after the move to Austin. Last year they either beat the spread or won outright against favorites West Virginia, Missouri, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and Oklahoma, with TCU being the only favorite to cover. However, UT was favored by 13.5 points against Maryland this year and 18 last year. They were forecast to beat Tech by ten last year and lost outright; this year’s Tulsa game had a 22.5-point spread and Texas won by only seven. Those that took the Horns against K-State two weeks ago no doubt felt pretty confident after they roared out to a 19-0 lead, but K-State, an 8.5-point underdog, came damn close to winning outright by outscoring the Longhorns in the second half 15-0.
Maybe Herman has put that flaw behind him. Maybe this year’s loss to the Maryland Terrapins will prove his only hiccup this year, but you can’t help but fret about this team’s remaining games in places like Lubbock and Stillwater. Until Herman proves that he can land the mullets as well as the mighty tarpon on his schedule, talk of Texas being back is premature. And back to where?
If you mean back to the level of the earliest Mack Brown teams, those frustrating squads that were brimming with young talent but would find devilishly maddening ways to lose to overmatched non-conference squads like then-terrible Stanford and North Carolina State, well, Herman’s back-to-back losses to Maryland match up uncannily with those defeats, as did his team’s close shaves over Tulsa and Kansas State this year.
Still, as we mentioned, Texas is once again relevant and in the driver’s seat for a conference title. So, yeah, that’s back, in a sense. But those who believe the Horns are now playoff contenders right now and continuing every year henceforth, well, hold on there. Do you really believe this team could line up against Alabama and hold its own? Or even Clemson, Georgia, or Ohio State? That’s where the bar is right now: Alabama alone at the apex, with those three other teams far below at some remote base camp, and then everybody else, trying to rustle up Sherpas and maps to the summit.
It’s early days yet for Herman and the Longhorns, but they have undeniably turned a corner. After all, this time last month, much of the fanbase was predicting a 1-4 start to the season, and with good reason. They looked like hammered crap in their first two games.
Such is life for the college football fan everywhere but Tuscaloosa—one week, you’ll never win again, and the next, you’re talking about hoisting crystal footballs. And that seems to be an especially pertinent lesson for Texas fans. I can remember declaring Texas back when Jerrod Heard set the world on fire against Cal in 2015. Even in a loss, it seemed like things were about to get much better. That was not the case.
I thought the ground had shifted after Charlie Strong’s Longhorns took down the Sooners later that year. It hadn’t.
Texas 50, Notre Dame 47! We’re back! Um, no.
Surely, that close loss to USC early last year was a sign that the 2017 Longhorns had a shot at the conference title! Nope. It was nothing of the dang kind.
Four times bitten, four times shy.