The twin blowouts at the hands of TCU and Arkansas may serve as the final picture of the state of the Texas Longhorns football program -- an image as arousing as a manatee mating with a rhinoceros -- it's not what I'll remember about the 2014 season.
No, when I think of Charlie Strong's debut campaign, I'll remember the Baylor and Oklahoma losses first. Those back-to-back games against teams ranked (at the time) seventh and 11th epitomized the best and worst of the 2014 Longhorns.
Texas held Bryce Petty to the worst passer rating of his career, virtually eliminating the middle of the field against Baylor's versatile passing attack, and a week later doubled up Oklahoma in yardage and first downs. Tyrone Swoopes was alternately maddening and brilliant. The Longhorns were well-prepared, confident and actually managed to win more
individual plays on a snap-to-snap basis than their opponents. And they had nothing to show for it.
Those games offered a microcosm of what was wrong and right about last year's team. Strong's ability to build on what went right and eliminate the alternative will turn possessions, games, and ultimately the 2015 season.
And here's the best part -- it doesn't matter who starts at quarterback.
1) Fix special teams
The Baylor game turned sour when Nick Rose's 52-yard field goal, a kick so low it could've given Nate Boyer a concussion had Baylor not done him the favor of blocking it and, to be fair, was Strong's one true game management blunder of the year, was returned for a 62-yard swirlie of a touchdown by Terrell Burt.
A week later, Alex Ross erased a 3-0 Texas lead in a matter of 12 seconds with a 91-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. It was the only lead Texas had all day.
The Longhorns ranked 61st in punt returns, 99th in kickoff returns and failed to return a kick for a score seemingly for the first time since the Ed Price era. Field goal kicking was a weakness, an impossibility under Mack Brown, dropping from ninth to 82nd in the span of a year.
Texas found a way to be even worse when covering kicks, placing an embarrassing 98th in opponent punt returns and a dead last 128th in opponent kickoff returns. The ‘Horns were also one of 56 teams not to block a kick or punt.
Special teams strength -- or, in this case, a lack thereof -- is often a reflection of roster depth. Texas didn't have much in 2014. It will have more in 2015. If Texas can merely turn from Rajon Rondo-at-the-free-throw-line level putrid to decent this year, winning games will become much less of a challenge.
2) Cut down on mistakes
The stat flashed across the screen like a naked plus-sized model during the Texas Bowl -- nine non-offensive touchdowns allowed by Texas in 2014, the worst in college football.
We've already covered two of them, but surely you haven't forgotten the fumble in the end zone that cost UT a shutout of North Texas, Zack Sanchez putting the OU game out of reach with a 43-yard pick six, John Harris' fumble allowing Iowa State forge a second-quarter tie, Tyrone Swoopes fumbling against Texas Tech, the equal opportunity fumble and interception returned for touchdowns against TCU and the fumble in the end zone that turned the Arkansas game from probable to certain loss.
Michael C. Johnson (USA TODAY Sports)
In all, nearly a quarter of the touchdowns scored against the Longhorns came with the defense standing on the sideline. And we haven't even gotten to the moments where the offense tripped over its own shoes, like the catastrophic fumble at the Baylor goal line, the snap that greeted Swoopes' face mask deep in the Oklahoma red zone, or the entire Kansas State game.
3) Create more mistakes
The Texas defense did a lot of outstanding things in 2014. The 30 touchdowns it was actually responsible for allowing would have ranked in the top 10 nationally. It ranked second to TCU in the Big 12 in total defense, yards per play allowed, third down defense and first downs allowed, and placed 15th nationally in pass efficiency defense. Texas also ranked 12th in sacks and inside the top 40 in tackles for loss.
The Longhorns were adept at limiting opponents' big plays, but struggled to create many of their own. They forced 22 turnovers, four less than last season. Their 15 interceptions tied for 23rd nationally, a good-not-great number, but it left only seven fumble recoveries, tied for 89th. They also forced only nine fumbles, 84th nationally, a number that suggests Texas won't be as successful in recovering loose balls next year. There's an easy loop hole there, though -- force more fumbles.
So, what do we have here? A team that wasn't great at returning kicks, even worse at covering them, didn't manage to block any kicks and wasn't great at making field goals. It regularly gave away touchdowns, and it wasn't turning the ball over it was often stopping itself from scoring touchdowns.
If you're looking for optimism, you just saw it. Added depth, maturity from the little depth the Longhorns did have, another year in the system and some dumb luck should allow Texas to jump from bad to decent in those three areas from 2014 to 2015.
What if Texas drops its non-offensive touchdowns allowed from nine to three, and at the same time flips its turnover margin from 22-to-25 from 25-to-15? What if the ‘Horns get -- gasp -- good in these areas? How many wins is that worth? Baylor and Oklahoma may not want to find out.