Entering year 3 of the Charlie Strong era, it's still a challenge trying to predict what record the Texas Longhorns will have once the season is over. Many are hoping for improvement from the bowl-less 5-7 season in 2015, and the future looks brighter than it has in the past few years, but there are no guarantees big improvement will happen in terms of the win column.
Until we actually see this team in action, it's hard to get a real sense of what it's capable of this season, but here's where I stand with this team and its schedule at the moment.
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Notre Dame, September 4
Predicted Record: 0-1
Last season, Texas got rocked by Notre Dame in South Bend. The offense was dismal and the defense looked lost. This season, this Longhorns team will look much different. And Notre Dame likely won't be as strong of a team out of the gate either. But will Texas be good enough in Week 1 to cause an upset?
I've been flip-flopping back and forth on this game. Both of these teams will be different than they were last season for various reasons. Texas will obviously have a much different offense. And Notre Dame will have a handful of different faces in key positions. Trying to figure out exactly who these teams will be at the start of the season is the challenge with this one.
The positive for Notre Dame is it returns two starting caliber quarterbacks (DeShon Kizer & Malik Zaire), it gets running back Tarean Folston Jr. back form injury and return sophomore running back Josh Adams. And defensively, it brings back a good portion of its two-deep.
The drawbacks are they lose big time playmaker Will Fuller at wide receiver, need to replace three starting offensive linemen (though they have some legitimate options to plug in across the line), and they have to also find replacements for some key players on defense, especially up front.
Guys like linebacker Jaylon Smith, defensive tackle Sheldon Day and defensive end Romeo Okwara are all gone.
Both the Longhorns and Fighting Irish will likely want to establish the run early. Without a proven go-to receiver, the Fighting Irish will look to rely heavily on their ground attack to start the game. And while focusing on the running backs, the Texas defense cannot let either Notre Dame quarterbacks make too many big plays with their feet when they drop back to pass.
For me, the most important battle to watch in this game will be the Texas defensive line against the Irish offensive line. Both will have question marks, and both will be inserting inexperience into the game when starters need breathers,
I do think Texas has a solid chance in this game. But I see Notre Dame winning more of the battles in the trenches and its talent at quarterback paying off and ultimately winning a game that comes down to one score.
UTEP, September 10
Predicted record: 1-1
The masses will be calling for job changes if Texas loses this game. Expect a big day from Texas as they'll easily be the better team in this one.
Cal, September 17
Predicted record: 2-1
Last year, Cal came to Texas and edged out a win in the final quarter. This year, I have Texas getting revenge in California.
After losing a lot of starters, including QB Jared Goff (who was drafted first overall in the 2016 NFL Draft by the L.A. Rams back in May) and a large chunk of its receiving core, the pass-happy Cal team likely won't be nearly as effective and explosive out of the gate this season. And overall, you really would be hard-pressed to find another depth chart around the country that has to replace as many starters as Cal does on both sides of the ball.
Even on the road, Texas should have a good shot to win this game.
It is important to note that Cal did hire former Texas A&M offensive coordinator Jake Spavital as its new offensive coordinator and added former Texas Tech quarterback Davis Webb to its roster via grad transfer. At the moment, Webb is apparently in a three-way battle for the starting job.
Oklahoma State, October 1
Predicted record: 3-1
If Texas pulls the upset here, we very well could look back at this game as the most pivotal win of the regular season. I say that because if this game is a win, there's a very real chance Texas rides into the Cotton Bowl with a winning record of 3-1 or 4-0 and has a shot at a nine-plus win season. If not, they could come out of the Cotton Bowl with an overall losing record of 1-4 or 2-3 -- and that's not a place Charlie Strong and Texas want to be in.
Last season, Oklahoma State barely escaped Austin with a win after a special teams blunder. This year, I have Texas stealing a win in Stillwater, but it won't be easy.
Returning nine starters including junior QB Mason Rudolph, leading receiver junior James Washington, all five starters across the offensive line (though this group did struggle with run-blocking last season and could struggle again this season), and running backs Chris Carson and Rennie Childs, most of the offense will still be intact.
To add to the run game, Barry J. Sanders (son of Barry Sanders) will transfer from Stanford and be ready to play in the fall for the Pokes. At Stanford last season, Sanders backed up Heisman hopeful Christian McCaffrey, averaged over six yards per carry, and scored four touchdowns. He's a quick back with a good burst that I view as a boom/bust type of performer.
