After finishing the 2022 season ranked No. 7 in the final SP+ rankings, the Texas Longhorns slot in at No. 9 in the preseason rankings released by ESPN on Tuesday, a week after head coach Steve Sarkisian’s team came in at No. 19 in the returning production metric.
The projection is for the Texas offense to improve from barely inside the top 30 last season to the No. 14 attack with the defense almost precisely maintaining its position around the top 15.
Before diving deeper into why the Longhorns remain a favorite of advanced metrics, a few notes on 2023 opponents. Despite ranking No. 125 in returning production, the model favors Alabama to remain an elite team with a positioning at No. 4. Among Big 12 teams, Texas ranks first, followed by Oklahoma at No. 14, TCU at No. 19, Kansas State at No. 22, Oklahoma State at No. 34, Texas Tech at No. 35, Baylor at No, 38, Iowa State at No. 45, and then newcomers Houston at No. 51 and BYU at No. 62. The other non-conference opponents, Wyoming and Rice, are at No. 101 and No. 111, respectively.
Back to the Longhorns:
No. 9 Texas (16th in the Way-Too-Early Top 25). Here we go again. Texas seemingly gamed the computers last season, finishing seventh in both SP+ and FPI. The Longhorns’ ceiling was extremely high, but they went 2-5 in one-score games to finish just 8-5. While teams do have control over how they perform in close games, they have only so much control, and teams that were particularly good or poor in this regard tend to regress (or progress) toward the mean the next season. Combine that progression with a top-20 returning production ranking, and you’ve got a UT team with massive potential. Maybe they live up to it this time? Possibly?
If there’s a defining narrative surrounding Sarkisian’s tenure at Texas through two seasons, it’s about blown leads creating the close games that have largely fallen in favor of opponents. In a best-case scenario, the Horns maintain the ability to build double-digit leads and then actually hold onto to them. At the least, giving up those leads needs to look more like the Kansas State win than the Texas Tech and Oklahoma State losses.
As ever, Texas has the talent on hand. Now Sarkisian and his staff need to continue to make strides developing that talent while taking advantage of the continuity in the offensive and defensive systems to more consistently put players in positions to succeed.
Pulling out into view of the larger arc of Sarkisian’s head coaching career, he’s 59-47 with a single nine-win season, no conference titles, and a 2-3 record in bowl games. Texas hired Sarkisian to take the next step as a head coach and while there was tangible, important improvement from his first season to his second season, it’s time for him to start banging into the glass ceiling he’s had on his head coaching career through eight-plus seasons.