There's still a bowl game to be played, but the regular season is in the books and it's an appropriate time to evaluate the 2011 season. Three good weeks of bowl practice and a win in San Diego would be a nice bookend to the season, but the outcome of the Holiday Bowl is not a defining event as far as evaluating the success of this season.
Texas fans want to talk about wins -- and rightly so -- but your level of satisfaction with this season probably depends on your ability to distinguish output and process. Our output this season was in many ways dissatisfying: five losses including a blowout in Dallas, uneven offensive line play from a hodge-podge collection of bodies, miserable quarterback play, etc. But that output was in many ways determined by mistakes made long before this season, under a coaching regime that has been thoroughly overhauled.
Like it or not, we're still paying for some of those failures, which is why the proper focus in the near-term is on process. And no, this isn't an attempt to put a positive spin on a mediocre 7-5 record after the fact. I laid out the barometer in August in the 2011 Season Narrative:
Heading into 2011, Mack Brown and Texas are in a period of learning and transition. That's fine and mistakes can't be helped. It is important, however, that the staff make the most of the 2011 season in terms of player identification and development. It doesn't matter if the best player is a junior or a freshman, or whether the best player is the one you named the opening week starter or his back up. What's important in 2011 is that you challenge everyone to develop, give the right players opportunities, make critical evaluations, and be willing to adjust.
[...] Challenging everyone, all the time, is among Mack Brown's most important tasks this fall. If everyone is being challenged and decisions are being made the right way, for the right reasons, with the right goals in mind, that's mission accomplished, whether or not the results are optimal. Because if the process is optimal, you're giving yourself the best chance to achieve those optimal results -- the process itself is geared towards improving on the deficiencies.
In terms of player development, enabling assistants to do what they do best, and carrying over the energy and accountability from the offseason into this season, I think you have to be pretty pleased with what we saw this season. Consider a few of the more important developments in those facets:
Defensive development under Manny Diaz. I don't think there's any question that Mack Brown made a great hire to replace Will Muschamp. Manny Diaz produced the best defense in the Big 12, and his unit got stronger as the season progressed and they grew to understand his schemes. Individuals developed and improved over the course of the year, as well, and Diaz showed himself to be nimble and open-minded in terms of his approach.
A step forward for the offensive line. I noted before the season that I liked the Stacy Searels hire in part because of the admirable job he did salvaging a depleted UGA line in 2010, and he definitely made the most out of a hodge podge of bodies for Texas in 2011 as well. Though we have a long way to go yet, the effort and intensity were there all year and we had a coherent approach in terms of our schemes. Searels mixed and matched what he had, and helped pull things together with the insertion of Josh Cochran at left tackle in October. And big time kudos to Searels for today's news that Texas' OL coach has nabbed JuCo tackle Donald Hawkins for next year.
Legitimate rushing attack. With no quarterback and a limited offensive line, we averaged 210 yards per game on the ground at 4.6 yards per attempt -- numbers which would have been even better had we not lost each of our top three tailbacks for the final month of the season. We demonstrated a capacity to execute base plays, and built a diverse variety of complementary plays around them. If Fozzy and one of Brown/Bergeron remained healthy all year, Texas likely wins 9 games.
Player accountability. Everyone was forced to earn their job and keep it, and where the best player was a freshman, he played. That our young, flawed team wasn't always very good reflected the position we were in with our roster heading into the season, not a failure to manage the assets we had. I even think Harsin got it right with the miserable QB situation. I wrote before the year the wisdom of opening the season with Garrett Gilbert, and though Gilbert flamed out, after the struggles his young successors endured that decision is even more obviously correct. Following Gilbert's departure, Ash and McCoy each were given multiple opportunities, both solo and playing together. There's not much more you can do.
Recruiting momentum. Off the field but equally noteworthy, Texas has continued to recruit exceptionally well and Mack Brown appears to be letting his capable young assistants shape the efforts. We just brought in a JuCo offensive tackle from Mississippi, we're targeting out-of-state kids that we would have never bothered to try with in previous years, and we're recruiting classes coherently, with pieces that would seem to fit together.
All things considered, I think you have to conclude this season was pretty successful. It seems fair to say that if Texas can get even average quarterback in 2012, we're primed to compete for the Big 12 title. And if we can get a bit more than that in 2013, we're setting up for a BCS Bowl season.
At this point, that's a big if, and it's no fun to be measuring the success of your season by whether it's developing you to be good later, but we can't just waive away all the weaknesses we inherited coming into this season. This year many of our best players were freshmen. That's usually not a good thing. Two years from now, many of our best players will be sophomores and juniors, supported and complemented by our most talented and college-ready freshmen.
That's when it will once again be time to measure the success of our season by our ledger in the standings. Right now, the objective is to rebuild the right way so that we give ourselves the best chance to get back on top.
On that count, I consider the 2011 season a success. A qualified success, but a success nonetheless.
Your thoughts? Questions? Outbursts of Texas pride?