Aside from how effective and consistent its rushing attack will be, the Oklahoma State offense isn't so much the question or weakness. That unit will put up points one way or another. Its defense, however, is the mystery heading into the season. And that's not me saying that it's a sure thing that this defense will struggle, because the unit could actually be solid if they bring it all together. But the Cowboys lost some key players at every level of their defense that are now question marks on their depth chart for the time being.
Up front, they may have lost their best pass-rushing tandem to play in Stillwater in recent history in defensive ends Emmanuel Ogbah and Jimmy Bean. Behind the defensive line, two linebackers and veteran leaders are gone in Ryan Simmons and Seth Jacobs. And in the secondary, the Pokes will be without corner Kevin Peterson (who was all-Big 12 first team) and spot starter Michael Hunter Jr. Those shoes won't be easy to fill.
With all of that in mind, Oklahoma State will have other defensive players they can still rely on, like defensive tackle Vincent Taylor, and solid depth throughout that side of the football. And that unit could actually play well enough for OK State to make a push for the Big12 Title. But trying to gauge just how good that side of the ball will be for the Cowboys this year, especially after a year where they benefited from turnovers more than anyone would have expected, is the challenge.
To get a better sense of their good fortunes from turnovers and an overall look at why this team is a mystery right now, here's a great write up from SBNation about what caused the three-game losing streak for OK State after starting the season 10-0 in 2015, and some factors that could shape the ‘Pokes in 2016.
There's no question that playing in Stillwater never makes a game any easier for opponents. And if Texas were to play Oklahoma State ten times, I'd pick the 'Pokes to win a majority of those games. But Texas doesn't have to play them ten times; they just have to play them once. And coming off a bye week, I'll take Texas to upset Oklahoma State in Stillwater to get a much needed win before the Cotton Bowl.
Oklahoma, October 8
Location: Cotton Bowl
Predicted record: 3-2
As much as I want to pick Texas here, I'm not. Last year, Texas stunned Oklahoma with an upset. The Longhorns ran all over the Sooners defense for 312 yards. And the Longhorns' defensive front had quarterback Baker Mayfield either on the ground or running for his life thanks to their pressure up front and 6 sacks on the day.
This season, I can't imagine Bob Stoops will want Texas have that type of day on the ground again. He'll likely try to do everything he can to force a Texas quarterback to win the game and make plays. And though they lose defensive end Charles Tapper up front along with most of their linebackers (including Eric Striker and Domonique Alexander), they return a solid group of defensive backs and will likely have a formidable defensive line once again.
Offensively, Oklahoma will need to replace a couple offensive linemen and receivers Streling Shepard and Durron Neal. This will be year two of offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley calling the plays and designing the scheme. And in year four of his tenure at Oklahoma, offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh will have a chance to start players he recruited at all five positions across the line as he works to put together a line that will need to do a good job of protecting Heisman hopeful Baker Mayfield at quarterback. And even with some questions marks at receiver and offensive line to start the season, this Sooner offense will still have a lot of punch to it with both Samaje Perin and Joe Mixon back at running back
Charlie Strong has played Oklahoma well in his first two seasons at Texas, and there's no question Texas could come in and beat the Sooners for a second year in a row. But until we have a clearer picture of what this offense will look like and how the Texas defensive line shakes out, I'm leaning Sooners for now.
Iowa State, September 4
Predicted record: 4-2
You better believe Coach Strong and his team will want revenge after an embarrassing showing in Ames last season where Texas couldn't muster up a single point. And frankly, Texas has to win this game.
It is important to note that Iowa State will be led by first-year head coach Matt Campbell, who was formerly the head coach at Toledo. As the head coach at Toledo, Campbell led his team to four straight seasons of winning records. And most recently, Campbell led Toledo to a 9-2 2015 season that included a bowl win over Temple. With him, he also brought offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Tom Manning, who coached with Campbell at Toledo.
Both Campbell and Manning will want to run the ball a ton. And they'll have effective options with sophomore Mike Warren returning at running back (who led all freshmen backs with 1,339 yards last season) and sophomore quarterback Joel Lanning (also a sophomore who carved up the Texas defense last season with 64 yards on the ground and 188 yards through the air as a freshman) returning at quarterback. But Iowa State's weakness will be its offensive line that returns just one starter.
I like Texas in this one even if it is another ugly game.
Kansas State, October 22
Predicted record: 5-2
Any time you play the Wizard that is head coach Bill Snyder, you could always find yourself tripping up in a game. And this Kansas State team should be much improved from last season if it can stay healthy.
