It's almost impossible to predict what will befall a college football team from one week to the next. Over the course of 4-5 months, personnel problems, injuries, suspensions, team chemistry issues, coaching blunders, and off-field shenanigans can flip the narrative surrounding a squad in a heartbeat.
There are always a few high level themes, however, that drive the attention of a program's fans-- casual and fanatical -- and the media who follow them closely.
For the 2014 Texas Longhorns, there are three story lines on everyone's mind.
1. Will the offense be able to create the balance necessary to ensure consistent success?
While the Longhorns offense hasn't necessarily had problems scoring points over the past few seasons, there are concerns the 2014 offense will. Running backs Malcolm Brown, Johnathan Gray and D'Onta Foreman will be tasked with carrying the majority of the load for a Texas offense that's lacking wide out depth, and will be pressing to get enough production there to keep opposing defensive fronts honest.
It all starts with a rather untested offensive line that could potentially feature first-time starters like Sedrick Flowers and Kent Perkins. If this unit is able to consistently win battles in the trenches -- led in large part by the success or failure of stalwart Dominic Espinosa -- the goal of achieving a run/pass balance becomes much more reasonable.
What's reasonable is assuming the balance between run and pass will not be anywhere near 60/40 (much less 50/50). Given concerns surrounding David Ash's overall health, a swing toward a run-heavy offense which uses the passing game as a compliment rather than vice versa is likely. However, if wide receivers like Jacorey Warrick, Lorenzo Joe and Ty Templin can step up to compliment Marcus Johnson, and hopefully, a healthy Jaxon Shipley, then some semblance of balance isn't impossible. That balance could easily be the difference between a 7-5 or 8-4 finish -- or, something closer to what Texas fans will expect from Charlie Strong's team going forward.
Namely, double-digit wins, a first-tier bowl game and a return to national prominence.
2. Will the linebackers be technically sound enough to prevent game changing mistakes?
The same refrain became the torture of Texas fans in 2012 in particular, and to a degree in 2013: Big plays happening over and over again across the middle of the field due to poor pursuit angles taken by linebackers, and the unit's overall lack of technical ability.
Many of the individual linebackers have had flashes of brilliance -- Peter Jinkens, DeMarco Cobbs, even Dalton Santos -- but haven't been able to always play at the level expected of them upon arrival on the Forty Acres. Guys like Tim Cole never even made a blip on the radar after being highly touted during their high school careers. We all can hope Jordan Hicks will be healthy enough to play a full 12 game campaign in 2014, and Steve Edmond gets it together. If not, several guys will have to step up to yet again fill the production void.
The greatest necessity is that 6 to 7 yard passes across the middle and into the flats -- combined with incorrect angles and blown coverages -- don't turn into the 20 to 25 yard gains as we saw time and again last season. Stack enough of these plays up and it's far too easy to break the will of a defensive unit as a whole. When the linebackers can't be trusted to take up the slack of the defensive line when beaten in the trenches, they continually force the secondary to make score-saving plays.
The 2014 Texas linebackers must be the glue that keeps the defensive unit together.
3. Special Teams are a mystery.
Place-kicker / punter Anthony Fera was perhaps the most dependable member of the Texas offense in 2013, hitting on 20 of 22 field goal attempts (90.9% accuracy), 45 of 46 extra point attempts, and averaging 40.7 yards per kick as a punter pulling double duty, which earned him All-American honors. With Fera's departure, there's been an in-camp battle between junior Nick Rose and sophomore Nick Jordan, with Rose nominally winning the competition and the job for the season's opener against the North Texas Mean Green.
Either guy will be taking on a production load with which they are totally unfamiliar, and given this, there's plenty of reason for concern. The allowance for error on special teams -- particularly in the kicking game -- will be very small this season, and it's hard to know whether Rose will be ready to rise to make the big kicks when they're needed the most. And rest assured, they will be, at some point.
Will Russ takes over for Fera as the punter, and as you would expect, there will be huge importance placed on him earning at least a 40-45 yard average per kick to keep the field position battles both manageable and winnable.
After averaging just 21.2 yards per kick return in 2013, the Horns could use a spark from either Quandre Diggs, Marcus Johnson, Mykkele Thompson, or in a best-case scenario, Daje Johnson to shorten the field and give David Ash and company much less yardage to cover. On the flipside, the atrocious kick return coverage unit from 2013 will need an entirely new look to take pressure off the Horns' D.
How these three story lines play out will say plenty about how we judge Charlie Strong come January 2015, but more importantly, how the surrounding expectations will be framed for next fall.