This post is far longer than a blog post should be, but 1) it all had to go together and 2) I actually had the time to sit down and write it. Print it and take it on your coffee break. I promise it'll be of greater interest than the Not News that I was hunting for anyway.
Last week when I was laying out the challenge Will Muschamp faces this fall, I concluded with five thoughts on the existing circumstances and what they might tell us about the upcoming season:
1. Fortuitous scheduling: The non-conference schedule happens to be a very useful one.
2. Understated: Texas needs to stay healthy on defense.
3. Team effort: Turnovers on offense will be costlier than ever.
4. Busted: The 2007 offseason still stings.5. Disrupting the spread: Create pressure from the front four.
There's a sixth key to 2008 that I didn't include because it deserves its own post: Texas needs to play this fall for next season. The idea of playing for a year from now won't sit right with some fans, but I'm prepared to argue strongly for the point. As always, contrasting views are invited, either in the comments or FanPosts.
My base argument is simple:
- Though Texas should aim high in 2008, winning the Big 12 this season will be exceptionally difficult. Relatedly, the odds of a national championship are very, very long.
- Texas' schedule is significantly more favorable in 2009, with an unintimidating non-conference schedule and a host of Big 12 teams in transition.
- On the homefront, Texas' personnel situation looks like it will hit its own peak in the cycle during 2009.
- Therefore: Mack Brown should make preparing for 2009 as important as winning in 2008.
Walk with me through each of these:
THE BIG 12 IN 2008
Prior to last season, the Big 12 for several years had been an uninteresting conference. For Oklahoma and Texas, there's been the battle for the South Division title, but Texas Tech, Texas A&M, and Oklahoma State have been different shades of the same mediocre color for most of the decade. Meanwhile in the North, the slippage of Kansas State, Nebraska, and Colorado made the division quite the sideshow for several years running.
But the conference jolted alive last season, as the baby-faced quarterbacks who struggled through 2006 took big steps forward. Missouri and Kansas' broke through with Top 10 seasons behind a pair of young Texans, Oklahoma upgraded from their senior wideout QB to a redshirt freshman with poise, Mike Leach's prize recruit had a terrific year three in the system, and Oklahoma State found themselves quite a football player in sophomore Zac Robinson. Though no one quite saw the year unfolding as it did, the conference-wide improvement based on the young quarterbacks was very much on the radar last summer.
Amazingly, though, last season was only a prelude to what I think will be a peak for the conference in 2008. And it's not just the army of strong quarterbacks returning this fall. Consider the four game stretch Texas faces immediately after the conference opener in Boulder.
Oklahoma: As I wrote in April, Sam Bradford is in terrific position to build on his record-setting freshman campaign: At this and the professional levels of football, protection is the most important element of the passing game, and Oklahoma is starting five seniors on the line. Let that sink in. If you dare, consider that two of those five could wind up All-Americans, two more may well be all-conference, and the fifth - returning last year from injury - was Rivals' #53 prospect in the nation when he arrived in Norman.
If you're really masochistic, think next about Demarco Murray being healthy; Bob Stoops was a fool to ease him in Cedric Benson style to Oklahoma's season like he did last year. The inferior Patrick Allen was running wild behind that offensive line. A healthy Murray will have a field day this fall.
The Sooners have questions in the back seven on defense, so don't go making them your national title favorites just yet. For now, it's enough to know that this will be one of the nation's most fearsome offenses this fall. (And I didn't even mention this guy. Yikes.)
Missouri: Chase Daniel, Heisman Finalist, enters his senior season. Four receivers who caught 37+ passes last year return. The underappreciated Tony Temple is gone, but senior Jimmy Jackson can be plenty effective. And the defense, which was solid-not-great a year ago, will feature seven senior starters. Even modest improvement from that unit will make life difficult for opponents who will be dealing with Missouri's high-powered offense.
Oklahoma State: If the names Kendall Hunter, Dez Bryant, and Zac Robinson aren't already familiar to Big 12 fans, they will be by the end of next season. This team may not be peaking in 2008, but it's going to be dangerous. Solid recruiting classes in '05 and '06 give them enough talent to play with anyone on a given Saturday, and Texas fans know all too well never to take this game for granted.
Texas Tech: I think it's fair to say that Mike Leach's entire Tech career has been leading to this fall - the senior year of his first prized quarterback recruit, with what could be the best Red Raider defense of the decade. Feel free to remain a skeptic until you see it, but at least heading into the fall, this looks like The Year that Leach has been building towards. Harrell is a senior. Phenom Michael Crabtree is a redshirt sophomore. The defense - better than many realized last year - is set for its best performance to date. Whether Tech puts it together or not, this certainly looks right now like the best Red Raider team Mike Leach has ever assembled.
