With the hiring of Tom Herman and what’s become a considerably experienced Texas Longhorns team, which returns virtually every starter on both offense and defense for 2017, there’s much to be excited about regarding the future of Texas football.
Although replacing D’Onta Foreman will be a difficult task offensively, the development of several key players at wide receiver, on the offensive line, and quarterback Shane Buechele should create some optimism for the 2017 offensive production.
The defense, which brings back every starter excluding safety Dylan Haines, should be much improved, especially considering the depth at defensive line and linebacker, headlined by the much-needed inside linebacker addition of Gary Johnson.
The ‘Horns defense should develop into a solid group against the run in 2017, considering the depth and talent they possess in the front seven, though the ability for the defensive backfield to hold up against Big 12 offenses remains a concern.
While Todd Orlando’s history of being able to effectively pressure the quarterback matched with a returning front seven that ranked second in the Big 12 last season with 41 sacks should provide some relief to the concerns in the secondary, it doesn’t completely eliminate them.
The question which remains is how much improvement can be expected from the 5-7 team that took the field in 2016. In order to appropriately analyze that question, one must first look at the schedule in 2017.
Texas hosts San Jose State and Kansas, and should be heavy favorites in both match ups. Texas should also be favored to beat Iowa State, whom they visit on Sept. 28 in a Thursday night game. Although games are played on the field, I’m giving the ‘Horns the projected win in these three match ups.
Texas opens the season at home against Maryland, a 6-7 team in 2016 that lost its bowl game to 7-6 Boston College. Maryland is also attempting to replace starting quarterback Perry Hills with a high-potential first or second year player. Additionally, the Terps will likely feature youth at running back in 2017. With the mediocre results from 2016 looming for Maryland, I’m going to give Texas a win in this one.
After a Week 2 cupcake game with San Jose State, the ‘Horns will travel to Los Angeles for a rematch of the 2006 BCS National Championship game. The Trojans, which finished 2016 ranked No. 9, return freshman sensation Sam Darnold at quarterback in addition to their leading rusher Ronald Jones II. Based on that returning talent, and the fact that this will be the first road game of the year for Texas, the ‘Horns will be severe underdogs in this game. Consider this to be a highly unlikely victory for Texas.
After going to Ames, which should result in a win, Texas will have its most significant stretch of the season with home games against Kansas State and Oklahoma State with the Red River Showdown sandwiched in the middle. These three teams are likely the favorites to be in the Big 12 Championship game on Dec. 2. Each returns their star quarterbacks and will be difficult games for the ‘Horns to win.
Following their toughest stretch of the season, the ‘Horns travel to Baylor. The Bears are still rebuilding from the Art Briles exodus and have a new head coach for 2017. They’re also replacing their starting quarterback. While I believe the Bears will be competing for Big 12 titles in the near future, it won’t be in 2017. Chalk this one up as a win for the ‘Horns.
The next week brings the ‘Horns into Amon G. Carter for a matchup with the Horned Frogs.
Offensively, only one starter from 2016 graduated. Included in the returning starters are quarterback Kenny Hill, who showed signs of brilliance despite struggling at times in 2016, and leading rusher Kyle Hicks.
Defensively, the Frogs are replacing All-Big 12 defensive end Josh Carraway, along with fellow defensive linemen Aaron Curry and James Macfarland. The Frogs are also replacing safety Denzel Johnson. This match-up could go either way, largely depending on how much the Longhorns and Horned Frogs quarterbacks improve from their 2016 performances. I am going 50/50 on this one.
After hosting Kansas, the ‘Horns travel to West Virginia for a Nov. 18 contest. Quarterback Skyler Howard graduated, but many expect his replacement Will Grier to be even better than his predecessor at leading the offense next season. Combine that with the deep stable of young backs and this could be a long day for the ‘Horns defense.
The Mountaineers replace nine starters defensively, but defensive coordinator Tony Gibson is an excellent coach and will likely have a solid unit again in 2017. It’s also worth mentioning that the weather in November in Appalachia is always a little questionable, and the Morgantown home field advantage is largely underrated. In fact, the Mountaineers are 12-2 at home in the past two seasons, with their only losses being to Oklahoma in 2016 and an overtime loss to Oklahoma State in 2015. Not many teams escape close games in Morgantown with a win, so the edge here must goes to the Mountaineers.
Texas finishes up the regular season by hosting Texas Tech. The likelihood of a win for the burnt orange in this one largely depends on how well Nic Shimonek can perform, replacing Patrick Mahomes as the starting quarterback. Leading receiver Jonathan Giles and leading rusher Da’Leon Ward both return for the Red Raiders, which should result in a fairly potent offense in 2017. T
he Raiders graduate several defensive starters from a dismal 2016 unit, so it’s expected that similar results should accompany them defensively in 2017. This one should be a shootout, but I am going with the ‘Horns based on home field advantage and their ability to pressure the quarterback.
Now, back to that three-game stretch in October. It’s quite the challenge, but looking back on the 2016 match ups, the ‘Horns lost to KSU and OU by a combined eight points. While the OSU game was an 18-point loss for the ‘Horns in 2016, the Cowboys will not have home field advantage in this one.
Winning two of these three match ups, plus the 50/50 game at TCU would give the ‘Horns a projected nine wins on the season, while losing three of those four is quite possible, as well. Based on this, I would set an expectation of somewhere between seven and nine wins for Texas in 2017 with close, competitive games against West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kansas State, Oklahoma State, and TCU.
So what would it take for Texas to win 10 games in 2017? Assuming the early road trip to USC doesn’t result in a win, and they win the 50/50 game at TCU, plus the six I counted as “should win” games, Texas would need to win three-of-four between West Virginia, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Kansas State.
Texas hosts KSU, which could be enough to boost them over to top in 2017 and while Oklahoma returns Heisman contender Baker Mayfield, they’re replacing leading receiver DeDe Westbrook along star running backs Samjae Perine and Joe Mixon. If the ‘Horns win both of these games, they’ll have to beat either West Virginia in Morgantown or Oklahoma State in Austin.
Given the talent returning on this team, those scenarios are possible, but question marks in the secondary and on how well their young offense matures in 2017 make it unrealistic to project anything more than an eight-win season from the ‘Horns at Texas kicks off the Herman era.