If you spend some time looking closely at last year's stat sheets for Texas' 2008 opponents, you may well find yourself entertaining the same two thoughts that I did:
1. Holy crap the pressure on our redshirt freshmen safeties with zero game experience is going to be intense.
2. Will Muschamp is arriving not a moment too soon.
On the latter point, BZ's chapter in The Eyes of Texas 2008 will provide some relief: each of Muschamp's first years at LSU and Auburn resulted in significant improvement in the teams' pass defenses. While we thank our lucky stars Muschamp is taking over, click through the jump for a look at the challenge he faces.
TEXAS PERSONNEL CHALLENGES
There's good news and bad news in the Texas secondary. Good: Texas' cupboard is stocked full of exciting young DBs. Bad: The young DBs lack experience. While tested corners Deon Beasley and Ryan Palmer will open the season the starters on the wings, the rest of the Texas secondary is incredibly green. If you believe as I do that two among Earl Thomas, Christian Scott, and Ben Wells will win the starting safety jobs (beating out junior Ishie Odeuegwu), Texas will open the season against FAU with two starting safeties who have as much live game experience as Oklahomans do with books.
With that said, the personnel news isn't all bad. For starters, both the defensive line and linebacking corps will be team strengths so long as the top groups are healthy. (The depth is another story.) And more abstractly, I think it's a good thing so many talented, young players will be leaned on heavily this year. Not only does that help for the 2009 run and beyond, but the seniority system of recent past was a cancerous one for team morale that contributed to the post-VY leadership vacuum.
And finally, let's be honest: a fan can labor through a trying season when the struggles are the product of young talent getting on-the-job training; patience runs thin when athletically limited veterans are the ones providing the suck.
2008 OPPONENT AIR RAID
Personnel challenges are just the tip of the iceberg; the majority of Texas' opponents will be testing the strength of every defense they face this fall. Most notably, through the air.
I mentioned last week that the Big 12 was aerially loaded, but the challenge for Texas' pass defense covers the entire 12-game schedule. The chart below lists each opponent's 2007 season statistics for passing attempts and yards per attempt, with national ranking in parentheses. To provide context for the arrival of Bobby Petrino in Fayetteville, Louisville's 2006 statistics are included, as well.
The middle column gives you an idea of the frequency with which Texas' opponents turned to the air last season. Eight were among the top 40 nationally in attempts per game, with three in the top 10 and five in the top 25. Though I was surprised Bobby Petrino's '06 Louisville team didn't rank higher in attempts per game, even a merely balanced offensive attack from Arkansas in 2008 would mean a significant increase in passing from the past two seasons.
Even with Texas' personnel situation, passing frequency isn't itself something to fear disproportionately. However, the yards per attempt numbers in the right column show another list of eight opponents ranking in the top 40 in 2007. Among the eight above average passing teams in attempts, only Baylor, Rice, and Colorado passed the ball inefficiently. In their stead, Arkansas (Petrino), Oklahoma, and Oklahoma State are among the top 40.
In sum, only one opponent - Texas A&M - failed to register in the top 40 nationally in either attempts per game or yards per attempt. Five opponents finished ranked highly in both, and two of the three teams who failed to pass as efficiently as they do frequently are Rice and Baylor, the most likely wins on the schedule.
The 2007 numbers have to be taken seriously, too, as the quarterbacks for every opponent on the schedule return. The next chart lists each school's quarterback and 2007 class standing alongside his QB rating for the season.
Seven quarterbacks started full seasons as a freshman or sophomore last year, and the only two who weren't better than average were Cody Hawkins and Blake Szymanski; the former is a strong candidate to improve in year two of his father's system and the latter gets a coaching upgrade to Art Briles. Meanwhile, Sam Bradford will spend this fall's encore to his record-setting freshman season enjoying the fruits of a starting offensive line comprised entirely of seniors. Incredibly, sophomore Todd Reesing took Kansas to the freaking Orange Bowl. And won! Kansas!
Among the five juniors, even if we can safely dismiss Rice as a non-threat to Texas, the other four seniors-to-be could well present a legitimate challenge: Casey Dick should have a career year under Petrino, Chase Daniel is a returning Heisman finalist, Graham Harrell is testing the upward limits of Mike Leach's offensive philosophy, and Stephen McGee is 2-1 against Texas in his career.
What should a fan make of all this? To begin with, Will Muschamp won't be overpaid this fall; that's for sure. Beyond that, five additional thoughts to consider:
1. Fortuitous scheduling: The non-conference schedule happens to be a very useful one. If you'd asked me a year ago about this non-conference slate, I'd have noted my enthusiasm for playing the Piggies and indifference towards the rest. That's not the case today after thinking through the consequence of this particular group of opponents: Assuming Arkansas throws considerably more with Petrino at the helm, the Longhorns' very raw secondary will be worked to the extreme during all four non-conference games. To have our most glaring weakness so thoroughly tested in September is a fortunate benefit the '08 schedule will provide. Because any team trying to get its secondary warmed up in this year's Big 12 will have hell to pay.
2. Understated: Texas needs to stay healthy on defense. I rather set aside the depth issue early in the post, but in talking about what a successful defensive season for Texas would include, good luck with health shouldn't be discounted. As exciting as Houston-Miller are on the interior of the line, an injury to either could be devastating. Ditto at linebacker, where a healthy Muckelroy-Norton-Kindle has enormous potential, but where injury would lead to unhealthy doses of experienced-but-not-talented Rashad Bobino, talented-but-inexperienced Keenan Robinson, or inexperienced-and-untalented Dustin Earnest.
3. Team effort: Turnovers on offense will be costlier than ever. We don't talk about the offense's impact on defense enough, but especially this season, it's critical the Texas offense protect possessions. First and foremost, giving outstanding offenses a short field via turnover amplifies an already difficult challenge. Further, turnovers that occur early in a drive cut down on the time the team's defense can rest. For a multitude of reasons beyond the scope of this post, I think the success with which Texas' offense avoids turnovers will be the single most determinative factor in how the season turns out overall.1
4. Busted: The 2007 offseason still stings. This gets back to the depth issue, but one of the primary reasons Texas can't afford any injuries right now is because Robert Joseph and Andre Jones aren't around. Jones' presence would provide desperately needed depth on the interior of the line, while Joseph - who I had the highest of hopes for as a player - would likely have been a starter at safety no later than the middle of last season. The defensive situation this year would be infinitely better with Joseph in the mix.
5. Disrupting the spread: Create pressure from the front four. Whether it's Oklahoma shutting down the roaring Missouri offense in the Big 12 title game or the New York Giants beating the undefeated Patriots in the Super Bowl, stopping the pass-based spread attacks Texas will see time and again demands the defensive line get pressure on the quarterback. Health for the tackles and big seasons at end from Eddie Jones, Brian Orakpo, Sam Acho, and Russell Carter would do wonders for Muschamp's complementary strategic efforts.
1For example, and perhaps most importantly, the departure of Sweed, Charles, and Finley means the biggest question mark for Texas' offense involves the lack of proven playmakers. If no home run threats emerge in-season, sustaining drives will be imperative to secure points. For teams lacking quick-strike scoring ability, the penalty for lost possessions is all the greater.