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What would define another step forward for Texas football in 2018?

Avoiding upsets and stealing a win or two against top competition may be what’s required for the Longhorns to celebrate a successful season in 2018.

Texas Tech v Texas Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

The general consensus is that the Texas Longhorns took a much-needed step forward in Tom Herman’s debut season.

After finishing without a winning season since 2013 and a bowl victory since 2012, the ‘Horns checked both boxes in 2017, capping a 7-6 campaign with a 33-16 Texas Bowl victory over Missouri. Of course, despite the two-win improvement from 2016, 7-6 isn’t exactly the championship standard Herman has often insisted Texas simply must recapture, and expecting to reach such a height during his second season on the Forty Acres is rather premature, given that the threat of yet another sub-.500 finish loomed on into December.

Further progress and another step forward in the win column, however, will largely determine whether or not 2018 proves to be a success for a program still starved of national prominence.

What would constitute that necessary progress?

When attempting to set an expectation for the 2018 season, it’s important to bear in mind recent struggles dating back to the start of the Charlie Strong era. Since 2014, the Longhorns have lost to literally every Big 12 opponent — no one can forget the defeat at Kansas — as well as the front end of home-and-home series with Maryland and USC in 2017, which are two of the first three opponents next season. That’s not exactly the level of excellence Texas achieved throughout the Vince Young and Colt McCoy eras, in which the Longhorns averaged just 1.5 losses per season, the same excellence Texas is aiming to reestablish in the present.

However, Herman’s debut season essentially served as a corner-turning campaign in that Texas checked boxes it hadn’t in recent memory, and the ‘Horns can soon inch closer towards their ultimate aspirations. Given how the 2017 slate played out and how close Texas came to single-game glory on numerous occasions, avoiding upsets and stealing a win or two elsewhere could make for a tremendously satisfying 2018 campaign.

Save for the season opener against Maryland and regular-season finale against Texas Tech, all the Texas losses were expected. Surely, in 2018, there will be games the Longhorns are expected to lose, too.

At the very least, though, Texas must win the games in which it is favored.

Any way you slice it, the Longhorns dropping the first game of the Herman era to a Terrapins squad that also finished with a losing record each of the previous two seasons served as a substantial disappointment. For further perspective on just how damning that defeat proved to be, consider the tone it set for the entire 2017 season — if all else remained the same, had Texas beaten Maryland, the Longhorns would have enjoyed a winning record throughout the entire season.

But of course, Texas found itself on the unfortunate end of a 51-41 debut and thus, aside from just two weeks throughout the entire regular season, the Longhorns grappled with a .500 and sub-.500 record.

NCAA Football: Maryland at Texas John Gutierrez-USA TODAY Sports

Nearly three months later, the regular season ended in the same disappointing fashion in which it began, as Texas regressed back to .500 courtesy of yet another upset loss.

Per ESPN’s FPI, Texas entered its regular-season finale as the favorite over Texas Tech after the Red Raiders dropped five of their previous six appearances. Throughout the first three quarters, it looked as if that projection would prove true, as the Longhorns owned a 23-13 lead just seconds into the fourth quarter. However, a pair of interceptions down the stretch paved the way for a 27-23 Texas Tech victory in a game most agree that the Texas should have won.

Texas Tech v Texas Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

Without the aforementioned upset losses to Maryland and Texas Tech, Texas finishes the regular season at 8-4 — a fairly sizable upgrade from 6-6. However, for a program with standards as demanding as those carried by Texas, would simply avoiding upsets and winning the games it should win be enough?

This is where expectations for the 2018 season become a matter of subjectivity, but more on that in a moment.

Sandwiched in between the two upsets losses to begin and end the regular season were four losses to USC, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and TCU.

At one point or another throughout each of their respective seasons, the Trojans, Sooners, Cowboys, and Horned Frogs each found themselves ranked within the top six nationally, so the expectation entering such matches was just to remain competitive. Texas fell to the former three by a combined total of 11 points, with the losses to USC and Oklahoma State coming in overtime. In short, even against elite competition, the Longhorns were close, and as far as 2017 was concerned, that was enough.

Texas v USC Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

After finishing five games below .500 throughout the previous three seasons and suffering an average margin of defeat of 21.1 and 18.1 points per game in 2014 and 2015, respectively, Texas simply proving capable of competing with the nation’s top teams was a significant sign of progress.

However, moral victories en masse won't hold much weight in 2018.

Gone are star USC quarterback Sam Darnold and two of his top two options in Deontay Burnett and Steven Mitchell Jr., as well as junior running back Ronald Jones II, who totaled 1,550 rushing yards in 2017.

Gone are Sooners star gunslinger and reigning Heisman winner Baker Mayfield, along with a host of other high-level contributors, including Mark Andrews, Dimitri Flowers, Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, Du’Vonta Lampkin and Steven Parker, among numerous others.

Gone are the key pieces of Oklahoma State’s video game-like offense in Mason Rudolph, Biletnikoff Award winner James Washington, and fellow star receiver Marcell Ateman.

Gone are 15 starters from TCU’s 11-win 2017 squad, including Kenny Hill, Travin Howard, Kyle Hicks, John Diarse, Mat Boesen, Nick Orr and Desmon White, as well as four starting offensive linemen.

Gone is the notable discrepancy in experienced talent that separated Texas from each of the aforementioned powers last season. As a result, given that the Longhorns lost to USC, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and TCU by an average of seven points per game, gone are excuses for Texas to not get over the hump against at least one of the four in 2018.

This is where subjectivity comes into play — If Texas avoids upsets against foes such as Maryland and Texas Tech next season and reaches eight regular season wins, but fails to find a single win against each of the more prominent programs on its schedule, does that truly represent progress?

With that question in mind, it’s worth considering context and the impact it has had on Texas since its fall from glory.

Since 2010, Texas is just 2-6 against both, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, and 1-5 against TCU. That marks a 5-17 record against the Big 12’s three more prominent programs as of late. Bearing in mind that USC will quite likely enter 2018 ranked once again, that the Texas record against ranked non-conference competition is just 1-4 during this span, and furthermore, that the overall Texas record against ranked competition since 2010 is an abysmal 8-28 — an effort that’s a definitive dark cloud over the second-winningest program in college football history.

When Texas was Texas, most recently between 2004-09, the Longhorns were 4-2 against Oklahoma, 6-0 against Oklahoma State — TCU was not yet a part of the Big 12, but Texas did win the only meeting — and 18-5 against ranked opposition, with the losses coming against top-10 competition. As the records reveal, what Texas once was and what it’s been as of late are glaringly evident against ranked foes and the Big 12’s headliners, which are often one in the same.

As far as the 2018 season is concerned, the same should prove true. SB Nation’s early 2018 top 25 rankings include Oklahoma State (No. 25), TCU (No. 23), USC (No. 12), and Oklahoma (No. 6). Beating at least one, if not two of the bunch won’t necessarily mean Texas is back, but failing to do so would also signify that Herman’s program is still a major step away from the prominence it’s pursuing, especially considering that the talent to do so is in place.

For example, after hauling in the nation’s No. 3-ranked recruiting class, Texas is set to join the Blue-Chip Ratio club in 2018, which places the Longhorns among a very select group of programs that truly feature enough talent to win a title.

Is Texas taking home the national title next season?

Almost assuredly not, but considering that collection of talent on hand, would finding eight wins against teams that combined for a 36-63 record in 2017, while falling to the four teams that ripped through their schedules en route to 44 wins — USC, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, TCU — indicate that Texas is actually inching towards national relevance, once again?

The win column would certainly say so, but the eye test may paint a different picture.