Don't just take my word for it, either:
Again, that's just one four-game stretch for the Longhorns this fall - three of those opponents will be hitting the absolute peak of the team cycle, while Oklahoma State provides a legitimate challenge in between. And we haven't even mentioned the 'Horns' November game against Kansas. If A&M and Colorado have to be considered opponents who are certainly capable of beating Texas, well... the margin for error this fall is going to be slim to none.
To the extent you can accept what a challenge the Big 12 is going to be this fall, you should be able to accept the idea that Texas winning the Big 12 isn't likely. Which certainly puts the national title well out of reach, as well. If that position makes you uncomfortable, I'd add that no Big 12 team should be feeling great about its chances right now. As many elite teams as there are, it'll be quite the achievement if any team emerges unscathed.
NOW LOOK AHEAD A YEAR
Even before we get to Texas' in-house situation, it's a lovely looking schedule for a run at 12-0:
at Oklahoma State
at Texas A&M
If for our sanity we assume a 4-0 non-conference schedule against that slate, we're left just with a conference schedule that looks drastically better than the year prior:
* Colorado should actually be better in '09, but the schedule breaks our way, with the Buffs coming to Austin.
* A Sam Bradford slump is far more likely to come as a junior, behind five new starters on the offensive line.
* Missouri will be starting a first-year quarterback. Which means you can go ahead and bank on Jeremy Maclin bolting Jermichael Finley-style after 2008 (redshirt sophomore).
* Like CU, the Cowboys might be better in '09, but if this is the Big Road Game of the season, it's a good schedule. Texas is 20-2 against OSU all time.
* Texas Tech will lose Graham Harrell to graduation. Michael Crabtree will join Maclin in early departure.
* Baylor sucks.
* Kansas, possibly a force in Todd Reesing's senior season, comes to Austin.
* At the least, A&M will be starting a new quarterback. I won't blink if Michael Goodson departs as well.
Tally it up, and the stars are aligned: Clean up the weak non-con schedule. Beat OU in Dallas. Road slate at rebuilding Missouri, good-not-great Oklahoma State, weak sauce Baylor, and vastly out-talented A&M. If that's not exactly "easy," it's a laugher in comparison to what Texas faces this fall.
The schedule itself is enough to be thinking seriously about making sure we prepare for 2009, but even absent that advantage, the Texas personnel situation looks like it should be better in two years.
The gains on offense are modest, but worth noting:
Quarterback: Assuming he stays healthy, McCoy's going to be a four-year starter at Texas and set all sorts of records. But in my book, his legacy will be defined by his senior year. If he's going to be anything more than a solid Longhorn QB between Vince and someone else who does great things, he'll likely have to make that legacy in 2009. God willing, he'll do it, and he'll have some help from a creative offensive coaching team that supplements his efforts with those of #7.
Tailbacks: I'm not in love with this position just yet for Texas, but I know things will be in much better shape a year from now than they are today. Vondrell and Fozzy will each have opportunities to show something special. Or combine to show a special tandem. Both should feel good running behind the 2009...
Offensive Line: Cedric Dockery graduates after '08. And that's it. The rest of the rotation returns: Burnette, Allen, Hall, Tanner, Ulatoski, McGaskey, Hix, Mitchell, Huey... All of 'em. Heck, maybe Buchanan or Snow are contributing at that point. Regardless, the line will be Texas' best in years. With depth, talent, experience - all that good stuff. McCoy will put up strong numbers or he'll show his limitations.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: Cosby and Shipley graduate, meaning we'll get a good look at whether Mack Brown has rescued his recruiting at the receiver position. There certainly isn't a shortage of warm bodies - Hales, Collins, Kirkendoll, Webber, Williams, Grant, Buckner, Irby - but it's still too far out to know what we've got here. On the bright side, if you made me choose a position I'd want to be my team's question mark, this would be it.
Summary: Senior quarterback, more experienced tailbacks, A+ offensive line, and enough receiving talent to find some winners... if it's not exactly a rebuild of the 2005 squad, it's on the whole a better personnel situation than we have this fall.
And now the defense, which is even more promising:
Defensive Ends: Eddie Jones, Sam Acho, and Russell Carter already excite me. I'm comfortable counting on Ahmard Howard developing into the two-deep, and we may strike true freshman gold with Okafor, Kriegel or Jones. We'll miss Orakpo, but this is a position Muschamp has enough to work with.
