The goal? To show improvement.
The mission? To win enough games to at least grade out as “satisfactory” by the end of the season.
The amount of wins needed? Many will tell you that magic number is “eight”, though it could be argued less would still be sufficient depending on how the scenario were to play out.
What’s at stake? Possibly everything.
By now, we’re all familiar with the situation the Texas Longhorns and head coach Charlie Strong face as the season quickly approaches. With that said, I’m not going to sit here, waste our time, and repaint the picture of Strong standing at a fork in the road before he and the ‘Horns embark on their journey known as the 2016 college football season.
Instead, let’s take a realistic look at both of these teams and what it will take for either team to win this game.
Five keys for a Texas win...
- Lean on the running backs as long as they’re effective.
Of all the position groups on offense, running back is the most reliable one heading into the season — we all know the type of damage D’Onta Foreman and Chris Warren can create against opposing defenses when given the chance.
The issue here isn’t whether or not Texas has effective running backs. Instead, the issue is whether or not the running backs will have a chance to be effective enough.
The Longhorns offensive line is still a work in progress, even if it does have three solid returning starters. And that work in progress could get exposed even more against a big, powerful Notre Dame defensive line Sunday evening.
But if Foreman, Warren and company are producing, then expect Texas to ride them to the very end of the game. That’s a no-brainer.
2. Start the game well
Unfortunately, there’s no easy button for this key to the game. But this Texas team probably can’t afford to be playing catch-up all night. If Texas gets down 14-0 or the dreaded 17-0 early, the life inside DKR will be sucked out and the stadium will live up to its moniker as the Library.
Scoring first and not looking back is the goal. But even picking up a handful of first downs on the opening drive would likely do some good for a Texas team that needs to show some form of competency on offense.
Starting the game well is another reason why I think senior quarterback Tyrone Swoopes takes the first snap. Even though he struggled against Notre Dame in the opener, he also grew up some the rest of the season after that. And between Swoopes and freshman Shane Buechele, the senior has a ton more game experience at this level.
3. Use speed to your advantage
Over the offseason, Texas got faster on offense. And we’re not talking about the Shawn Watson “everything is the same on offense but faster” except-not-really-faster-at-all type of “fast” on offense.
There are two ways Texas got faster. First, this scheme will actually be faster. Sterlin Gilbert brings a Baylor-style offense to Austin. And that offense is an up-tempo, no-huddle, fast-paced offense.
Second, in that offense, Texas now has more speed on the edges thanks to some returning players like John Burt, Armanti Foreman, and Jacorey Warrick and some new guys like Devin Duvernay and Jerrod Heard.
If Notre Dame is the heavyweight boxer, then Texas is the lightweight in this match up. To counter the big, physical players up front, Texas needs to use its speed to get past those big guys while also using speed to take advantage of a weaker secondary Notre Dame is expected to be fielding this time around.
4. Bend don’t break, defense
I may not always agree with the bend-don’t-break style of defense. But in this game, it’s one scenario that seems realistic.
Texas has question marks up front, specifically in the middle of the defensive line. And given that Notre Dame’s offensive line consists of big, powerful athletes, we’ll probably see the Irish try to force their will on the defensive line until they can no longer do so.
The key for Texas will be to not get worn down to where the game breaks wide open.
Maybe the Longhorns will get to this point eventually this season, but I’m not sold that Texas can maintain pace in a shootout if this game gets to that point.
For that reason, Strong’s team has to keep this game within reach at all points of the game. Getting down by a touchdown or more at one point or another probably won’t be game over. But anything beyond that could raise cause for major concern.
5. Stay focused, stay motivated, come out strong after half time
This may sound obvious. But the issue here is that there’s a lot at stake. And this game is against an opponent that dominated this match-up last season.
One this team had last year is it often looked like it lost its drive and fire halfway through a game. Whether it was Notre Dame, TCU, or Iowa State, too many times the team came out flat after the half and then couldn’t quite get going again.
Texas will probably take some lumps right from the start. It absolutely cannot loose its drive or focus, especially if its down by one or two scores at halftime.
Five keys for a Notre Dame win
- Don’t give Texas more opportunities than necessary
As many of us know, committing turnovers is an easy and cheap way to keep a weaker team in a ball game. Whether those turnovers come from fumbles, interceptions, or even quick, stalled drives, Notre Dame will likely want to maintain control of the ball, clock, and tone of this entire game if it can.
2. Use the quarterbacks’ legs, too
We all know the issues Texas had against the run and with tackling last season. And given that Notre Dame has two good, mobile options at quarterback, Brian Kelly and his staff probably won’t be afraid to run whoever is on field. If one gets hurt, the other is right there to step in.
If the Texas defensive line is struggling to get off blocks, then we could see the Notre Dame quarterbacks getting into the second and third levels of the Texas defense. That’s a scenario no Texas fan should want.
3. Keep the Texas quarterbacks off balance
Regardless of who takes the most snaps for Texas, I imagine Notre Dame probably feels pretty good about facing either quarterback, even in this new offense.
Swoopes flopped against this team last season. And this will be Buechele’s first game as a college quarterback. To win on Sunday, the Irish will work to prevent either quarterback from getting into any sort of rhythm.
This thought is one of my nightmares going into this game.
4. Tackle in space
In this new offense, Texas and Sterlin Gilbert will try to put their playmakers in space to beat guys one-on-one. To counter this, Notre Dame will need to have a solid night of tackling.
Instead of going for the big hit or over-pursuing, the Irish defenders will want to wrap the Texas players up before they have a chance to make a big move or cut upfield.
5. Play like the 10th-ranked team in the nation
Notre Dame has its own question marks heading into this game. There are a lot of starters being replaced, a lot of production on offense is gone, and the defense got put back together to a degree over the off-season.
Yet, even with all of this, Notre Dame is ranked pretty high in both the Coaches and AP polls. To avoid getting tripped up in this game, the Irish will want to back up its rankings and play at a high-level of football.
If not, the ‘Horns could be sitting there ready to capitalize.
As a reminder, I’m posting one thought per day in a series of 15 posts over the course of 15 days until we get to game day.
With three days left until kickoff, this is the 13th post of the series.
If you missed the other posts, the links are below