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How Texas can win the Big 12 in 2017

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The ‘Horns will need five things to get back to the top of the conference.

NCAA Football: Iowa State at Texas Brendan Maloney-USA TODAY Sports

The Texas Longhorns 2017 season is a mere week away, and the whole fan base is buzzing and chomping at the bit to see what’s in store for the new coaching regime. In previous posts, I’ve outlined what my predictions for Texas, sticking with an eight-win effort for the ‘Horns.

While this is an improvement over the past few seasons, the talent level on this team is much better than eight wins. I will stick with that prediction for now, but there is a realistic chance that the Horns win the conference this season, and maybe an outside chance at the College Football Playoff. For that to happen, these five keys need to align:

Anthony Wheeler

The Mac position is considered the quarterback of the defense. In order to win, Texas must play excellent defense, and that cannot happen without a solid leader in the middle of the field. After spring football, this position was a major question mark for Todd Orlando’s defense. Breckyn Hager wasn’t effective and missed much of the game with what may have been an injury.

Reports from fall camp indicate Wheeler, who started for much of the season in 2016 for Charlie Strong’s defense, has stepped up his game and taken control of the position. The biggest improvements that Wheeler has made, according to Orlando, is in the mental aspects of the game and becoming a vocal leader on the field. Other reports indicate the the junior linebacker has improved his tackling consistency and is placing himself in the correct position to make plays, both in the pass and run game. If the reports out of camp are true, Malik Jefferson will be freed up to wreak havoc on opponents from the Rover position, and Hager can focus on his pass rushing specialty as a role player.

Tackling

In a recent interview, Herman stated that one of the biggest surprises for him at Texas was how they tackled (or didn’t tackle) in practice. Herman compared the practice habits of the Texas defense to that of a touch football game. With that being the case, no wonder the team struggled so mightily to bring down ball carriers in game situations. The bad habits developed in practice showed on the field, causing problems stopping the run in 2015 and 2016 (see Kansas State). Herman believes the team has turned the corner with those habits, and if that carries forward onto the field, this defense has the talent to make even the best of their foes tremble at the thought of stepping on the field.

Shane Buechele

The Texas quarterback had a good 2016, considering he was a true freshman. Buechele’s performance in the spring game was decent, but not that of a championship quarterback. In order to win the conference in 2017, Beuchele will have to improve in a few areas. The most evident are ball security and completion percentage. Beuchele threw 11 interceptions as a freshman and completed just 60 percent of his attempts. Those numbers will have to improve if Texas is going to compete for a Big 12 title in 2017.

To improve those numbers, Buechele will have to improve his skill in the area of making reads. Coaches often talk about adjusting to the speed of the game, and that is what’s most important for young quarterbacks. If the quarterback makes the correct read but processes too slowly, the defense adjusts before the ball is thrown, resulting in turnovers. If Buechelle can make the right reads at the right time, the talent at wide receiver is enough to make even the best defenses look silly.

Another benefit Buechelle will enjoy in the offense is that it’s not designed to push the ball down the field on the majority of plays. Short, quick, high percentage throws, which get the receiver the ball in space and allow them to make plays. This, along with making the proper reads will improve the completion percentage and reduce turnovers, which leads to more wins.

Run the football

Good teams run the football and stay ahead of the chains. Texas is replacing 2,000-yard rusher D’Onta Foreman in 2017. In his stead, Texas has a stable of three capable returning backs, but all have had health issues in the spring and fall. Behind them are freshmen who, according to the coaching staff, still have some room to grow in the mental aspects of the game. While there is plenty of talent here, health and experience remain a question mark. If Texas can find a way to maintain a consistent ground game, they will stay ahead of the chains and open up opportunities to attack defenses through the air, providing the balance needed to win with Herman’s offense.

Special Teams

The 2009 Texas team that reached the national championship game scored six touchdowns on returns. The 2016 team didn’t score any. Meanwhile, there were multiple issues preventing teams from gaining big plays in the special teams game in recent years. In order to achieve the ultimate goal of the program, Texas will have to minimize mistakes in this area, and turn the tables with explosive special teams plays of their own.