So, football season is hours away and the excitement is finally kicking in. Maybe it helps that I unburdened myself the other day.
It is truly a time to be as optimistic as possible, and Bill C just handed me a cup of burnt orange Kool-Aid a few minutes ago and I don't know what he put in it, but it has me feeling right nice about the upcoming season. Finally.
Texas goes 12-0
Oh, don't act like it's not in the back of your head somewhere. Texas gets Oklahoma State, Ole Miss, and Texas-killer Kansas State at home and obviously doesn't have to go to Oklahoma. The Longhorns could still easily trip up in any of those games, or to BYU, TCU, or Baylor on the road. But as I said in this year's Texas preview, "a team with Texas' 2012 offense and special teams and 2011 defense would have ranked seventh in the country in F/+ last year. The 'Horns are close." Jordan Hicks and Jackson Jeffcoat are healthy (for now), last year's young defensive tackles are older, Quandre Diggs and Carrington Byndom are still the corners, and not only were David Ash and the Texas offense quite a bit better than you want to admit last year (18th in Off. F/+), but they also return nearly everybody.
Since bottoming out in 2010, Texas improved a lot in 2011 and a little in 2012 (offensive growth offset defensive regression). Sure, that feels like three years of underachievement, but it could also be one massive collapse followed by two years of recovery. And beyond that, teams with 19 returning starters (10 on offense, nine on defense) are nearly slam dunks to improve.
The Longhorns will almost certainly slip up -- Kansas State is still on the schedule, after all -- but let's not pretend this isn't a possibility. And if it happens, it will make perfect sense. Ash and the running game click, the pass rush is still strong without Alex Okafor, the linebackers aren't completely hapless, the safeties do a little better job of form tackling, and the Longhorns head to Waco on December 7 with a chance to lose to Alabama again in the national title game.
(And don't give me the "Stoops owns Mack Brown" stuff. The Brown-Stoops series has been littered with streaks -- OU winning five in a row, then Texas winning four of five, now OU winning three in a row -- and three isn't even much of a streak.)
Yeah, he's on like his third cup now or something, but he's an expert!
Here are five predictions that have me excited about the Texas football season:
1. David Ash becomes an elite quarterback
I know, I know, this horse has been glue for some time now, but it's still worth saying again -- David Ash has a strong chance to be one of the top quarterbacks in the country this year. He finished 20th in quarterback rating and tied for 13th in yards per attempt and completion percentage, threw deep passes better than Geno Smith and Matt Barkley, and is the No. 7 returning starter nationally in total quarterback rating, a measurement developed by ESPN to add some context to passer rating.
David Ash 2012 Sophomore Highlights (via godzillatron24)
That whole consistency thing? He said that he was prepared to play against Kansas last season, but wasn't ready to deal with adversity. Lesson learned.
Then there was the starring turn in the second half of the Alamo Bowl, when his vault into the endzone and subsequent spike of the football gave a rare glimpse into an emotional Ash, followed up by the incredible throw to Johnathan Gray and his game-winning strike to Marquise Goodwin that was right on the money.
It provided evidence that Ash can overcome adversity and gave some insight into the upside of the new offense -- it was only in the second half that new play caller Major Applewhite went to the up-tempo offense and unleashed Ash on quarterback draws.
Now more comfortable in the offense, more comfortable as a leader, and entrenched as the starting quarterback, with Applewhite on the sideline to help give him face-to-face feedback after drives, Ash could be the best quarterback in the conference with the typical jump that good quarterbacks in the league have made from their sophomore to their junior seasons.
2. Daje Johnson breaks out like Lache Seastrunk did last year
Tavon Austin. De'Anthony Thomas. Two of the most electric playmakers in college football last season. Also the players on which Daje Johnson has his sights set this season. Lofty goals, no doubt, but how many players in the conference possess the breakaway speed and tackle-breaking ability of Johnson. Lache Seastrunk, for sure, but after that? There aren't many names that come to mind, though Kansas' Tony Pierson could have a breakout season of his own.
Remember that long touchdown run against Baylor to start the game offensively? What about his escape acts against Oklahoma State on the speed sweeps? Look for those plays to happen with regularity -- Johnson is more mature, understands the type of hard work he has to put in to see the field, traits that will combine with his incredible physical gifts of otherwordly acceleration, uncanny balance, and elite long speed to terrorize opposing defenses.
3. Jordan Hicks and Jackson Jeffcoat lead a resurgent defense
When assessing the struggles of the Texas defense last season, it's easy to forget that two of the group's best players missed most of the season. Hicks is ready to show off that five-star potential that has been tantalizing everyone for years, while Jeffcoat is poised to give TCU defensive end Devonte Fields a run for his money as the best pass-rusher in the Big 12.
Both have all-conference seasons and put their names in the mix for All-American status and national awards as Hicks returns two touchdowns for interceptions and leads the team in tackles, while Jeffcoat records 15 sacks and 20 tackles for loss.
4. The secondary finally makes the elite jump
It was supposed to happen last season -- the Longhorns were supposed to field one of the top secondaries in the country with only Blake Gideon having exhausted his eligibility. Tackling problems, a lack of experience, and inconsistent play from Carrington Byndom all held the unit back, but all that is in the past as experience, consistent effort level, and playmaking ability of young players like Sheroid Evans and Duke Thomas buoys a unit that sees improvement from Mykkele Thompson, a typically strong year from Quandre Diggs, and the type of season from Carrington Byndom that Texas fans expected last year makes life difficult on some inexperienced Big 12 quarterbacks.
5. The running backs stay healthy and Johnathan Gray explodes
The combination of bad luck and physical immaturity that led to Joe Bergeron and Malcolm Brown getting nicked up in each of the last two seasons is overcome by better luck and more advanced conditioning to combine with Johnathan Gray breaking out as a pass-catcher and home-run threat capable of turning in the big plays that defined his prep career.
With the help of some sets in the Diamond formations and packaged run/pass plays, Gray has more space to ply his trade and the ability to out-leverage linebackers on the new-look inside zone plays, while Brown's vision and Bergeron's increased quickness allow them to produce strong seasons of their own -- Texas becomes a formidable rushing team capable of running over and through worn-down opponents late in game, aided by improved depth along the offensive line.
Welcome to college football season, y'all!