The depth chart returns players across the board, including two quarterbacks that went down with knee injuries last season (Jesse Ertz and Alex Delton). And with this game being played in Manhattan, Kansas, the Longhorns won't be given any favors.
But Kansas State could struggle up front on offense as it works to replace four starting offensive linemen. I'll take the Texas defensive front in a game that could get hairy in the first half before Texas is able to get out with a win.
Baylor, October 29
Predicted record: 6-2
Texas beat Baylor in Waco to end the season last year, and this year in Austin they'll have a chance to make it two-in-a-row.
Offensively, the Bears lost a handful of key faces. Wide receivers Corey Coleman and Jay Lee left for the NFL, running back Devin Chafin was dismissed from the team, sophomore quarterback Jarrett Stidham decided to transfer, four offensive linemen are gone (only center Kyle Fuller returns) and head coach Art Briles was fired. From a football standpoint only, the effects of those losses will be felt on the field.
Fortunately for the Bears, there are a few key offensive players returning. Senior quarterback Seth Russell is back as the starter. And around him, he has a slew of running backs in Shock Linwood, Johnny Jefferson and Terrence Williams. And on the outside at receiver, KD Cannon is also back and will undoubtedly be the go-to receiver for the Bears this season.
But even without all the off-field issues in Waco, I still would lean Texas in this one. Baylor's defensive coordinator Phil Bennett (yes, he still some how has a job) has the tall task of replacing his entire starting front four including nose tackle Andrew Billings. And even though this will likely be an intense and chippy game between these two teams, I'll like Texas in this one at home.
Texas Tech, November 5
Predicted record: 6-3
Besides the quarterback position, Texas has the better roster at a majority of the positions up and down the depth chart between these two teams. And Texas does have a real shot at winning this game. But this game comes late in the season, six weeks removed from a bye week with no other bye week in sight.
With such a young roster, there's a good chance Texas will stub its toe in one of the games late in the season. And this game will also be the first one played in Lubbock for all of the freshmen and sophomores on roster. If Texas comes in banged up or sluggish, it could find itself on the losing end of another shootout once again.
The biggest strength for Texas Tech is Patrick Mahomes. If you're asking me, the junior quarterback is the best quarterback in the Big12, and playing for Kliff Kinsgbury in that system only helps that argument.
In the backfield next to Mahomes, junior running back Justin Stockton returns and will be the top option to replace the departed DeAndre Washington. Being much more of a speed option compared to the physical Washington, the Tech running game will take on a bit of a different identity.
And though no one on the outside at receiver is gaining much recognition as an All-Big 12 talent, the group will be solid and will include inside receiver Ian Sadler, who performed well against the Longhorns posting 108 yards on six receptions last season.
Tech's strengths will be its quarterback and the handful of weapons he has to use. And that may be enough to win if Texas has an off night. But Tech definitely has weaknesses of its own to overcome this season as well. Working to protect Mahomes and company will be an offensive line that has to replace four of five starters and a defense that is still figuring itself out in year two under the director of defensive coordinator David Gibbs.
And this offseason may have created even more challenges before providing solutions. The Red Raiders best defensive back, Nigel Bethel, elected to transfer, and their best linebacker, Dakota Allen, was dismissed from the team. Not ideal to say the least.
Since Tech uses such big splits when lining up, the woes across the offensive line may be minimized enough to give Mahomes the time he needs to make his throws. And if the Longhorns' defense struggles to slow down the aerial attack once again, comes out sluggish on the road, or struggles to generate the points they'll need, it may be two-in-a-row for the Red Raiders.
West Virginia, November 12
Predicted record: 7-3
It's very possible the Longhorns could lose in Lubbock only to come back home to lose another one against West Virginia. But if the Longhorns can protect the ball much better and play defense more effectively against the Mountaineers this time around, they could come out on the winning side.This loss for the Longhorns last season came down to turnovers and a poor defensive effort. On the day, the Longhorns forfeited five turnovers that led to 24 of West Virginia's 30 points.
And the Texas defense struggled to slow down the Mountaineers offense (especially the running game) that posted 257 yards and two touchdowns on the ground and 122 yards and two touchdowns through the air. It was an ugly performance that left Texas fans everywhere more than frustrated.
This season, the Mountaineers offensive depth chart will look very similar to the unit it deployed in 2015 as it returns eight starters including senior quarterback Skyler Howard, leading receivers Daikel Shorts and Shleton Gibson, and four of its five starting offensive linemen. And let's also not forget that the Mountaineers added former Texas assistant Joe Wickline to their staff as the one and only offensive coordinator, though the poor guy likely won't get to calls plays there either.
