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An improving Texas team will continue to be tested by tough schedule

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The defense is making its presence felt and the offense is finding a groove, but the schedule ahead is as tough as it was throughout the first half of the season.

Kansas State v Texas Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

As Tom Herman often notes, a team is what its record says it is.

The Texas Longhorns are a 3-3 football team, but this is far from the same bunch that sat at .500 through six games last season. Say what you wish about moral victories, but the fact of the matter is this Texas team is just a small handful of plays away from last-minute victories over No. 4 USC and No. 12 Oklahoma, a 5-1 record, and likely a top-15 ranking.

The ‘Horns are that close.

While that’s certainly a sign of progress, it’s still a cause for concern going forward because close, moral victories don’t equate to wins and bowl berths, especially when the schedule is quite unforgiving.

Texas remaining schedule and odds to win, per ESPN’s FPI

  • No. 10 Oklahoma State — 37.9%
  • Baylor — 83.1%
  • @ No. 4 TCU — 25.2%
  • Kansas — 98%
  • @ No. 23 West Virginia — 53.8%
  • Texas Tech — 64.2%

For the ‘Horns, the cause for concern entering the second half of the season falls on both sides of the ball, although the defense’s issue has much more to do with the offenses it will soon see than anything else.


Defensively, Texas has been a much-improved unit under Todd Orlando, but the ‘Horns will be tested well beyond comfort in the coming weeks.

Beginning with No. 10 Oklahoma State on Saturday and a Cowboys offense that tops the nation in total offense (610.7) and ranks No. 2 in scoring (48.8), Texas will see three of college football’s most prolific offenses in the next six games. No. 23 West Virginia and Texas Tech fit that description, as they join Oklahoma State in the top seven, although No. 4 TCU’s 41-point per game offense does not at No. 12 in FBS — a stout Horned Frogs defense will present its own set of problems for a mediocre Texas offense, but more on that later.

With the exception of winless Baylor and 1-5 Kansas, every remaining opponent on Texas’ schedule averages at least 41 points per game, while Oklahoma State, West Virginia and Texas Tech and their Heisman Watch list quarterbacks are each churning out upwards of 540 yards per game.

Discounting the Maryland loss because there was no pre-game average to base a comparison off of, Texas has seen two offenses that met the 40-point, 540-yard threshold entering their respective meetings — USC and Oklahoma.

Of course, the ‘Horns narrowly lost each meeting, but the defense largely did its job. Against USC, Texas held the Trojans to 104 yards and 18.8 points below their season average entering the much-anticipated showdown. A similar picture can be painted for Texas’ Red River Showdown loss to the Sooners, with Oklahoma’s dynamic offense being held to 518 yards and 29 points — 74 yards and 15.6 points below its previous season average.

In fact, Orlando’s defense has held every single opponent below its season average in total offense and scoring throughout the first half of the season — excluding Maryland, because again, there was no 2017 season average to judge by.

San Jose State

Avg. entering Texas game — 434.5 YPG

Vs. Texas — 171 yards

USC

Avg. entering Texas game — 572 YPG

Vs. Texas — 468 yards

Iowa State

Avg. entering Texas game — 460 YPG

Vs. Texas — 256 yards

Kansas State

Avg. entering Texas game — 408.3 YPG

Vs. Texas — 394 yards

Oklahoma

Avg. entering Texas game — 587 YPG

Vs. Texas — 518 yards

Kansas State is the only team that’s come within single-digits of its previous scoring average against Texas thus far (2.75 fewer), which considers the touchdown the Wildcats scored in overtime.

Simply put, it Texas can limit Sam Darnold and USC (45.8), and Baker Mayfield and Oklahoma (44.6) to more than two scores fewer than their previous averages, there’s reason to believe a defense that’s radiating confidence at this point can continue to do so going forward.

The problem, though, is potent offenses like the ones Oklahoma State, West Virginia and Texas Tech boast can be held well under their averages entering the game and still explode for around 500 yards and 30 points. As we’ve seen against the Trojans and Sooners, in which the ‘Horns scored 24 each time out, a Texas offense that often kidnaps itself for entire quarters at a time has seen its inexplicably slow starts prove to be the difference, even when the defense prevents an expected shootout.

For example, Texas has dug itself into a hole against every single Power 5 opponent this season.

In the 51-41 loss to Maryland, Texas trailed 27-7 towards the end of the second quarter when Holton Hill returned a blocked field goal to the house for his second non-offensive touchdown of the day. Tim Beck’s offense didn’t find its first points of the season until halfway through the third quarter. In the ‘Horns double-overtime loss to USC, a single field goal served as Texas’ only offensive points until just 45 seconds remained in regulation. The following week against Iowa State, Texas had just one touchdown to its name until late in the second quarter and Kansas State later capitalized on what the Cyclones failed to, jumping out to a 10-0 lead in Austin two weeks ago.

