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Texas Longhorns will face difficult schedule in 2016

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The lack of a bye week during conference play and a host of opponents expected to improve won't make things easy for Charlie Strong during his third season in Austin.

Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

In 2015, the Texas Longhorns faced the No. 21 schedule in the country, according to the FEI rankings. This season, the Longhorns once again face a difficult slate as head coach Charlie Strong attempts to demonstrate significant progress in his program, but will it be more difficult than next season?

To find out, let's look at the entire schedule, broken down by where each team finished last season.

Notre Dame Fighting Irish

September 4, Austin

2015 S&P+ ranking: 8

2016 projected S&P+ ranking: 11

On offense and defense, the Fighting Irish must replace a number of key contributors, including playmakers at wide receiver and running back, star left tackle Ronnie Stanley and two other offensive line starters, and three of the top defenders in the front seven.

Doing so will pose a major challenge for head coach Brian Kelly, but he has two excellent quarterbacks from which to choose and has been recruiting at an extremely high level -- Notre Dame will once again be a huge test for Texas. And it's one that will play out on a national stage in a primetime Sunday slot on network television, which only increases the stakes.

Prediction: Loss

UTEP Miners

September 10, Austin

2015 S&P+ ranking: 117

2016 projected S&P+ ranking: 126

The first game against UTEP since 2009 should be the easiest game on the schedule for Texas, but this is an experienced team that suffered a tremendous number of injuries last season. Throw in a good rush defense that will provide a test for the offensive line and the Smash Brothers and the 'Horns will have to take this game seriously. However, a more experienced defense led by sophomore linebacker Malik Jefferson should be able to shut down an offense that was one of the worst in the country last season.

Prediction: Win

California Golden Bears

September 17, Berkeley

2015 S&P+ ranking: 34

2016 projected S&P+ ranking: 49

The loss of star quarterback Jared Goff and a bevy of talented receivers will be difficult for the Golden Bears to overcome this season and the recruiting hasn't been good enough to simply reload like the Fighting Irish. But the addition of Texas Tech quarterback transfer Davis Webb and five-star wide receiver Demetris Robertson will make Cal dangerous enough that Texas will have to take advantage of what will likely be another weak defense that lost three of its five leading tacklers after finishing No. 82 in S&P+ last season.

Prediction: Win

Oklahoma State Cowboys

October 1, Stillwater

2015 S&P+ ranking: 33

2016 projected S&P+ ranking: 23

The recruiting rankings suggest that Oklahoma State doesn't have the depth to withstand the type of injuries that hit the Pokes last season, but that may not influence a game at the start of conference play. The bigger concern for head coach Mike Gundy is getting the running game going once again and finding capable pass rushers to replace Emmanuel Ogbah and Jimmy Bean. If he can accomplish that feat, his experienced team could make the jump many predict and hand Texas a loss heading into the Cotton Bowl.

Prediction: Loss

Oklahoma Sooners

October 8, Dallas

2015 S&P+ ranking: 4

2016 projected S&P+ ranking: 4

Holding steady may not be particularly easy for the Sooners, as the offense will surely miss star receiver Sterling Shepard and the defense will have to replace havoc-causing defenders Eric Striker, Charles Tapper, and Dominique Alexander. However, quarterback Baker Mayfield should be a Heisman contender and will benefit from the presence of star running backs Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon.

The biggest question for this game may be whether head coach Bob Stoops deigns to come up with an actual gameplan after his team showed little preparation the last two seasons.

Prediction: Loss

Iowa State Cyclones

October 15, Austin

2015 S&P+ ranking: 70

2016 projected S&P+ ranking: 71

New head coach Matt Campbell looks like a good hire for the Cyclones and will bring his power-spread offense to the Big 12, which should take advantage of breakout running back Mike Campbell and star wide receiver Allen Lazard. On defense, sturdy defensive tackle Demond Tucker will anchor the middle. So there are some good players on this Iowa State team and the 'Clones can be dangerous, as the 'Horns found out last season with the 24-0 loss in Ames. The hope is that the quest for revenge and a major talent advantage will allow Texas to avoid the school's first losing streak in football against Iowa State.

