Welcome to the Deadspin 25, a college football poll that strives to be more democratic and less useless than every other preseason poll. Leading up to the college football season kickoff, we will give you previews of the 25 teams that you, the readers, voted to be most worthy of writing about. Now, No. 20 Texas.
For those of you wondering, yes, this year’s Deadspin 25 is light on MACtion and extremely mainstream. It is more in sorrow than in anger that I can say that you fuckers absolutely did it to yourselves. Take Texas, for instance.
Texas is about as far from the MAC and as mainstream as college football gets, and yet, the Longhorns have been a steaming pile of mediocrity and seemingly indistinguishable from any of the dozens of other middling college football programs struggling to aim for something more than a berth in the [Insert Replaceable Brand] Bowl. Because it’s fun to dump on the richest and most powerful programs when all their booster money and leaning on high school coaches gets them nowhere, let’s go ahead and cruise through the last nine years of Texas football:
I know it’s easy to bag on the Longhorn Network and I also know that most people are dumb about it—make no mistake, Texas is getting paid regardless of the team’s record. But it’s fairly clear by now that ESPN has come to the slow realization of, “Oh shit, we signed them right as their biggest moneymaker went down the drain.” The network’s live high school football coverage and 2005 season reruns are nice, sure, but the idea was for Disney to corner the Longhorn market—which it did, at just about the worst possible time. While it’s always fun to see ESPN fuck up, I’m 90 percent sure that with another five or six years of this, we could gaslight the folks that don’t get the channel into believing that Texas football was never anything more than a mirage. Does anyone really even remember the Longhorns being good? I’m pretty sure Vince Young went to A&M, right? Still, there’s Big Money in burnt orange, which means that the Longhorns will always be in the national conversation, even if there’s not much to be said about them.
The Longhorns finished 7-6 in Tom Herman’s first season, winning their Mr. Pibb Bowl game against Missouri to push themselves over .500 for the first time in three years. It was about what one could expect, if certainly not what Texas fans wanted. Before Herman even started, he was criticized for his lackluster recruiting class of 2018, which came after Charlie Strong had at least and at last gotten the recruiting beyond where it was in the final hours of Mack Brown putting the program on cruise control. The offense was putrid, but the defense of defensive coordinator Todd Orlando was delightfully resilient. It’s there that this year’s Texas squad should look to lay its foundation.
The Longhorns ranked third in the Big 12 in scoring defense last year, a fact you wouldn’t have thought possible if you only tuned into their 51-41 loss to Maryland in Week 1. But Texas coalesced quickly after that opening week shootout. Just one other opponent, Kansas State, managed to top 30 points against them and nobody would crack 200 yards rushing on the Longhorns again. Their rushing defense, anchored by defensive tackle Poona Ford and linebacker Malik Jefferson, was actually pretty spectacular for most of the year by conference standards—over the course of the season, Texas’s defensive front stood tall to hold teams to 3.0 yards per attempt, and it only allowed 6.3 first downs per game to come on the ground. There’s definitely something to be done about those other 10.0 allowed through the air, but this is a good start.
It won’t be a simple task to ask the Longhorns to replicate this effort. They’re down Ford and Jefferson; Jefferson went in the third round of the NFL draft by the Cincinnati Bengals and Ford, who wasn’t drafted, has impressed in Seattle’s camp. Jefferson, the Big 12 Co-Defensive Player of the Year, was the heart of the defense last year, leading the squad with 110 tackles, 10 for loss, and 4.0 sacks. That kind of production will be hard to replace in a single player; luckily, Texas will have a chance at making it up in volume.
On the line, Ford is the only man from their 2017 rotation that’s gone, meaning it’s time for junior Malcolm Roach to finally step up and into the opposing backfield. Along with returning sack leader Charles Omenihu, Roach will be joined by Chris Nelson and Ta-Quon Graham.