Defensive Tackles: Lamarr Houston is my favorite Longhorn on the roster, no joke. Losing Miller and Lewis to graduation makes us a bit thin, but mostly just means Kheeston Randall and/or Jarvis Humphrey will be fast-tracked to big minutes. Don't count out a Jamarkus McFarland contribution just yet, either.
Linebacker: If we're lucky with health, this will be Texas' best starting trio of linebackers in the Mack Brown era, with Muck, Norton, and Kindle starting together as seniors. Keenan Robinson's about to become a Name You Know, as well.
Defensive Backs: I'm not even going to separate these into safeties and corners, because I want to emphasize how thrilled I am with the outlook of the entire secondary in '09. After this fall, we lose Ryan Palmer. And that's it. Deon Beasley enters his senior year a candidate for awards. Either Chykie or Curtis Brown (or both) are ready for starter minutes. Aaron Williams is pushing everyone for time. And on and on. Meanwhile, the trio of young safeties - Scott, Wells, and Thomas - emerge from their '08 on-the-job training prepped for full seasons of play.
Summary: Texas isn't nearly as deep as it should be - a failing of some of Mack's recruiting the past 3-4 years - but among the likely contributors this fall versus next, the situation looks damn good in 2009. Sprinkle in whatever Muschamp Improvement juice you see coming and all signs point to Texas' defense being its best in a while.
MY CONVERSION CHART SAYS: GO FOR TWO IN '09
With all due apologies for the ridiculous length of this post, you more or less have to lay it all out at there together to make the case for looking past 2008. As some fans are sure to say, "Texas should never be in a position where it looks past any given year," I can only note that whether or not we should be better situated for this fall, the circumstances are what they are. And, it's worth noting, not just in-house; even a great Texas team would be challenged mightily by this year's Big 12.
The '06 recruiting class has been hit and miss.
The fact is that Texas enters this fall facing a brutal schedule and a host of question marks about how good it can be. Though I do think we have enough talent to put together a 10-2 or 11-1 regular season, I think we're more likely to go 8-4 than 11-1. Winning big should be the goal, but given the challenges this fall and the opportunity in 2009, Mack Brown and his staff should be making decisions that will help us win a year from now.
What does that entail? For me, I want to see Texas gun for every opponent in 2008, but to do so in a way that takes advantage of this year as one in which we can grow. I would experiment liberally with John Chiles to learn as much as I can about how he's best deployed. I would give young receivers every opportunity to get on the field, develop, and separate themselves. I'd be aggressive about making the offensive line competition wide open to reward the best performers, shunning any sort of veteran preference where a younger kid was looking better. With the tailbacks, I'd give both McGee and Whittaker a lot of different opportunities to see what I had on my hands in each.
On defense, I'd be giving my young DBs a trial by fire, accepting their growing pains as I groomed them for '09. Players like Rashad Bobino and Ryan Palmer would be counted on as senior leaders, but not allowed to block significant development time for my young kids behind them. And so on.
Most of all, treating this year as a building block to 2009 requires a prioritization of championships. So long as Texas is undefeated, I'm all for the staff doing whatever it thinks will do most to help win now. But the moment the dream is over (for example, post-OU last year; arguably post-KSU), I want the attention turned to building for '09. Because honestly, I'd rather go to the Texas Bowl at 7-5 (but better prepared for '09) than to the Holiday Bowl at 9-3 (but without using this year to grow as much as we can).
Hopefully, the staff shares that priority. The goal is not a 10-win season. It is a Big 12 championship. And then a national championship.
That's true no matter what, but it's especially true for Mack Brown in this phase of his career. I've been very vocal in supporting Brown for getting to and putting together that 2005 season. I love him for it. I really do. But I'm now also willing to draw a line in the sand at 2009, as the point by which I judge whether Mack Brown is a very good football coach who had his magical season, or whether he's an Elite football coach who can make multiple title runs when he's got his ducks in a row.
Given the present realities in college football, I don't need my head coaching winning anything year in and year out. Nice as that would be, I'm perfectly content with a head coach who took Texas to a BCS Title Game when his cycles peaked.
In 2009, Mack Brown's Texas Longhorns will hit a peak in the cycle, where anything less than a Big 12 title will be a failure and a shot at national title glory will be well within reach. Here's to hoping that if we fall short of those goals this year, we're conscious of the more attainable prize ahead.