From the moment Tyrone Swoopes dove across the goal line to lift Texas over No. 10 Notre Dame in double overtime—prompting Joe Tessitore to boldly proclaim, “Texas is back, folks,”—the expectations surrounding Charlie Strong’s third season catapulted upward.
"Texas is back, folks." - Joe Tessitore #NDvsTex pic.twitter.com/BAet7YjVcF— ESPN PR (@ESPNPR) September 5, 2016
A defining season initially said to be about progress quickly attracted talk of 10 wins and even a conference championship after then-No. 11 Texas briefly headlined the Big 12. The Irish have since proved unworthy of their preseason ranking after becoming a 3-5 team and Texas, too, has lost four-of-six following the 2-0 start. Now that the unrealistic early expectations have long since faded, Strong’s hopes of a fourth season in Austin are again reliant upon what much of the burnt orange faithful craved prior to the Notre Dame victory—progress.
While the 4-4 effort to this point doesn’t exactly scream headway, there has, in fact, been progress.
On the most basic level, Texas’ 4-4 record through eight attempts is the best mark the ‘Horns have seen under Strong after starting 3-5 in each of his first two seasons.
Obviously, a 2-4 record since the 2-0 start is less than ideal for a head coach fighting to reserve his job, at least for another season. Collectively, though, the losses have been justifiable—each has been away from Austin with three being decided by a single score, including the controversial finish in Berkeley that didn’t end until nearly 2:00 a.m. local time (CT). Texas’ 24-21 loss to Kansas State may have also seen a different outcome minus a Trent Domingue missed field goal and Armanti Foreman dropped touchdown pass late in the fourth quarter.
What the shared sum of Texas’ performance through eight games reveals is a telling statistic indicative of progress, even considering the losses.
At the same point last season, the Longhorns’ point differential was -71, which was aided by opponents simply blowing Texas out (Notre Dame 38-3, TCU 50-7, Iowa State 24-0). 2016 has narrated a completely different story; one boasting a +26 point differential, despite the Longhorns defensive struggles.
For starters, it was essential that a Texas team with no shortage of talent eliminate the blowout losses. The three defeats to California, Oklahoma and Kansas State came by a total of 15 points, while the 18-point road loss to Oklahoma State was more competitive than the final score would indicate.
Strong can credit much of this progress to his offseason acquisition of offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert, resulting in a desperately-needed uptick in production in the scoring department, which has served as the most notable step forward from last season.
Anyone with eyes would tell you the difference between the Longhorns offensive output is night and day compared to 2015. Headlined by a first-year veer-and-shoot offense with a first-year quarterback taking directions from a first-year play-caller, Texas has scored 288 points and compiled 3,891 yards of offense this season. Those efforts mark a 118-point, 1,253-yard improvement over Texas’ performance through eight games in 2015.
After scoring 37 touchdowns this season, which is four more than Texas has allowed (33), the ‘Horns have also taken a considerable step in the right direction from last season’s 18 touchdowns produced and 31 touchdowns allowed through eight games. A +4 touchdown differential seems much better than a -13 differential, as was the case in 2015.
The defense, on the other hand, has taken a step back, but it hasn’t suffered as significant a regression as it may seem.
To this point, the Texas defense has allowed 33 touchdowns and 3,695 yards. While this isn’t an impressive feat, by any means, it’s only a slight regression from the 31 touchdowns and and 3,482 yards allowed during Texas’ 3-5 effort at the same point in 2015. In terms of yardage, Texas is allowing only 26.6 more yards per game while having played numerous high-powered offenses.
Additionally, though Texas has allowed 33 touchdowns in 2016, the defense has tightened up considerably by allowing only seven touchdowns in the last three games—Strong took over defensive play-calling duties four games ago.
The defense is still light years away from where it needs to be, but seven touchdowns in three games following 26 in the previous five outings, too, can be considered progress.
Prior to Swoopes diving across the goal line to lift Texas over No. 10 Notre Dame and before Texas was said to be “back, folks,” Strong’s third season in Austin was supposed to be about progress. Texas is still far from a polished product, but in analyzing the big picture, 2016 has progress painted all over it.
The ‘Horns still hold onto realistic hopes of a bowl appearance after eight games with a better record than Texas has seen under Strong to this point. Texas competes at a high level each time out—even in the losses—and the offense is as potent as it’s been since the Colt McCoy era, courtesy of a true freshman emerging as a long-term solution to Texas’ half-decade long quarterback concerns.
Strong’s future at Texas likely hinges on the remaining third of the season, and there’s still plenty of opportunity for additional progress. After going winless in every road game this season, along with the Red River Shootout, Strong will have opportunities against Texas Tech and Kansas to populate the road win column twice after doing so only once in 2015 (No. 12 Baylor). Following last season’s 1-3 record against ranked competition, the Longhorns are 2-1 in 2016 and Strong will have an opportunity to lead Texas to 3-1 if No. 20 West Virginia is still ranked in mid-November. And with four games remaining, along with a potential bowl game, it’s possible for Strong to lead Texas to its best regular season record during his tenure with three more wins prior to possibly capturing his first bowl victory in Austin.
If one were to say all of the above were true prior to the season, most would consider the 2016 season a success with notable progress, at least to this point. Knocking off Notre Dame introduced premature and unrealistic expectations, and as a result, Strong’s job security took a heavy hit while a team still littered with youth endured its share of struggles.
But during a season initially meant to be about progress, Strong has assured that’s been the case.
Charlie Strong walks off the field to chants of "Charlie" with Mike Perrin cheering right behind him #Longhorns pic.twitter.com/MgNcN41RBY— Garrett Callahan (@CallahanGarrett) October 30, 2016