The SB Nation Big 12 preview will post on Friday at The Ralphie Report. The following is the Texas team capsule for the conference-wide preview piece.
When Texas has the ball: Texas returns 8 starters (Lost: RB, Chris Ogbonnaya, WR Quan Cosby, RG Cedric Dockery) from an offense a year ago that averaged a healthy 6.5 yards per play. The name everyone knows is
deserving Heisman winner runner-up Colt McCoy, who led the team in rushing attempts and rushing yards in 2008. He also did a little passing: Following an up-and-down sophomore season, McCoy transformed into a robot last season, setting the single-season NCAA record for completion percentage in a season (76.7%), throwing a school record 34 touchdowns against just 8 interceptions. If there's a legitimate critique of last year's outstanding offense, it would have to be the razor thin margins on which the Longhorns relied; looking forward to this fall, Texas would like to rely less on McCoy being a superhuman by bolstering the running game and finding more big plays.
The running game: Texas wasn't a poor rushing team a year ago, but the rushing attack was inconsistent and prone to disappear, necessitating McCoy's otherworldly performances to keep the engine humming. The offensive line is experienced, if not spectacular, returning four starters (LT Adam Ulatoski, LG Charlie Tanner, C Chris Hall, and RT Kyle Hix) who, combined with RG Michael Huey (3 starts in '08) enter the fall with 90 career starts between them. Both starting tackles are excellent in pass protection, but the question for this line will be their ability to create running room in the rushing offense. To that end, Texas offensive coordinator Greg Davis appears committed to introducing more plays under center and more man blocking, but for the offense to truly reach its fullest potential, the unit will need to open holes in the running game when McCoy is in its favored 11-personnel, with McCoy in the shotgun, flanked by a tailback. Like last year, a triumvirate of tailbacks will rotate situationally, with Vondrell McGee the likely nominal starter, Fozzy Whittaker the do-it-all Ogbonnaya role, and Cody Johnson the short yardage specialist.
The passing game: Replacing departed WR Quan Cosby won't exactly be a cinch, but if Texas fails to do so, an impressive number of promising candidates would have to fail. In the spring, the speedy James Kirkendoll (now also having a great fall camp) got the starting nod at the Sub-B wideout position formerly occupied by Cosby, but fans are watching fellow junior Brandon Collins closely as well, particularly after Colt McCoy commented at Big 12 media days that Collins was poised to break out for a tremendous season. Behind those two, a small army of unproven young talents will compete for playing time, among them converted QB John Chiles, as well as the speedy DeSean Hales (RS-Fr), DJ Monroe (RS-Fr) and Marquise Goodwin (True Freshman). Returning to man the flanker position is The Roommate, Jordan Shipley, a 1000-yard receiver in 2008 with 11 touchdowns. On the outside, Texas expects big things from third-year sophomore Malcolm Williams, whose football skills are catching up to his outrageous athletic talent. (Expecting an update on the tight end position? It's cursed, thank you very little; we decline to name names.)
When opponents have the ball: If Texas is on your television screen on January 7th in Pasadena, this unit will be the reason. Don't get us wrong: Colt McCoy deserves all the attention and accolades, but it's the potential of this defensive unit that makes us most confident in Texas' chances to roll through the conference unblemished.
Rush defense: The Longhorns held opponents to a paltry 3.05 yards per rushing attempt last season, but they lose three starters -- DT Roy Miller and DEs Brian Orakpo and Henry Melton -- to the NFL. Texas faces serious questions about the viability of the DT position in particular this fall, with only the exceptional Lamarr Houston returning. Vying for viability alongside him will be the senior situation space eater Ben Alexander, unproven sophomore Kheeston Randall, and recently converted offensive lineman Tray Allen. None of them needs to be spectacular, but at least one needs to prove himself capable of solid, block-eating play for 30-35 snaps a game. The rest of the work can be done by the talented, probably underrated, group of defensive ends and linebackers who will rotate heavily to keep everyone fresh. Everyone knows about Sergio Kindle, but by November, expect ends Eddie Jones and Sam Acho to be names every Big 12 quarterback knows as well. As for the linebackers, Texas has four players we absolutely love ready to lead what will prove to be the best tackling team in the conference: Rod Muckelroy, Jared Norton, Keenan Robinson, and Emmanuel Acho,
Pass defense: Two words come to mind: Un. Fair. The secondary may not prove as statistically dominant as Will Muschamp's 2003 title-winning LSU squad (too much help in run support for that, we suspect), but they'll make just as many big plays, and give top receivers in the conference more than a few forgettable nights. Both Earl Thomas and Aaron Williams look like First Team Big 12-level performers, Chykie Brown's not far behind, and Blake Gideon, Christian Scott, Curtis Brown, and Deon Beasley would comfortably start for at least 9 schools in the conference. This group is damn good.
The schedule: You could call it a two-game schedule (vs OU in Dallas, at Oklahoma State) and wouldn't draw much argument from the gallery. Beyond those two monsters, Texas's next three toughest tests all come at home: Texas Tech, Colorado, and Kansas. A road trip to Missouri on their homecoming might be a potential trap game (sandwiched between the two Oklahomas), but with a new quarterback and a questionable defensive line and secondary, an upset would be truly stunning. As for the non-conference schedule... well... maybe Texas just wanted to welcome home Bill Snyder? Yeah, that's it.
The outlook: Anything short of a 12-0 trip to the Rose Bowl will disappoint Texas fans, and for good reason. The talent cycle hits a peak this year, there's experience, skill talent, depth, and a favorable schedule. And some bitterness, too. Texas rightly felt hosed by the BCS system last season and will approach this season with a sense of focus, urgency, and more than a little hostility. That's a good thing for a program under Mack Brown that struggles when it's comfortable. All eyes on Dallas, then, for one of the biggest regular season football games of the last decade. We predict a Texas win and, two months later, a return trip to Vince Young Stadium West.