A lot has changed since expectations of a turnaround season flooded the Forty Acres to begin the Tom Herman era in Austin.
A 3-4 record through seven games isn’t exactly a turnaround, regardless of how close the Texas Longhorns truly are to boasting a 6-1 mark to this point. Instead, getting over the hump has proven to be as tall of a task as climbing K2, with Texas dropping three winnable games against top-12 foes by a combined 11 points.
Although an eight-win regular season finish is still technically an achievable feat, which aligns with the general preseason expectations, Texas simply finding six wins and securing a bowl berth would mark a successful 2017 campaign at this point.
That, too, is a mission that’s much easier said than done.
With just five regular season matchups remaining, the ‘Horns need to add three more wins to its current total, meaning the margin for error is becoming increasingly thin.
Fortunately for Texas, the final five-game stretch isn’t quite as daunting as what the Longhorns endured throughout the previous handful of outings, which I graded as the most grueling five-game stretch of any Big 12 member entering the season.
Aside from the season-opening loss to Maryland, Texas won the games it was supposed to and nearly won those it was supposed to lose against College Football Playoff hopefuls in USC (27-24 in 2OT), Oklahoma (29-24) and Oklahoma State (13-10 in OT). In doing so, Texas proved it can compete with quite literally anyone in the country (well, maybe not Alabama), but simply competing won’t cut it down the stretch.
Texas needs wins.
Although the burnt orange nation is well aware that guaranteed wins don’t exist — see Iowa State (2015), Kansas (2016) and Maryland (2017) — the remaining schedule is fairly favorable. After dropping back-to-back games to Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, Texas will make the short trek up I-35 next weekend for a road meeting with winless Baylor. Regardless of how poorly the offense has played, the ‘Horns should quite simply win this game with relative ease, as they’re projected to do with win probability of 83 percent, per ESPN’s FPI.
The following week, Texas will travel further north for yet another meeting with an elite foe — this time in the form of No. 4 TCU, providing Herman with a chance at his first ranked win in Austin after notching a 6-0 record in such matchups at Houston.
The ‘Horns aren’t expected to top the Horned Frogs, though, nor should they be.
But beyond that point, Texas is favored in every remaining game, beginning back in Austin against a Kansas club that’s dropped its Big 12 appearances by an average of 39 points per game, losing the last two by a combined score of 88-0.
If all goes as projected, the ‘Horns should have at least two more wins after the next three weeks conclude, and if Texas can’t find a way to beat both Baylor and Kansas ,then it hardly deserves to be mentioned in any bowl conversations to cap the season, anyway.
In any case, the final two-game stretch of the season will then include a road meeting with No. 23 West Virginia and a home finale against Texas Tech, pitting Texas against a pair of potent offenses and porous defenses.
It’s now quite clear that after holding Oklahoma to just nine second-half points and Oklahoma State to 10 points in regulation that the Longhorns defense can single-handedly keep Texas in games against dynamic offenses. They’ll likely need to do so against the Mountaineers and Red Raiders, as well, and depending on how the next three games play out, may need to do so with a bowl berth on the line each time out.
While the Mountaineers match up doesn’t seem quite as favorable, considering West Virginia’s offense boasts plenty weapons of its own in Will Grier, David Sills V and Justin Crawford, Texas should feel good about its chances at home against a Texas Tech team that totaled just 13 points of its own in a Saturday afternoon home loss to Iowa State.
The turning point for Texas wasn’t expected to potentially come to conclude the season against Texas Tech with a bowl berth on the line, but it’s quite possible, if not likely that that’s become the reality the ‘Horns are faced with.
After 3-4 starts in 2015 and 2016 each led to 5-7 finishes, simply taking some semblance of a step forward and securing a bowl berth would serve as a turning point of its own.
Even accomplishing that will prove to be a tall, but necessary task, especially if Herman hopes to carry the ‘Horns into offseason on a positive note for the first time since 2012.