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BON Roundtable: Sam Ehlinger-led Longhorns eye Big 12 title

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The Longhorns have plenty of talent, experience, and a Heisman-caliber quarterback running the show. Will that be enough to finally unseat Oklahoma atop the Big 12?

Valero Alamo Bowl - Utah v Texas Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

The Texas Longhorns’ 2020 season is just hours from officially getting underway, and there’s plenty of reason for excitement and optimism. With Sam Ehlinger running the show and plenty of talent and experience surrounding him, the Burnt Orange Nation staff discussed whether or not Texas’ Big 12 title aspirations are realistic and if so, what must take place for aspirations to become reality.

Offseasons always bring optimism and hype, and Texas now enters with two new minds running the offense and defense. What are you most intrigued or excited to see from the Longhorns this season?

Cody Daniel — Editor: I think the defense will take care of itself purely behind the talent and, at long last, the experience on hand. But there as been plenty of positive speculation about what this Sam Ehlinger-led offense can become with Mike Yurcich calling plays, and it will need to be elite if Texas hopes to win what should be a competitive Big 12.

Gerald Goodridge — Podcast Host: I am excited to see how the defensive linemen thrive under a new system and mindset. Texas has recruited fairly well along the defensive front and defensive coordinator Chris Ash believes a championship defense starts in the trenches. Guys like Joseph Ossai and Ta’Quon Graham played a bit out of position under Todd Orlando, so I am excited to see those guys thrive.

Cameron Parker — Contributor: I’m interested to see how new coordinators Mike Yurchich and Chris Ash perform in their first year in Austin. The talent is there. The depth (for the most part) is there. Did Herman make the right hires?

Curry Shoff — Columnist: In a regular year, I’d be interested in seeing how a team with a bunch of upperclassmen handled two new installations on offense and defense. However, with all the craziness of COVID, I have a feeling that whatever happens this season, it’s going to be a wash. While I am excited about this season, I definitely am viewing it through a different lens. I’ll be excited if we get 10 uninterrupted games.

The roster is as deep and experienced as it has been in arguably a decade, and Heisman-caliber QB leads the way. Expectations are another Big 12 title appearance, but what could potentially lead to another underwhelming finish?

Cody: Injuries, as was the case last season. Texas might not have been a Big 12 title contender if healthy, but had the defense not been crippled by one key injury after another, Texas almost certainly isn’t a five-loss team either. Otherwise, though talented, can the Texas’ wide receiver corps turn talent into productivity and produce the points necessary to beat the Big 12’s high-scoring offenses?

Gerald: If the offensive line struggles due to depth or inexperience, it could handicap the season. The left side and center feel solid, but we just don’t know what the right side will look like under live fire. Denzel Okafor and Christian Jones are incredibly talented players, but how will they work as a pair on Saturdays?

Cameron: Injuries. The defense was decimated last year with injuries and cost Texas multiple games and a trip to the Big 12 title game. This year it might be the offense who is hurt by injuries with freshman Tory Omiere out for the year already and now the injury to Jake Smith. While it’s only a mild injury, if the Longhorns lose weapons for Ehlinger, the offense could sputter and throw off what should be a big year for Texas.

Curry: COVID. I am only half-joking, because obviously there are question marks on both sides of the ball, but Texas can’t afford to lose key contributors if they want to make a 2020 run. We know Texas will drop guys to injury, but compounding that with the pandemic and I think there are so many ways this season could unravel. And I wouldn’t call it underwhelming, there are far too many variables at play for this season not to get graded on a curve.

On the other hand, if Texas is to live up to the hype, which position groups or Longhorns not named Sam Ehlinger must excel?

Cody: So as mentioned, Texas’ receivers need to turn talent into productivity. In a sense, Lil’Jordan Humphrey and Devin Duvernay as prime examples of doing just that in recent seasons, but Duvernay and Collin Johnson’s absence means replacing 12 TDs and nearly 2,000 yards of offense. The right side of the offensive line is also a group to watch, and can the Texas secondary resemble the talent and experience it will feature on paper?

Gerald: At the risk of sounding like a broken record, the defensive line has to find a way to create consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks. No matter how good your secondary is, receivers will get open if you give them long enough. No matter how you slice it, the Big 12 is an offense-driven league, so disrupting quarterbacks is a must.

Cameron: Defensive line and wide receivers. Ash must do what Ex-DC Todd Orlando couldn’t and that is find a way to get to the quarterback. With Duvernay and Johnson off to the NFL, will any wideout step up? Will they stay healthy?

