TCU and the University of Texas were both ranked in the Associated Press’s preseason college football Top 25 poll, which was released on Monday. The Horned Frogs were 11–3 last season and finished the year ranked ninth overall, and they head into this season ranked sixteenth in the country. UT, meanwhile, limped to a 7–6 finish last season under first-year head coach Tom Herman, but the Longhorns still managed to sneak in toward the bottom of the list, at number 23.
After jumping out to a 7–0 start last season, TCU seemed ready to contend for a playoff spot. But the team faltered down the stretch and was eventually blown out by Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game. Head coach Gary Patterson lost a lot of talent from that team—including quarterback Kenny Hill and most of the starting offensive line—but will rely on a strong defense and the running-back tandem of Darius Anderson (768 rushing yards, eight touchdowns in eleven games last year) and Sewo Olonilua (seven rushing touchdowns in 2017). Newly named starting quarterback Shawn Robinson will have to fill Hill’s shoes if the Horned Frogs want to repeat last season’s hot start and keep riding it into the playoffs. An early season matchup against number five Ohio State could be a solid test of TCU’s championship aspirations.
The Longhorns are in a far more precarious spot. Their presence in the top 25 is more a reflection of their potential than of their performance last year. It was the first year at the helm for Herman, who was hired by the Longhorns after reinvigorating the downtrodden football program at the University of Houston. His impact, suffice to say, was not immediately felt. It’s been almost a decade since UT was a legitimate title contender, but there are reasons for fans to believe this season will be different. Between 2017 and 2018, Herman has hauled in two spectacular recruiting classes. His first crop is expected to contribute heavily this year, especially on defense, which will once again have to carry a team without much offensive firepower. Defensive coordinator Todd Orlando will keep the Longhorns’ defense strong despite the departures of linebacker Malik Jefferson and defensive lineman Poona Ford. On offense, six-foot-six wide receiver Collin Johnson is poised for a breakout, but the quarterback position is still a big question mark. After mediocre performances while sharing the starting spot last season, will either Sam Ehlinger or Shane Buechele be poised to shine? Herman announced that sophomore Ehlinger will start against Maryland on September 1, but his starting security past the season opener is far from a lock. The running back position is just as muddled, with as many as seven players battling for touches.
Both the Horned Frogs and the Longhorns could get a boost from what looks to be a weak Big 12 this year. Oklahoma is the clear favorite, while West Virginia is expected to be strong, with TCU and Texas as the next best teams. After that, it’s a steep drop—Texas Tech and Baylor are predicted to finish eighth and ninth in the league, respectively—so TCU and Texas should be able to beat up on sad teams during conference play. It’s possible the Longhorns could even surpass eight wins for the first time since 2012.
Texas A&M, meanwhile, received 21 votes and finished just outside of the top 25. The Aggies are in a transition year under first-year head coach Jimbo Fisher, who has a very clear mandate from A&M to bring a national title to College Station (and signed a ten-year, $75 million contract to make it happen). The Aggies should be pretty good this year, with running back Trayveon Williams (1,057 rushing yards and eight touchdowns last year) and wide receiver Jhamon Ausbon expected to be big playmakers on offense, while defensive end Landis Durham (10.5 sacks last season) anchors what should be an improved defense. But in the SEC, “pretty good” isn’t enough. The Aggies have a brutal schedule (number 2 Clemson, number 1 Alabama, number 9 Auburn, number 18 Mississippi State, number 25 LSU) and will be fortunate to finish above .500 in Fisher’s first season.
Houston was the only other Texas team to finish on the fringe of the top 25, garnering six votes. The Cougars will rely on defensive tackle Ed Oliver to do literally everything. He’s the consensus top player in college football heading into the season, and the Cougars have already committed to having him run, pass, and catch the ball throughout the season in an effort to boost his Heisman Trophy candidacy. As part of its marketing campaign, UH has already sent the media bobbleheads of Ed Oliver atop his childhood horse, Oreo. It remains to be seen if the Cougars can ride Oliver (and Oreo!) to a top 25 finish. With a very weak schedule, they’ll have to take care of business to have a shot at a solid bowl game. Any slipups against inferior competition would be particularly costly.