Tom Herman’s debut season on the Forty Acres is at risk of finishing on an eerily similar note to that of Charlie Strong in 2014. Each respective tenure began with Texas enduring a rough start en route to a 3-4 record before finishing with three wins in the final five games to reach the Texas Bowl.
Of course, in 2014, the ‘Horns trip to Houston provided less than savory results in the form of a 31-7 loss to Arkansas. This time around, if Texas hopes to wipe the taste of three straight losing seasons out of its mouth and avoid a fourth, the Longhorns will essentially have to win this battle with Missouri with one hand tied behind their backs.
Herman on what's he's learned in Year 1 at Texas: "That three straight losing seasons takes its toll on kids, it really does."— Brian Davis (@BDavisAAS) December 26, 2017
Between injuries, suspensions and NFL departures, a crop of at least 10 Longhorns won’t be taking part in the Texas Bowl. Headlining the bunch is Malik Jefferson, who’s working through a turf toe injury, along with Connor Williams and DeShon Elliott, as each have turned their focus towards the 2018 NFL Draft. Bearing that in mind, an already porous offense now missing more pieces and a defense now without its top talent will be tasked with keeping up with and slowing an explosive Missouri offense headlined by junior gunslinger Drew Lock.
Six games into the season, it hardly appeared as if Missouri had any hope of preparing for a bowl game at this point in the year. The Tigers were 1-5 with the lone win coming against FCS Missouri State in the season-opener.
And then Lock led the offense to a tremendously productive six-game stretch to close the regular season.
Throughout Missouri’s final six games, the Tigers churned out 579.5 yards and 51.3 points per game en route to a six-game winning streak and 7-5 finish. The competition throughout that stretch wasn’t exactly what one would call overwhelming, though, as the Tigers’ opponents owned a combined record of 27-55, but to generate that amount of offense on a weekly basis is praiseworthy, nonetheless.
Surrounding Lock, who leads the nation with 43 touchdown passes and is just 305 yards shy of the 4,000-yard mark, are an abundance of weapons.
A deep wide receiving corps is headlined by J’Mon Moore, who’s totaled 1,017 yards and 10 touchdowns on 60 receptions. Emanuel Hall and Johnathan Johnson have combined for 1,456 yards and 13 scores of their own, and freshman tight end Albert Okwuegbunam has notched 11 touchdowns on just 25 receptions as part of a passing attack that thrives going vertical.
For a Texas team that’s devoid of a Thorpe Award finalist at safety in Elliott, a suspended, NFL-bound cornerback in Holton Hill and may be without safety Brandon Jones, the potential for Missouri to pour points on through the air could easily prove costly for the ‘Horns. This isn’t to portray that the Tigers are purely an air-raid bunch, either. Ish Whitner headlines a potent trio at running back with 992 yards of his own, and when paired with Larry Roundtree III and Damarea Crocket, Missouri’s top three rushers have eclipsed the 2,100-yard mark entering the Texas Bowl.
With Jefferson highly unlikely to play and Chris Nelson out with an elbow injury, the running game, too, is an area in which Texas may get gashed in a hurry.
Bearing that in mind, the reality is that Texas will have to put up points to win this game and avoid yet another losing season. Typically, the Longhorns defense has proven capable of holding the opposition well below its scoring average, but that’s a task that becomes much taller with so many key pieces set to miss the Texas Bowl.
If matching points is what will be required, that’s not ideal news for the Longhorns.
Unlike Missouri, which features weapons seemingly everywhere, Texas doesn’t exactly enjoy that luxury, as noted by SB Nation’s Bill Connelly.
"Texas ranks a ghastly 97th in Off. S&P+, worse than Missouri’s defense (93rd in defense). Interchangeability, with no standouts whatsoever, has held the Horns back this year. While that means they won’t be hurt by these absences all that much, it’s also a sign that they aren’t that good to begin with."
The last time the Longhorns offense took the field against Texas Tech, it included Chris Warren III, Toneil Carter and Lil’Jordan Humphrey. With Warren on his way out by way of transfer and Carter and Humphrey suspended, an already subpar offensive unit will need to find ways to score with fewer proven options available.
If there’s a silver lining, it’s that Missouri’s defense isn’t much to write home about, itself, but given what Texas has put on film throughout the season, there’s little reason to believe a shorthanded ‘Horns squad will be able to put up the kind of points necessary to come out on top.
If that proves to be the case, a season that once appeared capable of finishing at 8-5 with five wins in six games will have to settle for 6-7 on the heels of back-to-back losses.
ESPN’s FPI projects Texas as a narrow favorite with 58.9 percent win probability, and although it’s only one game, Texas quite simply needs that projection to come to fruition. The ‘Horns haven’t enjoyed a winning season since their 8-5 finish in 2013, and of course, that effort was following by Mack Brown’s departure and the subsequent downward spiral of three straight losing seasons.
Now at the tail end of his debut season, Herman aspires to transform what’s become a losing culture in Austin and guide Texas back to its winning ways. He and his ‘Horns can take a significant step towards those goals with a win over Missouri in the Texas Bowl.