Curry: I want to see the RB room excel. Texas has its most exciting running back prospect in a decade and it has veterans in Keaontay Ingram and Roschon Johnson — and can incorporate APB Jordan Whittington as he returns from injury. With so many question marks at WR, I think this group needs to go above and beyond.

Sam Ehlinger enters the season ranked first among all active QBs in passing yards, total offense, and total touchdowns, so there’s clear proof that he’ll produce at a tremendously high clip. But will he produce enough to earn a spot as a Heisman finalist?

Cody: I think that depends purely on Texas’ record. If the Horns are winning and earn a trip to the Big 12 title, largely because of Ehlinger’s efforts, he’ll be there. But if Texas sits at 6-4 or even 7-3 in December, he’ll almost certainly be overlooked, regardless of the numbers.

Gerald: I still don’t understand the national conversation around Sam Ehlinger. It feels like people formed opinions his freshman year and haven’t really changed their tune. I think Yurcich is going to absolutely propel Ehlinger to the upper-echelon. Sam may not have the raw talent of a guy like Justin Fields, but Fields had a MASSIVE jump in just one year with Yurcich. I anticipate Sam having a similar jump as a passer thanks to his work with Yurcich.

Cameron: This HAS to be the year Ehlinger earns a trip to New York, right?? New passer-friendly OC Mike Yurchich along with more weapons he can shake a stick at. Add in a weaker conference this year and it makes for a perfect recipe. I say yes...

Curry: Yes. I think this has to be a massive goal. A Heisman finalist can really move the needle from a program perspective — whether it be recruiting/exposure/etc. I think Mike Yurcich will work to make it happen.

Devin Duvernay and Collin Johnson are off to the NFL, and Keaontay Ingram, Roschon Johnson, and Bijan Robinson will all get touches at running back. Who will lead Texas is receiving and rushing?

Cody: I’m banking on the pressure of the talent behind him pushing Ingram to improve further and lead the Longhorns in rushing again. As for receiving, if Jake Smith’s injury does prove to be minor and he’s back following the opener, he’s my pick. If not and Jordan Whittington remains a starter, then he’s my pick. Ehlinger loves passing to the slot.

Gerald: The running back seems like an easy answer for me. Even splitting time fairly evenly with Johnson a year ago, Ingram led the team and I don’t see that changing without something significant happening. Receiving is a lot murkier, but Tom Herman has had a TON to say about Tarik Black. Black has the size and skillset to be a threat in the passing game.

Cameron: As long as he stays healthy I think Keaontay Ingram will lead the Horns in rushing again, but with Roschon Johnson back along with Bijan Robinson, it could be up for grabs. Same goes for the receiving unit. With no clear cut favorite option for Ehlinger, it could be anyone but I like Jordan Whittington.

Curry: Tarik Black. I have hopes that he becomes the biggest graduate transfer addition since Tre Watson.

Who’s your breakout player on each side of the ball?

Cody: I like Chris Adimora to become a real factor as the SPUR nickel back. Offensively, Bijan Robinson. He’s just the kind of rare talent who could become Texas’ best rushing option as the season progresses.

Gerald: Jared Wiley and Ta’Quon Graham

Cameron: Running Back Bijan Robinson and Defensive Lineman Ta’Quon Graham

Curry: Tarik Black and Joseph Ossai.

What’s your most bold prediction for the 2020 Longhorns?

Cody: At the risk of betting against an Oklahoma team that’s had the Big 12 by the throat for half a decade, I have Texas finally snapping that streak behind a Heisman-caliber effort from Sam Ehlinger.

Gerald: Sam Ehlinger may not win the Heisman, but he gets invited to the ceremony.

Cameron: It might not be THAT bold but it’s bold according to Las Vegas. I think the Longhorns will win the Big 12 this year and earn their first birth to the College Football Playoff. Stars look like they’re finally aligning in Austin with a weaker conference making Texas the most experienced team in the Big 12.

Curry: If the season happens without massive interruption, Texas makes the playoff.

What’s your UTEP prediction and your season prediction?

Cody: 45-10 Texas. 10-1 and winning the Big 12 title.

Gerald: 49-14 Texas. 10-1 with a conference championship.

Cameron: Texas 56 - UTEP 7. 10-2 with a conference championship and loss in the CFB Playoff

Curry: Sloppy game — but Texas wins convincingly. It’ll give everyone headaches though.