This is the final post in a week-long series sponsored by EA Sports NCAA Football 2011.
We spent last week sharing what it means to be a fan of Texas football. Today, we wrap the series with a discussion about expectations for the season ahead.
Since 2004, Texas has gone 69-9, with 6 of the 9 losses accumulated during back-to-back 10-3 seasons in 2006-07. Across the other four seasons they went 49-3, including 30-2 in Big 12 play -- twice winning the conference and playing for the national title, winning one. Especially delightful, four out of the last five Red River Shootouts have been won by the Longhorns.
As difficult as it is to overstate just how remarkable is that six-year stretch, most Longhorns fans won't hesitate to suggest that the team could have done better -- a fact which explains why one would ask whether a three-loss season ending in a Cotton Bowl berth might represent "a disastrous season for Texas" in 2011. These days, even in a transition year the bar is set exceptionally high.
Texas plays just four road games this fall, plus the annual contest against Oklahoma in Dallas, with the season likely to be defined by the four-game stretch beginning in Lubbock and ending in Lincoln.
Four Questions For 2011
1. What's the offensive identity? We're told the offense will be seeking greater balance this year, but what does that mean? What will it look like? And by what measure will its success be defined? As envisioned, Texas will feature a legitimate rushing attack that opens up a punishing, big-play aerial attack featuring heavy doses of play-action. But what happens if Texas struggles to run the ball? Will Texas revert to the Colt-centric offense, only with Gilbert? Would it be likely to succeed?
2. How do we plan to rush the football? It's one thing to say you're interested in rushing the football, but Texas can be frothing at the mouth to establish the run and still struggle to do so if there isn't a change in how it goes about doing it. Though there are personnel issues, the critical question is one of approach.
3. How much will the defense miss Lamarr Houston and Earl Thomas? The ceiling for this year's defense will largely be defined by how well it fills the voids left by defensive tackle Lamarr Houston and safety Earl Thomas. The line should be fine so long as Kheeston Randall stays healthy and at least one of the redshirt freshmen is ready for to play high-leverage minutes. At safety, there will be a drop off from Earl Thomas -- the question is how much.
4. How many freshmen are ready to contribute? A successful 2010 season almost assuredly includes meaningful contributions from several freshmen (redshirt and true). Are players like Calvin Howell, Greg Timmons, Thomas Ashcraft, and Mason Walters ready? Equally important, will the coaches give them opportunities early and often?
What Should We Expect From This Team?
This is as difficult a team and season to project as any in recent memory; it's easy to imagine both exceptional and discouraging results. It's near-impossible to predict what we're going to see from this offense, and though the defense has the potential to be legitimately dominant, if things break against us (e.g. Randall gets hurt, or the safeties are real liabilities) it could turn out merely good. Equally uncertain are the outlooks of our toughest opponents -- Texas Tech (game three of year one under Tommy Tuberville), Oklahoma (lost 15 important contributors), Nebraska (Zac Lee returns, Ndamukong Suh does not), and Texas A&M (hoping DeRuyter's 3-4 elevates the defense to respectability).
Our recent track record and my very high opinion of Garrett Gilbert make me want to believe a special season is possible, and I think it is. Nevertheless, that there are so many question marks makes more likely that Texas will be up and down. (The running game could be strong, while Gilbert struggles... Gilbert could be great, but without any run game off which to work... The receiving corps could be a major disappointment... Christian Scott, Nolan Brewster, and Kenny Vaccaro could be liabilities in coverage... Injuries could create a crisis at defensive tackle...)
If everything breaks bad, it's plausible this team could lose as many as 4-5 games. At the same time, there's more than enough talent that if everything comes together quickly, it's not unfathomable that the squad emerges from Lincoln a perfect 6-0. All told, I suspect most fans will join me in splitting the difference -- the considerable upside and abundance of unknowns leading us to expect Texas will lose a game or three.
We'll dive into the details of this team in the days and weeks ahead, but for now, this is your thread to lay out your expectations. Do you have a good feel for what you expect this team to do? If you're expecting greatness, what's your vision of this year's offense?