Meanwhile, right behind them, Jefferson and Naashon Hughes are the only two linebackers missing. Jefferson will likely be replaced by experienced senior linebackers Anthony Wheeler and Gary Johnson, with rotational help from fifth-year senior Edwin Freeman and rookie Ayodele Adeoye. Hughes, though not nearly as productive as a B-backer in the Texas system, should have a serviceable replacement in Jeffrey McCulloch.
The Texas defense was adept at keeping teams out of the end zone last year and should be again in 2018, but a key component of winning a football game also means finding that same patch of grass yourself. At this task, the Longhorns simply failed in 2017. Texas’s defense should keep them in games, but the team will need to score to win. That might be a problem.
Let’s start under center. Last season, quarterback Sam Ehlinger and Shane Buechele split the season’s snaps—Ehlinger threw 275 passes to Buechele’s 213. Both players were about the same level of mediocre, combining for 18 scores and 11 interceptions and averaging just 6.8 yards per throw. The role is subject to a training camp competition, but Ehlinger seems to be the favorite to get the nod. It makes sense. He’s younger and has flashed more potential in his starts, including a couple of inspired performances in near-upsets of Oklahoma and USC.
At the same time, Ehlinger is younger and flashed just how unfinished he is constantly. He committed lethal turnovers late in both of those potential breakout games that wound up costing the Longhorns their shot at knocking off the soon-to-be conference champions. You can expect him to be the guy for Texas from Week 1, but it’s hard to say what to expect from there. If he can just figure out how to hold on to the ball down the stretch and provide any downfield explosiveness, literally any at all, it’ll be an improvement on last season.
The return of Collin Johnson, last season’s top receiver, will hopefully make things easier for Ehlinger. So too should the presence of Lil’Jordan Humphrey, who, in addition to having Lil’Jordan as a first name, made for a useful No. 2 wideout in his first full season of seeing the field.
Things get a lot darker when you visit the backfield. Nobody thought it would be easy losing a 2,000-yard rusher like D’Onta Foreman; then again, nobody thought the team’s next leading rusher would 1) be one of the part-time quarterbacks and 2) put up a lousy 381 yards. That’s fucking shameful for Texas football. The guy that was supposed to be one of the leading candidates, Chris Warren III, was moved to tight end and then transferred because he was pissed about it. The offensive line was a carousel that never stopped. Nothing worked.
This season should be better, if only because it is so difficult to conceive of a way in which it could be worse. Sophomore Daniel Young showed promise as a rookie, establishing himself as both a capable runner and a threat coming out of the backfield in the passing game. But this isn’t a lock—Young will likely end up splitting time with Cal transfer Tre Watson, sophomore Toneil Carter, and junior Kyle Porter. Unlike last year, whoever performs best should end up receiving the lion’s share of the carries. Again, the bar is sitting on the floor for this bunch after 2017. It’s on one of them to just step over it.
Can I be honest with you, real quick? Yeah, you. Checks over both shoulders. Texas doesn’t really have a Guy To Know.
I know, I know, it’s embarrassing, but it’s true. There’s not a single star on this team that really outshines the rest, at least not one that’s apparent to me. I could use this space to tell you about the potential upside of Ehlinger or that this will be the year Roach finally turns his insane athletic frame into production or that Watson is going to save the running game. But there’s really not much more to be said about those guys that won’t be said a million times by a million outlets. None of them have highlight reels you should really want to watch.
So, instead, here’s a poem from a Guy To Know, starting wide receiver Lil’Jordan Humphrey.
Hats off to offensive line coach Herb Hand, who maybe won this entire competition by captioning a lion motivation-meme with a Teddy Roosevelt quote. That’s the good stuff.
Did you read anything I just wrote?!? Anyway, if you are just joining us, no, Texas can’t make the Playoff.
Sept. 1: Maryland (Neutral field)
Sept. 8: Tulsa
Sept 15: USC
Sept. 22: TCU
Sept. 29: @ Kansas State
Oct. 6: Oklahoma (Neutral field)
Oct. 13: Baylor
Oct. 27: @ Oklahoma State
Nov. 3: West Virginia
Nov. 10: Texas Tech
Nov. 17: Iowa State
Nov. 23: @ Kansas