“Are we better now than we were then? Absolutely,” Herman said in April. “There’s a lot less coaching of culture and effort, or demanding of that. A lot more teaching. I know when you compare it to this time last year, we’re well ahead of where we were.”
And that’s the expectation for the Longhorns following a 7-6 season that featured plenty of disappointment, yet also included the program’s first appearance in a bowl game since 2014 and first bowl victory since 2012.
Yet, improving and focusing on finishing and development during the offseason still has to translate to more victories on the field this fall.
A recent ranking of every coach in the FBS by Athlon Sports & Life slotted Herman at No. 28, revealing just how much he needs to prove:
High expectations surrounded Herman’s debut in Austin last fall. Herman arrived at Texas following a successful two-year run at Houston. The Cougars went 13-1 in Herman’s debut (2015), defeated Florida State in the Peach Bowl and finished No. 8 nationally. Houston followed that up with a 9-3 showing in the regular season, as his tenure ended with a 22-4 mark. Last fall, Herman went 7-6 leading the Longhorns, losing five games by 10 points or less. Prior to his stints as a head coach, Herman was one of college football’s top assistant coaches at Ohio State (2012-14) and also had stints at Rice, Texas State and Iowa State. After inking the No. 3 signing class this year, Herman is starting to put the pieces into place for Texas to get back into contention for the Big 12 title.
After one season as the head coach in Norman, Lincoln Riley is two spots in front of Herman after taking Oklahoma to the College Football Playoffs during his debut campaign. Riley also currently holds the top recruiting class in the Big 12, sending a definitive message that he’ll be a difficult adversary as the Longhorns compete to add the top offensive and defensive talent in Texas.
Across the conference, the competition is significant, too — Athlon ranks Kansas State’s Bill Snyder as the No. 15 coach in the country, with Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy one spot in front of Snyder. TCU”s Gary Patterson is No. 5 nationally in the midst of his incredible run in Fort Worth.
Then, of course, there’s Jimbo Fisher in College Station now. The former head coach for Florida State during the national championship run of 2014 is ranked just behind Patterson as he attempts to parlay SEC cachet into more consistent victories at Texas A&M. For Herman, the key point here is that Fisher complicates the in-state recruiting landscape, as illustrated by his strong recruiting start for the Aggies.
For Herman to move up the list and return the Horns to national contention, the Texas offense needs to improve significantly this season from a No. 117 ranking offensively in FEI last season.
With two months until the season begins, the Longhorns still don’t have a starter at quarterback and face major question marks at running back and along the offensive line.
Herman also has a lot riding on his decision to retain already-embattled offensive coordinator Tim Beck — the former Ohio State assistant didn’t receive the benefit of the doubt when he arrived in Austin and 2017 struggles only increased the pressure on him.
Can Beck perform well enough as a play caller to keep Herman from having to intervene and take over those duties? Based on public comments, Herman doesn’t want to take that step, though he did in the Texas Bowl. Beck called the plays in the Orange-White game.
The defense is less of a concern. That may only be for the moment, however, as Todd Orlando is a candidate to receive even more interest following the 2018 season if the Horns can once again showcase his head-coaching ability. At some point in the next several years, Herman will almost certainly have to replace Orlando, the only defensive coordinator he’s employed as a head coach.
Until then, whether Herman can orchestrate an offensive turnaround this season will largely define the public perception of his ability as a head coach. If the offense contributes to Texas stumbling this season, Herman could find himself entering his third year with the Longhorns needing to win big to avoid facing the same fate as Charlie Strong.