At long last, we arrive at the end of our annual pilgrimage through the brutally dry desert that is the offseason. Last year at this time, the 2011 Season Narrative was easy to identify: the processes that led to the impressive offseason improvements needed to carry over to how Mack Brown, the coaching staff and players operated going forward.
Without question, the program has earned high marks in that regard -- the underlying processes in operation are sounder than ever -- but while Texas fans are again feeling good about the state of the program, it's easy to sense that expectations for the 2012 season are cautiously optimistic, but on the whole a little bit... murky
Partly explaining the uncertainty is justified anxiety about an offense that struggled through much of last season, and part of it, I suspect, is attributable the consensus view that Texas will be a national title contender next year, in 2013. Indeed, count me among those who for those very reasons have struggled to pin down and articulate my expectations for this year; I usually write this post much earlier in August, and only in the last week or so have I begun to view the big picture with some clarity.
But I think one component of the big picture is actually right there, in the very things that have been muddling the view. Because the 2012 Season Narrative is in many important ways -- including some uncomfortable ones -- about David Ash.
We've all read a hundred articles about the importance of Texas' sophomore starting quarterback as pertains to the team's ceiling this season (and that's certainly true), but David Ash's performance this season matters just as much for its impact on Texas' championship potential next season -- as well as the one after that -- when Texas would otherwise be primed to enjoy peaks in the talent cycle.
That, to me, is the real importance of David Ash's sophomore season: if he flops or suffers a serious injury, the consequence may well be Texas squandering championship potential in 2013-14.
If not with Ash, then who? And by when?
Let's say that Ash has a solid-to-good year in 2012 -- one that demonstrates improvement from last year, and establishes that he's capable of playing at a sufficiently high level to quarterback a conference championship team and national title contender. Whether he establishes that critical qualification in a terrific 12-1 season for the 2012 Longhorns, or a comparatively disappointing 9-4 campaign, to the extent that David Ash plays sufficiently well as to make it realistic to believe Texas can compete for the top prizes in 2013, the linear narrative that began after the 2010 season and which everyone believes is on a trajectory to begin peaking a year from now remains intact. And in that scenario, the time for concern and disappointment is underachievement in 2013.
It's the other scenario, though, that makes the 2012 season all about David Ash -- the scenario in which he fails or gets hurt. In that case we'd certainly get to find out whether Case McCoy can establish that he's capable of playing at a sufficiently high level to quarterback a championship team, and if he were to do so that'd be just fine, but there are good reasons to worry that Texas' chances would be diminished from a scenario involving a healthy and improved Ash.
Moreover, if McCoy isn't an adequate long-term option, then Texas is essentially back to square one -- except that instead of it being 2011 when there's developing and improving to do across the whole roster, it's happening in 2013, when Texas would otherwise be a favorite to win the Big 12 and compete for a national title. The consequences of failure from, and/or injury to, Ash and McCoy in 2012 literally could not be more severe. With a good -- not even great, just good -- quarterback, Texas is a favorite to win the conference and make another run at Pasadena. With less than that under center, the team's margin for error in every other facet of the game drops drastically, and we're hoping just that we one of our quarterbacks can avoid losing games for us. That's not how you want to be trying to win championships.
The Sweetest Kind of Season
Now, bear in mind that this annual column is an attempt to define in the pre-season a bigger picture narrative for the season as a whole. We do this now not to provide the lens through which we're going to be watching the team this fall, but to think about what's at stake and how we ultimately might come to evaluate it. Make no mistake: once the cannon booms and that first kickoff sails high and deep through the air, we'll all be fanatically obsessed with the games at hand.
So after offering an admittedly dispiriting characterization of the big picture stakes in 2012 -- "Let's all hope Ash doesn't fail or get hurt because we're primed to peak in 2013!" -- let me close on a much more uplifting note, by highlighting what I consider to be the second component of the 2012 Season Narrative: in many ways, seasons like these produce some of the best and most memorable teams, and are the most fun and exciting for us as fans. This Longhorns team has exciting potential but expectations are somewhat tempered, and nothing will feel quite so thrilling as watching this team exceed expectations and go on a run like the 2008 Longhorns did. It's in years like these that Sooner tears taste the sweetest. #45-35forever
And next year? When expectations are that Longhorns fans can book their travel plans to Pasadena ahead of the season? Oh, it'll be fun if they meet those expectations, alright, but it can be agonizing every step of the way, with every win feeling less like a victory and more like a relief, and any loss will be nothing less than a crushing disappointment. The 2009 season was absolutely brutal to watch as a fan. (Remember how it felt when the clock struck :00 in the Big 12 championship game, and we thought the game was over?)
As far as I'm concerned, Texas is playing with house money this season. And it's got a damn good team to do so.
And I, for one, am a believer in David Ash -- as an athlete, as a quarterback and as a competitor. I can't wait to see what he and this team do in 2012... and so long as it advances the ball for the years ahead, it's all gravy.
Fellow Texas fans, we've made it through another offseason. It's 53 hours to kickoff, OU still sucks, and it's nigh time to bust out the burnt orange, fire up the smoker, fill up the coolers, and raise your Horns up high in the air.
Hook 'em in 2012