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Five big questions for Texas’ 2019 season

Who’s the most important player on both sides of the ball? Which game can the Longhorns not afford to lose? We answer that and more.

Allstate Sugar Bowl - Texas v Georgia Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

The 2019 college football season is so close that we’re now placing numbers next to names, and the No. 10 Texas Longhorns will enter the upcoming campaign with both upside and uncertainty. In aiming to build upon the program’s first 10-win season since 2009, Texas owns a preseason top 10 ranking for the first time since 2010.

The Longhorns also own legitimate Big 12 title aspirations, and depending upon whom you ask, respectable odds to ultimately steal a bid to the College Football Playoff.

But first, there are a few questions to answer.

Who is the most important player on offense?

Sam Ehlinger is the most important player on the Texas offense and it isn’t relatively close. The Longhorns will undoubtedly need significant contributions from talents including as running back Keaontay Ingram and receiver Collin Johnson to reach the heights their aiming for, but ultimately, Texas will go as far as their junior field general takes them. That much became apparent when Ehlinger out-dueled eventual Heisman winner and No. 1 overall draft pick, Kyler Murray, in the Red River Showdown, pouring on five scores in a win, just as it was utterly undeniable when Ehlinger largely willed the Longhorns to a dominant Sugar Bowl win over Georgia before announcing that his Horns are back.

Now, Ehlinger is a Heisman candidate, himself, the Preseason Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year, and the face of a rebuilt Texas program that’s set to enter 2019 ranked No. 10. As FOX Sports analyst Joel Klatt said, “The reason that [the Longhorns] are an elite team is because he is their quarterback.”

Who is the most important player on defense?

Caden Sterns is a preseason All-American, Brandon Jones is almost certain to become an NFL Draft pick after his senior season, and Malcolm Roach is a legitimate Big 12 Defensive Lineman of the Year. But Jeffrey McCulloch is quite arguably the Longhorns most important player defensively.

Why? Experience. Well, the lack thereof elsewhere.

McCulloch is far-and-away the most experienced of any option in the Longhorns linebacker room. In fact, he’s far-and-away more experienced than the rest of the room combined. McCulloch’s 36 career Division I appearances are twice as many as the rest of Texas’ linebackers own combined, and he has six starts to his name, whereas the rest of the Longhorns linebackers collectively have just two, and those belong to Joseph Ossai, the likely starting B-Backer. Texas has recruited to ensure that there is talent on hand, but the vast majority of that talent hasn’t played much, if any football at this level.

McCulloch has, so though his role hasn’t been too significant in the past, that’s about to change. He’s now the one true veteran presence in that group, and given the inexperience around him, McCulloch’s importance to this Texas defense can’t be overstated.

What should be the biggest change between 2018 and 2019?

Beyond the expected changes, such as a more explosive offense and a younger, rebuilt defense finding its footing as eight new starters are introduced, the most significant difference may very well be how Texas, as a team, approaches each game. Entering last season, the roster was chockfull with upperclassmen who had endured 27 total losses dating back to the beginning of the Charlie Strong era. So, even as Texas turned a corner and won 10 games in 2018, it often did so by clawing and fighting to the finish and simply finding a way out outlast a team the Horns arguably should have enjoyed a comfortable cushion over, whether it be Tulsa (28-21), Kansas State (19-14), Texas Tech (41-34), or Kansas (24-17).

But Texas did win, and along the way came confidence-instilling victories over five ranked foes, including No. 7 Oklahoma and No. 5 Georgia. The end result entering 2019? As Tom Herman and various Longhorns have detailed throughout the offseason, Texas is now a team that knows it can win, and more notably, knows how to win.

What is the most important game on Texas’ schedule?

Texas can afford a home loss against No. 6 LSU and still maintain legitimate College Football Playoff aspirations. Texas can fall against No. 4 Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl and still control its path to the Big 12 Championship. But a mid-November loss on the road against No. 21 Iowa State could very well be what prevents Texas from returning to Arlington in December, and a loss would all but guarantee any playoff hopes the Horns still house at that point come to an abrupt end.

That Nov. 16 meeting in Ames may not feature the national hype and attention that will come with LSU and Oklahoma, but given what may very realistically be at stake, the Iowa State game could prove to be the most important game on Texas’ schedule.

Season Prediction: Can Texas get back to the Big 12 Championship?

Texas should stand to benefit from much of the Big 12 — nearly half — entering rebuild mode, as Texas Tech, Kansas, Kansas State, and West Virginia each introduced new coaches for the 2019 campaign. Courtesy of so much coaching and cultural change elsewhere leading to rebuilds and thus, likely a down season — CBS Sports Jerry Palm projects that each of the aforementioned programs will miss bowl season — the Longhorns will navigate a schedule that ranks just 35th in strength of schedule, per ESPN’s FPI. Interestingly enough, Texas’ schedule still ranks as the second toughest in the Big 12, trailing only West Virginia (No. 12), but that reality reaffirms that the league as a whole isn’t nearly as daunting as it’s been in recent seasons.

If Texas can capitalize on a rebuilding league, win the games it should, and steal a win or two over No. 6 LSU, No. 4 Oklahoma, or No. 21 Iowa State, a 10-win regular season and return trips to the Big 12 Championship and a New Year’s Six bowl are all well within reach.