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Setting realistic expectations for Steve Sarkisian’s first season at Texas

Steve Sarkisian was hired to build a more successful program than Tom Herman could, but what’s a reasonable measuring stick for Year 1?

Syndication: Austin American-Statesman Aaron E. Martinez/American-Statesman via Imagn Content Services, LLC

As each offseason draws to a close, expectations accompany every college football program in the country — some higher than others. They’re generally quite high in Austin, Texas. High enough, at least, that four straight bowl-winning seasons and three ranked finishes, including No. 9 in 2018, wasn’t enough to earn Tom Herman a fifth year on the Forty Acres.

Thus, a new coach, new expectations. Rinse and repeat.

Steve Sarkisian’s situation entering his debut season, however, is a bit unique, as should be the expectations.

Charlie Strong bore the burden of being Mack Brown’s successor, which, of course, ended remarkably poorly in the record book. Tom Herman took his place after three short seasons as the up-and-coming coach with national interest, and succeeded to a fair extent, but not nearly enough to meet the expectations in Austin. To be sure, Herman left the program and team in a better place than he found them, but Texas is now set to debut a fourth coach in nine seasons because things haven’t been great in quite a while.

So, insert Sarkisian, who’s taking control of a program that’s more than a decade removed from Texas’ last 10-win regular season in 2009, with just one Big 12 title appearance in-between — a loss in 2018.

Where does that leave the program as it pertains to expectations in 2021?

For starters, what’s expected from this season, more or less, shouldn’t be viewed in a vacuum of mere wins and losses alone — more or less meaning nearly everyone would consider 10 wins a resounding success and only six, or even seven, an outright failure. Realistically, Texas will finish somewhere in-between the two. FOX sets Texas’ over/under at 8.5 wins, while ESPN’s FPI pegs the Horns as favorites in 10 of their 12 regular season games with a projected 8.6 wins.

With a blue-chip ratio that ranks as the 7th-best in the nation, ahead of Florida, Texas A&M and Oregon, Texas boasts the talent to cover projected records and win nine or even 10 games. But conversely, a fair amount of that blue-chip talent is entering starting roles for the first time, particularly on offense with multiple new starting linemen, a finally-healthy Jordan Whittington, true freshman Xavier Worthy, and redshirt freshman Hudson Card, who’s completed just one career pass.

That, alone, is arguably enough to separate a great team from a good one, which is exactly what Texas will likely be — a good team that endures the growing pains of inexperience in key roles and an almost entirely new coaching staff en route to an 8-4 or 9-3 record.

But the simple wins and losses won’t tell the entire story of how the season played out, which is an ideal opportunity for Sark and his staff to display why he’s now the head coach at Texas and to learn from the previous regime.

First and foremost given his reputation, there will be clear expectations for Sark’s genius to shine through with the Texas offense. To be sure, this likely won’t look anything like the offense Alabama boasted last season with him calling plays, nor should that be the expectation given the discrepancy in sheer talent and experience. But Sark was brought to Austin largely because of his prowess as an offensive play-caller, and his decades of experience developing quarterbacks into elite, NFL prospects and ultimately, draft picks, is at the core of that.

Sark didn’t recruit the talent currently at his disposal, but he’s absolutely be expected to gradually develop it into a polished product, and along the way, all eyes will be on how well he’s able to develop Card.

So, what’s a reasonable expectation for Sark? Continue to do what you’ve always done — develop Card and produce a quality offense that can complement a high-level defense, rather than serve as a detriment to it, as was often the case in recent seasons.

To that end, it’s natural to expect Sark to learn from Herman’s shortcomings. Prove your motto is more than words and that it’s really all gas, no breaks — bury opponents when you get the chance, and don’t get in your own way in losses with questionable play-calling and by playing not to lose.

Herman commonly won games that just felt like losses last season’s 63-56 overtime win over Texas Tech, the 27-16 win over Baylor, as well as the 50-48 home escape against Kansas in 2019, and that doesn’t even begin to highlight big leads that became nail-biters. Herman would win games that led to what amounted to a higher disapproval rating, and the losses only intensified that given they were often the result of Herman tripping over his own feet.

Sark’s comments and approach to the game throughout the offense inspire confidence that he’ll be an improvement in that regard, but we won’t know whether he’ll sink or swim in those situations until he does.

Expectations are high, as they should be. That comes with the territory when you’re at Texas. But the expectations for Year 1 aren’t “win a Big 12 title” high, or they at least shouldn’t be. However, it’s absolutely safe to expect that Sark’s offensive expertise will be evident and that Card’s potential ultimately translates to productivity, just as it’s safe to expect Sark’s coaching and the coaching of his staff can benefit the talent he has at Texas as opposed to hurting their chances to win.

If Sark can accomplish those two simple tasks, Texas will win the eight or nine games it’s largely projected to win, and thus, he’ll have a successful foundation upon which to build his program going forward.