Prediction: Win

Kansas State Wildcats

October 22, Manhattan

2015 S&P+ ranking: 84

2016 projected S&P+ ranking: 67

Based upon nothing other than the fact that Kansas State will be more healthy at the quarterback position and that the Wildcats rarely play as poorly as last season under head coach Bill Snyder, it's easy to forecast some improvement. There's experience across the entire defense, but it didn't do much well last season and the offense desperately needs to find some explosive plays to finally replace the production of Tyler Lockett, who was missed greatly last season. Right now, it just doesn't look like the 'Cats will have enough talent to beat the 'Horns, even at home.

Prediction: Win

Baylor Bears

October 29, Austin

2015 S&P+ ranking: 14

2016 projected S&P+ ranking: 13

In looking at what Baylor has to replace this season -- three starting defensive linemen, four starting offensive linemen, and the conference leader in receiving touchdowns, Corey Coleman. All of those losses will test depth improved by better recruiting in recent years and buoyed by head coach Art Briles' offense and the return of quarterbacks Seth Russell and Jarrett Stidham. However, it won't be easy for the Bears to win in the trenches in this game, which should give the Longhorns a key advantage.

Prediction: Win

Texas Tech Red Raiders

November 5, Lubbock

2015 S&P+ ranking: 62

2016 projected S&P+ ranking: 43

Playing in Lubbock in what could be a night game could be worth at least a field goal for the home team, which will face a major test in needing to replace three full-time starters along the offensive line, running back DeAndre Washington, and two excellent wide receivers in Jakeem Grant and Devin Lauderdale. And while it would be hard for the defense to get worse, three of the top four linemen and five of the top seven linebackers are gone.

In light of those departures, it seems unlikely that the Red Raiders will improve that drastically, no matter how well star quarterback Pat Mahomes plays individually. So the edge in this game goes to the team with a better balance of an offense that should produce more explosive plays and a defense that can get stops.

Prediction: Win

West Virginia Mountaineers

November 11, Austin

2015 S&P+ ranking: 24

2016 projected S&P+ ranking: 33

Coming off a season that saw some definite variability in how different metric evaluated head coach Dana Holgorsen's team, much of the offense returns, including starting quarterback Skyler Howard, but the defense will have to replace some of its most talented and important players -- linebacker Nick Kwiatkowski, cornerback Daryl Worley, and safety Karl Joseph. So the offense may need to get back to more typical West Virginia to help out a defense that may not be able to withstand losses like that. As a result, give the slight advantage to Texas in this game.

Prediction: Win

Kansas Jayhawks

November 18, Lawrence

2015 S&P+ ranking: 127

2016 projected S&P+ ranking: 113

In head coach David Beaty's first season, Kansas was so bad that Sagarin predicted the Jayhawks would have been the No. 41 team in the FCS last season. As it happened, the hapless 'Hawks went 0-12 and while Beaty's second squad should enter this game with a win against Rhode Island, it's hard to see things getting much better until the talent level improves significantly in Lawrence. And while Beaty was an excellent recruiter at Texas A&M, he faces a much greater challenge at his new stop. If UTEP shows any significant improvement, this could end up being the easiest game on the Texas schedule.

Prediction: Win

TCU Horned Frogs

November 25, Austin

2015 S&P+ ranking: 26

2016 projected S&P+ ranking: 31

SB Nation's Bill Connelly believes that TCU will be better than his projections, in large part because the Horned Frogs almost certainly won't suffer from such bad luck in 2016 in regards to turnovers and injuries. Still, head coach Gary Patterson won't have his star combination of quarterback Trevone Boykin and wide receiver Josh Doctson, so there will be plenty of pressure on co-offensive coordinators Dough Meachem and Sonny Cumbie to get the most out of Texas A&M quarterback transfer Kenny Hill and a group of wide receivers that includes former Texas commit Emmanuel Porter. Defensively, all those injuries helped create depth, including along the defensive line, which should help offset a few departures there.

This looks like a potentially close game, but the assumption here is that Patterson once again gets the best of the 'Horns in Austin.

Prediction: Loss

Predicted 2016 record: 8-4

*****

So it looks like the schedule will only get more difficult for the Longhorns, as the toughest opponents will stay tough and programs like Oklahoma State, Kansas State, and Texas Tech are all expected to improve, according to the S&P+ projections. Consider those games, as well as the home contest against the Mountaineers and the post-Thanksgiving game against the Horned Frogs, as the swing games in Strong's pivotal season.

Throw in the fact that Texas won't have a bye week once conference play begins and any improvement in the overall record will be hard fought, as ESPN's FPI slots the schedule for the Longhorns as the 15th-hardest in the country.