With less than three weeks to go until Texas opens the season against Louisiana Tech at home on Aug. 31, UT fans are still trying to size up this 2019 team that is being saddled with expectations the program hasn’t seen in almost a decade.
While excitement is at an all-time high, questions still exist around whether or not this exceptionally talented roster can consistently compete at its highest level for 12 straight weeks.
To get a pulse on the national perspective surrounding the Longhorns — something most Texas fans rarely have an interest in doing — I connected with USA Today national college football columnist Dan Wolken this week to discuss his thoughts and expectations about Texas football.
Below is our conversation.
Texas opened No. 1 on your Misery Index in 2018. Do you anticipate a return in 2019?
Certainly it’s possible. I have not seen a Tom Herman-coached team either at Houston or at Texas show the kind of consistency its needed to avoid the bad loss. The bad loss is what often will get a team on the Misery Index.
I think that is the hurdle that Texas is going to have to get over this year and it’ll be interesting to see if they can do it. Certainly there is a lot of excitement and reason to be optimistic about their chances to win the Big 12 — but at the same time I do think it is a characteristic of the Tom Herman experience that you have to be mindful is being emotionally up for all 12 games. And that’s not something frankly that I think he’s done a great job of.
Do you think there is an easy fix to that as a coach?
Look, I’ve never coached a college football team so I don’t know how I would approach that particular issue, but I think Tom has certainly shown the ability to get a team super high emotionally and ready to play a big game. He’s done it against Oklahoma at both Houston and Texas and obviously he did it in the bowl game. He’s shown that ability to get his team ready to go when it’s a high-stakes game against a really good opponent.
But at the same time I think there is something to the idea that you can’t do that 12 times a year. It’s impossible. I think that’s why someone like Nick Saban is so process-oriented. It’s always about the process. We make fun of that — but I do think there is a point to it. You’re not focusing on the result, you’re not focusing on the opponent or how big of a game it is, you’re focusing on doing your job every single day. So you don’t deal with those same highs and lows.
I do think there is something to that from a coaching standpoint. But I also think there is something to the idea that you are able to get a team to play above its head on certain days.
So I guess the way you see it maybe LSU and OU are the big games that Herman can get his team excited about this season. Where do you see that potential letdown?
I don’t know that it is necessarily a letdown. But look, you’re going to have to be just as good against Oklahoma State. Mike Gundy doesn’t usually put a bad team on the field. And that’s just in Week Four, before you’ve had time to iron out all your issues.
You have to go to TCU — it’s never going to be easy to play Gary Patterson. At home against Kansas State — Chris Klieman is a heck of a football coach. That’s the kind of game — sandwiched between really important road games — that you can overlook and it can bite you. Every game in a league like the Big 12 is potentially problematic.
I don’t know that Texas is so much better right now than most of the teams they play against that they can just waltz through and win. I think Texas is going to have to play its A-game most of the time to win.
Herman made a point last year where he basically said that when Texas plays its A-game, it can compete with anybody. But when it plays its B or C game, any team can beat them. I was going to ask, but I think you might have just answered: You don’t think Texas is at the point where its B-game can beat anybody?
No. Not yet. At least I haven’t seen that yet.
Maybe this year will change my mind when we start to see the team play. I still don’t think Texas is so overwhelmingly talented or overwhelmingly explosive offensively that they can just kind of sleepwalk through a couple of these games and still feel like they are in the dominant position to win.
There is a lot of hype surrounding quarterback Sam Ehlinger this year. Ehlinger is unlike previous Texas quarterbacks in that — like a Baker Mayfield or even Johnny Manziel to an extent — he embraces the spotlight. What do you make of Ehlinger going into his junior year with Heisman-like hype?
You never know how someone is going to react when they have that national breakout off-season. We’ve seen it with a lot of quarterbacks before. It makes it kind of tough.
You’ve got a guy who has been in a quarterback competition for most of your career. Finally he wins the job and suddenly everyone is transitioning from ‘Yeah, OK. You have a pretty good year’ to ‘Oh my God. He could win the Heisman. Let’s put him on magazine covers.’
Some guys don’t handle that really well. Some guys do. I do think that is an added challenge because — just from a mental standpoint — some of the things that have been a focus for you as a player just naturally kind of change.
I’m sure Ehlinger is really smart, driven, talented and working just as hard as he’s ever worked — I have no doubt about that. It’s just when you come into a season and everyone thinks you’re that guy, it adds something you have to deal with mentally that isn’t easy.
Do you think there is a benefit to it for guys who are able to embrace it? Do you think buying into their own hype and the confidence that comes with it can take them to the next level?
I think ultimately it’s a talent thing. The guys who are the best players tend to rise to the occasion or rise to the moment.
