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A Gathering Storm

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 In reviewing the Longhorns' non-conference performance I first mentioned something I have since found myself bringing up with increasing frequency:

If the 'Horns were to win in Boulder and then upset Oklahoma in Dallas a week later, it would be time to start talking about Texas as more than an excellent team more likely to make the big splash in '09 than '08. Not that OU isn't the Big One every year, but this is a Texas team that's still got a lot of room to grow and improve and which should be a tougher out each successive week, so clearing the first hurdle would be enormous.

As I reflect on tonight's blowout victory over Missouri, it occurs to me that the preceding was in a way an extension of something I wrote in mid-August under the title "The Will Muschamp Factor":

I mentioned this morning that I'm more excited about this team and season than I anticipated being as recently as the beginning of the summer. It was then that I pitched you my narrative for 2008, arguing that Texas' stars seemed to be aligning for a title run next year.

I still think that's true for all the same reasons, and yet as I sit here 11 days from kickoff, I'm more than just feeling good about this year as a building block for the '09 run; I've steadily come around to the idea that Texas is going to be real good, real fast this year, as well.

I've been a guest on a dozen radio shows the past month, which has given me the opportunity to talk through the expectations game with various program hosts, each of whom inevitably asks about Texas' perception as the third or fourth team in the Big 12 this season. Interestingly, whereas I've felt compelled to stick by my argument that the top prize(s) aren't in the cards for Texas this year, I've more and more found myself arguing that it would be a mistake to underestimate this year's squad.

Though that post specifically deals with the effect I was projecting Will Muschamp to have on the 2008 squad, the underlying premise was the same: Texas approached and entered this season riding a wave of momentum (catalyzed by the loss to A&M), the strength of which seemed clearly leading towards an exciting and fulfilling end point. The only question, then, was not if Texas would be a great football team... but when?

Early in the summer I guessed it would be 2009... By the end of fall workouts I was saying we'd be a team no one wanted to play in a 2008 bowl... And by the time Texas impressively waxed its four non-con opponents, I found myself articulating a timetable far in advance of anything I had previously imagined possible.

Why lay all this out? Because without this context one cannot possibly appreciate everything we saw on Saturday night at DKR, nor the underlying reason beyond "7-0, duh" that Texas is a True Contender for the national title. Explanations after the jump:

Winning both trench wars. We expected Texas' defensive line to be a dominant force throughout 2008, but entering the season the offensive line looked like a moderate team strength which probably wouldn't gel/peak until much later. But the offensive line's performance against Missouri was absolutely phenomenal, defined by cohesion, crisp execution, and the surgical precision of a skilled practitioner. This line not only didn't exist six weeks ago, it has developed from good (to start the season) to damn impressive (against Missouri)... and best of all (the theme returns) we're just getting going.

Chris Ogbonnaya: problem solver. My uber-love for Chris Ogbonnaya goes way back, but even I conceded after 2007 that C.O. appeared to have reached his ceiling as a pure role player. And though for a while this season he was just that, the slimmer, trimmer, quicker version of Ogbonnaya is not only back, but has opportunistically filled a vacuum--both by showcasing his raw ability and taking advantage of increased reps to improve as a decisive runner and playmaker. Most deliciously, though no one quite planned it out, the emergence of Ogbonnaya is in many ways ideal because he's so strong as a pass-catcher and pass-blocker. Again, Texas is harder to beat since this development than they were when the tailback situation was a lingering "Who knows?"

Collins, Williams? No... Davis. The theme continues with the emergence of Brandon Collins and Malcolm Williams, both of whom were non-factors through Texas' first five games. But against Oklahoma we saw Greg Davis add Collins to Colt's underneath mix and--Hallelujah--we also saw Malcolm Williams deployed... down the field! Though Williams wasn't able to secure the jump ball Colt lofted his way in Dallas, tonight the effort paid off, as the big fella swallowed a 32-yard toss that highlighted his exceptional athleticism. And here, again, is why Texas may be the most dangerous football team in the country: Not only have they won their first seven games in impressive fashion, but they're steadily adding to their ability as they go. So much so that it's hard to imagine this offense getting outgunned by anybody if they can get through the next two weeks. By January, what was once a three-man offense--operating behind a good-not-great line--could be (should be) a well-rounded, multi-dimensional attack force. We're not only starting to see it come together, but it's happened without requiring a loss to Oklahoma to get underway.

Two sides to this coin. If I've seemed overly focused on the offense in this review that's because the offensive side of the ball was my fundamental concern about this team's ceiling--in 2008 and '09. And if offensive developments are in large part serving as the foundation for my heightened expectations, I should note that the defense is--with its week-to-week improvement--following the course I and others expected. With that said, lest I understate the importance of the defense in the big theme at hand, consider the following points:

  1. We talked a lot this summer about how Muschamp's ability to successfully contain the spread would depend in large part on how well the defensive line could get pressure without blitz help from LBs and DBs. "So far, so good" would be an understatement: Orakpo has been unblockable, Miller-Houston have been healthy and massively disruptive, Melton has been one of the best turnaround stories I can think of, and...
  2. Sergio Kindle has proven himself the perfect tactical missile for Muschamp to deploy in support of the D-Line. Whether he's lining him up on the line in the Buck Package or using him in collateral support, the pressure Texas is putting on opposing quarterbacks is amazing and, best yet, getting better by the week.
  3. For the first time in forever, the linebacker unit is a team strength.
  4. Chykie Brown, Earl Thomas, and Blake Gideon have not only been increasingly excellent themselves, but they've reinforced to their age-mates what it will/does take to be a player for this defense. You can literally see the various members of the secondary working at doing what they gotta do to stay on the field. Tackling is improving. Cohesion is increasingly apparent. Being physical is a priority. Bottom line: the DB cupboard was obviously well-stocked in talent, but we're just starting to see the set on full display.

Tying it all together... I only went through that long introduction to hammer home the idea that Texas' Title Chances have as much to do with their room to improve as actually finding themselves 7-0. Though I had the strongest of doubts that Texas could get to this point, now that we're here: All the things I have said about this team's growth curve, in conjunction with some key surprise developments on offense, inexorably lead to the conclusion that Texas football has begun approaching a peak in the cycle well ahead of schedule. And most promising of all, its doing so not only allows it to be contenders by virtue of being 7-0, but because the best is still ahead.

That is what is so exciting about Texas football. The. best. is. yet. to. come.

This meta analysis is not a substitute for the usual Postgame React, which will run on Sunday.