As for their weaknesses, the tallest task on offense will be replacing do-it-all running back Wendell Smallwood, who led the Big 12 in rushing last season with 1,519 yards and was drafted by the Eagles in the fifth round back in May. Senior Rushel Shell and true freshman Kennedy McCoy will have the first chance at filling the void left behind by Smallwood.
Defensively, the Mountaineers will likely struggle at times. Aside from a veteran group of defensive linemen up front, the defense as a whole looks to replace eight starters across the depth chart. And if the Texas offensive line can hold off the West Virginia pass rush, it will lead to a successful day for the ‘Horns offense.
This will be another challenge for the Texas defense in the "spread offense-conference" that is the now Big 12. But give me Texas at home in a game where they rattle Skyler Howard and exploit WVU's defense.
Kansas, November 19
Predicted record: 8-3
Texas can't afford to lose this game. And being the better team, Texas should be heavily favored in this one as well.
Kansas went 0-12 in David Beaty's first year as the head coach of the Jayhawks. And there's no reason to think the Jayhawks will be improved enough to beat the Longhorns this year even if the game is played in Kansas. Look for the Longhorns to take an early lead and then use the lead to rest key players for the final game of the season against TCU.
TCU, November 25
Predicted record: 8-4
There's no doubt Texas wants this game badly this season. TCU absolutely embarrassed the Longhorns in Fort Worth last season in a dominant 50-7 victory and they weren't even at full strength defensively. It was a dark day for the ‘Horns in 2015.
This season, Texas should play better against TCU. Texas fans hope it doesn't get any worse... And TCU does have to replace some key players, including quarterback Trevone Boykin and wide receiver Josh Doctson.
So there's a chance the TCU offense could take a dip this season. But that dip, if it happens, could be slight thanks to the Horned Frogs having legitimate options to turn to at those two positions and others around the roster.
At quarterback, former Texas A&M starter Kenny Hill will have a chance to win the battle over sophomore Foster Sawyer. And on the outside, TCU returns three receivers who all contributed as freshmen last year, including the electric KeVontae Turpin, while getting senior Deonte Gray back from a knee injury last season after posting eight touchdowns in 2014. The loss of Doctson and Boykin will be felt, but it could be minimized if a few key players step up.
The offensive challenges don't end there for the Horned Frogs. Four of five starters must be replaced on the offensive line, and an answer (or answers) must be found at the running back position that lost work horse Aaron Green to graduation after he rushed for 1,272 yards and scored 11 touchdowns on the year.
And the challenge at running back just got a bit more difficult as sophomore Shaun Nixon (who also saw time and played well at wide receiver when needed after missing the entire 2014 season to a knee injury) will likely miss the entire 2016 season with an injury. It's a disappointing loss for TCU and the former four-star running back that was once ranked second at running back in the state of Texas for his class in high school.
But the Horned Frogs still have other options to turn to, including junior Kyle Hicks and true-freshman Sewo Olonillua (a former four-star recruit) who enrolled at TCU after graduating in December (don't sleep on Sewo -- I may be saying that partly because I also know his older brother from college, but Sewo has skills). One way or another, a running back or multiple will be found to handle the work load.
Even if TCU's offense takes a dip of some kind, its defense has a chance to pick up the slack. Last season, that side of the ball was riddled with injuries, but the one positive was it allowed younger players to get early experience. Now, defensive-minded head coach Garry Patterson finds himself with a defense that returns 11 players with quality starting experience and solid depth behind them.
The Horned Frogs' strength will likely be their pass rush led by defensive ends Josh Carraway and James McFarland (the 2014 TCU sack leader who was sidelined all of 2015 with an injury). Both are expected to start on the outside. And behind them, a handful of athletic linebackers will be there to roam the field. The one weakness for TCU's defense could be its secondary. But with a strong defensive front, and a solid safety in Denzel Johnson roaming the back, this unit could easily be the best in the entire conference when this game rolls around.
Don't sleep on TCU this season. They'll be right at the top of the pack in the Big12 once again. And this game will definitely be a challenge for the Longhorns.
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As it stands now, I have Texas going 8-4. And if you were to ask me to rewrite this prediction piece next week, I'd probably give Texas a different record. Anyone could easily make an argument for why Texas would struggle and go 6-6 or excel and end the year at 9-3 or better.
We all know what this team is supposed to look like and what the end goal is, but how long it takes Texas to get there and what that road will look like along the way is the big unknown. For Charlie Strong's sake, hopefully Texas is on the winning side of that road more often than not..