I also think the amount of pressure someone puts on themselves to be the guy is definitely something that athletes struggle with and have to find ways to get over. It’s definitely accentuated at the quarterback position because of the level of responsibility for how well the team is going to perform.
That to me is always the really interesting part watching college quarterbacks and seeing the guys who emerge and become stars and the guys we think are going to be stars that just end up being OK.
It’s hard to make predictions about which one it’s going to be but you do have to allow for the possibility that a guy coming off an off-season of hype is going to be underwhelming — just because we’ve seen that scenario play out a lot before.
Are there any other players you’ve seen on this Texas team that could take a big step this year?
You know I probably have not spent enough time studying Texas specifically to comment about individual guys breaking out. I do think overall — if you consider teams on the right track or wrong track — coming out of last season Texas fans are feeling like they are on the right track.
The losses were close. But there were a lot of close wins, too. Looking back on it, there were a handful of games Texas won that easily could have gone the other way.
I’m interested to see some of the guys Herman has recruited playing more of a role. And obviously there are some star players — Colin Johnson and Devin Duvernay, for example — that everyone has talked about for a long time.
You tell me — who do you think is going to break out?
For me, it’s a guy like true sophomore safety Caden Sterns. Which kind of brings me to my next question. One of the points that has been brought up by the national media is how many starters Texas has lost on defense — and while some of those starters were good there are a lot of talented young guys behind them ready to play. Do you subscribe to the theory that losing starters is a big deal?
You know, and this is for all of college sports to me, I think the attention given to ‘starters lost’ is extremely overrated. The thing about college football — and college basketball as well — is that you’re going to turn over some of the roster every single year. So I don’t worry the players these teams lose, I worry about the players these teams have.
Now the flip side of that, a lot of the time we don’t really know who they have. Because those are the guys who played really small roles or were red-shirted and we weren’t able to see them perform. At the end of the day, I don’t think that losing starters is a negative if the players you have in the program are better.
Right now, if you want a ticket for LSU v. Texas in the lower bowl, it’ll cost you about $1,000. A lot of the excitement and hype for this season is coming from last season’s Sugar Bowl victory over Georgia, which has driven its own conversation among fans who say UGA wasn’t really interested in being there. Do you put a lot of stock into bowl victories?
I think Georgia was not as engaged and enthused about being in that game as Texas was. But that’s part of sports. There is no game where two teams are going to be equally hyped up or equally prepared other than playing for a championship. Everyone is — from week to week — going to have different levels of energy and motivation — thinking ahead to a game in the future or thinking back to a game that just happened. That’s just part of it. I don’t hold it against Texas and I don’t blame Georgia. It just is what it is.
I think we generally overrate bowl games in terms of their importance going into the following season. I think for Texas, beating Georgia gives the players some affirmation and self-belief that the season was a success and that they are on the right track and making a lot of progress. That’s absolutely fair. But I don’t think the result of that game means that Texas is ready to compete with Alabama the way Georgia has. I don’t really believe that. But at the same time, you can’t take that game away from Texas because it was a really strong performance.
When you look at the coaching talent in the Big 12, obviously you have Lincoln Riley as part of the Tier-One group of coaches in the country. Nationally, Tom Herman isn’t considered to be in that tier yet. What does he need to do this year to make in that upper echelon of coaches?
Certainly winning the Big 12 would be huge. Getting into the playoff. That really is the line of demarcation in the coaching world right now: “Have you been to the playoff or not?”
Even though the playoff is only six years old, if you look at the coaches who have been, it’s Nick Saban, Dabo Sweeney, Lincoln Riley, Kirby Smart, Jimbo Fisher, Chris Peterson, Brian Kelly. There is kind of a correlation there. You get to the playoff I do think it elevates you into that tier.
But to me, it goes back to what we started the conversation talking about: Consistency of not having the incredible high one week and being flat the next. It’s more about seeing if he is able to get the program to a point where the players don’t have to get sky high to play against a Georgia or even a TCU or an Iowa State. Can you win those games as part of an overall process and not sort of this rah-rah thing that will wear off and is not sustainable for 12 straight weeks.
Ceiling for this year’s Texas team? Any predictions?
I picked Oklahoma to win the Big 12 just because of the trust I have in their overall program and what they’ve been able to do the last couple years. I also think Jalen Hurts is a really good player who will do things at Oklahoma that maybe people didn’t think he could do in the past.
But at the same time, if Texas won the league and went 11-1 and made the playoff that wouldn’t shock me at all. Certainly could see it happening. But I think the more likely thing is that Texas takes another step forward and looks pretty good — probably have a better overall year than they did last year — but come up just a little bit short of where they want to go.