Eight months of off-season has ever so slowly dwindled to mere days until The University of Texas kicks off against Louisiana Tech. It was a long off-season, but a good one, which is to say that there weren’t any major injuries reported and Texas players were not regulars on the police blotter.
In 2018 Texas registered a peculiar 9-3 regular season, marked by extreme highs and lows, before losing the conference championship game but winning a NY6 bowl. In retrospect, fans should be enthused that the team humiliated by Maryland in September morphed into the team that pantsed UGA in the Sugar Bowl. There wasn’t a steady trend line of improvement between those two games, but a high-level view of the season shows progress from Texas football’s malaise of 2010 – 2017.
Expectations are a curious thing, especially when it comes to those held by sports fans. Folks in Austin are anticipating the 2019 season will be another step (or leap depending on who you ask) forward toward a return to national prominence. Others, particularly denizens of a small town in East Texas, mock the thought that “Texas is back”, readily pointing out how many starters from the 2018 Longhorns team departed.
So, is Texas, in fact, “back”?
Positive affirmations to that question find confidence in the presence of Sam Ehlinger under center. After wandering in the quarterback wilderness, Texas returns an upper classman with experience at the all-important position. The burnt orange faithful haven’t had this much optimism about a signal caller since Colt McCoy was roaming the sidelines.
In 2018, Ehlinger was responsible for at least three touchdowns in 10 of Texas’ 14 games, throwing for 25 touchdowns and rushing for 15 more – a feat only five quarterbacks have accomplished in the last 20 years. Considering that all five of those players won the Heisman trophy, that stat places the Texas quarterback in elite company.
While much has been written about a lack of explosive plays from the Horns’ 2018 offense, the unit was particularly adept at controlling the clock and taking care of the football. That means that the offense was pedestrian but effective.
Similarly the Texas defense was extremely efficient on two critical metrics – stopping opponents on 3rd down and limiting their rushing attack. The Longhorns ranked third nationally in 3rd down stops (.271) and were 28th in rush defense at 131.4 yards per game.
Football fans tend to prefer a team with gaudy passing statistics and sack totals, but those in Austin should note that last season Texas coaches relied on the roster’s strengths to field units that performed well in areas that win games. That fact alone strengthens the argument for lofty expectations in 2019.
At the other end of the spectrum, Texas benefited in two areas that can mask deficiencies – health and turnovers. Specifically, offensive line starters only missed three combined games. Add to that that the Horns finished fourth in the country by only committing 11 turnovers.
Texas was also 7-3 in one possession games in 2018. That’s a precarious perch to launch forward from considering the margin of error.
It’s difficult to escape the thought that Tom Herman’s 2019 sets up similarly to the season that David Pierce turned in this Spring:
- Pierce’s 2018 squad finished 42-27/17-7, hosted and won an NCAA Regional, and then won a Super Regional before bowing out in the CWS. The prevailing thought was that the team exceeded expectations and that Pierce was ahead of schedule.
- Then 2019 happened….Pierce’s team thudded to a .500 season without a postseason invite. A closer look at the season reveals key leadership departures from the 2018 team including the team’s offensive POY, defensive POY and pitcher of the year.
- While Pierce landed a highly ranked recruiting class, replacing missing players, albeit with talented ones, proved that the talent level was not yet high enough to compete at a point where fans expected.
It’s fair to ask why Herman’s 2019 will be different than Pierce’s.
Did Texas turn the corner last season? If so they could be considered the favorite to win the Big 12. Will the Longhorns stay healthy? Is it reasonable to expect another season of limited turnovers lost?
The Longhorns were 1-4 against ranked teams in 2017 but improved to 5-2 in 2018. Can the team stay on that trendline this Fall?
That’s a handful of unanswerable questions. Good news though…early answers get filed in 72 hours.
Each week Matt Cotcher will continue to build “The Story of the Season” as it unfolds.
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