And of course, the Red River Showdown saw Texas fall victim a to seemingly insurmountable deficit of 20-0 before the offense sparked a 24-3 run of its own.

If Texas was able to even manage a first half field goal against USC instead of remaining scoreless on its first six drives — Herman elected to go for it on fourth down from USC’s 17 on Texas’ opening drive — and could have found the end zone to cap just one of its first five drives against Oklahoma, we’re likely discussing a 5-1 team right now.

Instead, the offense has often been a shell of its 2016 self and the result is 3-3.

Consider the aforementioned 41-point, 540-yard measuring stick that three of the ‘Horns upcoming opponents are currently on the positive side of — those are per game averages. To find the last time Texas’ offense reached that milestone even once against a Power 5 opponent, you have to go back to last season’s Nov. 5 win over Texas Tech, in which the ‘Horns poured 45 points and 658 yards onto the Red Raiders defense.

This isn’t to say the sky is falling on the Forty Acres, though.

In fact, the dark clouds that hovered over the ‘Horns offense to begin the season appear to be parting a bit, allowing just enough sunlight in for one to conclude that brighter days are ahead. That said, don’t expect Austin to enjoy the same clear skies folks in Stillwater, Morgantown and Lubbock are behind captivating aerial attacks, but Texas doesn’t need to be that insanely explosive to win — it just needs to be better.

The good news is it has.

Through six games, Texas is averaging 33.7 points per game, but that effort also includes the five non-offensive touchdowns added this season. The offense, specifically, is averaging just 29 points per game, but there have been signs of life as of late, and there’s only been one considerable difference.

In short, ‘Horns have been a tale of two teams — one led by preseason starter Shane Buechele and one led by true freshman Sam Ehlinger.

Texas’ offense with Ehlinger starting (4 games) vs. Buechele starting (2 games):

  • Buechele — 392.5 YPG, 18.5 PPG
  • Ehlinger — 490.8 YPG, 32.5 PPG

Weeks ago, Ehlinger led the Longhorns to a 40-34 double-overtime win over Kansas State, amassing 487 yards of total offense along the way as part of a performance that essentially solidified his case as Texas’ starter for the foreseeable future. More recently against Oklahoma, Ehlinger’s offense was held in check for the first five drives, falling into a 20-0 deficit before orchestrating a 24-3 run that put Texas ahead with just over eight minutes remaining, 24-23.

Once again, a 100-yard ground display paved the way for another praiseworthy performance, as Ehlinger finished the Red River Showdown with 388 yards of offense, lifting his recent two-game total to 875 total yards.

As Drew Lieberman of 247Sports noted, such a mammoth effort stands as the second-most of any two-game stretch in Longhorns history, trailing only Colt McCoy (904) in 2009, who did so in the final two games of his collegiate career against Kansas and Texas A&M.

It’s worth noting that 217 yards of Ehlinger’s offensive production against K-State and Oklahoma came by way of 42 carriers. Considering various ailments to Buechele is what largely opened the door for Ehlinger to emerge, having the freshman carry the ball upwards of 20 times per game isn’t ideal and likely unsustainable as far as Ehlinger’s health is concerned.

With the Texas now finally finding some semblance of continuity and productivity, even as the running back rotation has added very little to the equation, an injured Ehlinger could derail all progress.

With what’s still to come on the schedule, that’s among the very last things Texas needs, as an offense that appeared to be finding its stride against Kansas State and throughout the final 34:32 of game time against Oklahoma will need to avoid losing a single step going forward.

With six games, two top-10 foes and three of the nation’s top seven offenses on the horizon, Texas will need to find three more wins or watch the bowl season from home for the third consecutive year.

The good news for the burnt orange nation, though, is with the way the defense is percolating and how the offense appears to be trending in the right direction, it’s not far-fetched to imagine the ‘Horns coming out on top of any given game remaining. But with three ranked teams and one that was ranked just days ago (Texas Tech) still to come, Herman and his staff certainly have their work cut out for them if Texas is finally set to turn the corner.

The first half of the season proved to be a process — one that’s seen plenty of highs and lows, often throughout the course of one game. With the second half of the season expected to be just as grueling for the ‘Horns, don’t expect that to change.

"This is a process. This is a journey," Herman said during his Monday press conference. "We're building a program — not a season and not a team and not a game. We need to be mindful of where we're headed and the journey that we're on but also be urgent with how we get there so that we can win and win now."