Texas Longhorns football: Two ESPN projections have 'Horns as top Big 12 team

USA TODAY Sports

One subjective and one objective analysis pick Texas as the Big 12's best in 2013.

The Texas Longhorns are trying to return to their former position competing for Big 12 titles every year and two separate ESPN articles this week predict that Texas will be the best team in a conference that will feature new quarterbacks or quarterback competitions on nearly every team.

First, ESPN columnist Mark Schlabach pegged the Longhorns as his highest-ranked team in the conference in his post-spring not-quick-as-way-too-early top 25, which has the Buckeyes as the new top team in the country, passing Alabama.

Ranked at no. 13, one spot up from the pre-spring ranking, Texas comes in ahead of Oklahoma State at no. 15, Oklahoma at no. 17, and TCU at no. 18 -- not a great deal of separation. In fact, Schlabach is essentially saying that it's a toss up and he's slightly favoring the 'Horns at this point, perhaps in part because head coach Mack Brown's team returns 19 starters, which happens to be the most in America.

All of Schlabach's discussion of Texas revolves around the impact of offensive changes in tempo:

Longhorns coach Mack Brown is again implementing big changes, as his offense will go with a no-huddle, shotgun attack with a much faster tempo this coming season. Brown believes it's the best way for the Longhorns to survive in the fast-paced Big 12, and it's the offense that junior quarterback David Ash seems most comfortable running. The Longhorns still want to remain balanced on offense, so tailbacks Johnathan Gray, Joe Bergeron and Malcolm Brown will still get their fair share of carries. Brown also believes UT's defense, which ranked 73rd nationally in scoring defense (29.2 points per game) last season, will be more equipped to defend hurry-up offenses after seeing one in practice every day.

Nothing entirely new there, but Our Daily Bears editor Mark C. Moore wonders how easily the transition to a faster offense will go for the 'Horns:

So far so good based on early results -- Ash hit his stride against Oregon State when the Longhorns started using the quarterback run game and sped up the game in the second half to come back against the Beavers. And while the offense wasn't as fast as they want to be in the spring game, there don't appear to be any significant growing pains.

Unless shorter possessions somehow hurt the defense and put it at greater risk through exposure to more opponent plays, the take here is that the move will only benefit the 'Horns, especially in providing more opportunities to get the ball to players like Daje Johnson and Kendall Sanders, guys who should be threats to score from anywhere on the field. Johnson has already proven that, at least.

In fact, part of the beauty to deciding to go up tempo is that it stands in stark contrast to decisions to make major changes to the offense like that attempted after the 2010 season, when the 'Horns didn't have the personnel.

The flip side to that, and one of the underrated aspects of the changes that are ongoing under new playcaller Major Applewhite, is that there will be some changes do play to the personnel on hand, notably the move to more spread personnel looks that can more effectively utilize the talent on hand and put the tight ends and H-backs in better positions to succeed.

Schlabach's projection also drew questions from Oklahoma observers alleging a lack of critical thinking on the part of the ESPN writer:

If Mack says the same thing long enough, eventually someone will buy it!

It seems to have worked better on Schlabach than it has on skeptical Texas fans, who aren't exactly buying Brown's rhetoric any more.

But after talking about it for years, this will finally be the year! Or so the rhetoric goes.

What is arguably much more important than the opinion of Schlabach is the opinion of the computers. Football Outsiders ran 1,000 simulations of the season using Brian Fremeau FEI ratings, one of the better advanced metrics currently out there for college football, which is based on projections of offensive and defensive efficiency, though this edition does not represent the final projections that will run in the Football Outsiders Almanac later this summer.

How well did they work last year? Texas was ranked no. 13 in the country prior to the season and ended up at no. 17, coming in only slightly overrated compared to how they finished, a discrepancy that could be due to the poor performance of the defense compared to most reasonable projections.

The final preseason FEI ratings projected Alabama as the top team in the country last season and also had Florida pegged exactly in the 5th position in which they eventually finished, though the ratings did miss on Texas A&M.

Texas finishes first in the early Big 12 projections ($) for this year with a 39% change to win the Big 12, which is 9% better than second-place Oklahoma State:

With 19 returning starters, a strong program history, and top-five talent on the roster, Texas has everything it needs on paper. The schedule is friendly as well -- an Oct. 26 game at TCU is the only true road game against another projected Big 12 contender.

The believable part of the rhetoric from Brown is that the 2013 season will finally show the on-field benefits of playing so many young players in each of the last two season, kids who came from the highly-rated 2011 and 2012 recruiting classes.

Now comes the waiting to see if Brown is correct. And the waiting is always the hardest part.

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