What Makes The Texas Longhorns Serious Title Contenders In 2010?
By Dino Nicandros
The USA Today Coaches Poll was released yesterday, and as many expected, Alabama was almost a unanimous number one.
Perennial powers Ohio State and Florida follow behind the Tide at two and three.
Coming in at number four are the Texas Longhorns, who went 13-1 last season and fell to Alabama in the BCS Title Game.
BCS-buster Boise State rounds out the top five.
Looking at the top five as it stands now, all five teams seem to be relatively well-positioned to stay where they are and eventually break into the national championship next January.
Alabama’s two-headed running back tandem of Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson, accompanied by an undefeated quarterback in Greg McElroy and a future NFL stud receiver in Julio Jones, give the Tide a great chance to defend their crown, despite losing nine of eleven starters on defense.
Ohio State will have one of the best defensive units in the country, but all eyes will be on Heisman candidate quarterback Terrelle Pryor, who finally cracked his potential in last year’s Rose Bowl game against Oregon. If Pryor continues his progression as a passer, the Buckeyes should be able to navigate their Big Ten schedule.
In the first year AT (After Tebow) in Gainesville, many believe Florida will face a significant drop off, but with speedster Jeff Demps breaking off explosive play after explosive play, and talented John Brantley stepping into the quarterback slot, don’t look for Florida to go anywhere anytime soon.
The Boise State Broncos have lost one game in two seasons. One. Quarterback Kellen Moore is one of the nation’s best, and the Broncos return 21 of 22 starters on offense and defense. If they can get past Virginia Tech on day one, there’s very little that could stop this train from rolling into Glendale.
So how do the No. 4 Longhorns fit into the national championship chase?
First, let’s look at the pieces Texas has lost heading into the 2010 season:
QB Colt McCoy
I think everyone understands the magnitude of losing a player like this.
WR Jordan Shipley
McCoy’s wing-man was one of the most prolific receiver/return man combos in school history.
OT Adam Ulatoski
This mammoth was charged with protecting McCoy’s blindside for four years.
OG Charlie Tanner
Consistent. Hard-nosed. Dedicated.
C Chris Hall
Mr. Versatility himself. He started at least one game at each of the five positions along the line during his career.
FS Earl Thomas
As a sophomore, Thomas was arguably the best safety in college football.
LB/DE Sergio Kindle
Kindle was another in a long line of frightening pass-rushers to pass through Austin.
DT/DE Lamarr Houston
Surprisingly productive 2009 season led to Texas’ run-stopping dominance.
LB Roddrick Muckelroy
Though unheralded, this locomotive led the team in tackling the past two seasons and was responsible for single-handedly shutting down opponents’ running games.
By looking at this departing group, one would think it would be incredibly hard for Texas to rebound.
That person would be correct. The Texas Longhorns are in for some growing pains in some of the most crucial positions on the field.
This list indicates the player(s) slotted to fill the hole left by each of the players in the above list:
QB Garrett Gilbert
Trial-by-fire in Pasadena has given this talented sophomore some valuable experience as he inherits one of the nation’s flagship teams.
WR Malcolm Williams
A Roy Williams-type who has shown some big play potential, but has yet to show up consistently on the big stage.
OT Kyle Hix
Switches from right to left tackle and is charged with protecting Gilbert’s blindside, perhaps one of the most pivotal assignments on the team in 2010.
Senior Brit Mitchell will be filling Hix’s vacated right tackle spot.
OG Tray Allen
Allen was a highly touted player in 2006, but has yet to crack the starting lineup.
Sophomore Mark Buchanan or freshman Thomas Ashcraft could make a move for playing time if Allen fails to play up to par.
C David Snow
A bull of a blocker, but seeks to become more consistent.
FS Christian Scott
Back from academic issues in ’09, Scott is a promising physical specimen with a knack for separating the ball from the ball carrier.
DE Alex Okafor
Played situationally in ’09, but he’s a monster in the making as he steps into the starting defensive end role.
DT Calvin Howell
Coaches liked him early last year before he got sidelined with injury and proceeded to redshirt.
LB Dustin Earnest
Capable four year player who has a chance to be a real force in the middle of the Texas D.
Despite the holes Mack Brown will be attempting to seal up early in the season, there is reason to be hopeful if you’re one of the burnt orange faithful.
Here are five reasons why the Texas Longhorns could be playing in Glendale for the National Championship:
The Longhorns start with some easy-peasy contests against Rice and Wyoming before they head out on an early road game against a rebuilding Texas Tech squad.
Texas then heads back home to face a defensive-minded UCLA team who shoudn’t pose much of a threat in the scoring department.
A week later, Texas takes on OU in one of the pivotal games on the college football schedule. This contest should be interesting considering the pieces each team has to replace.
The Longhorns then take a much needed bye-week before heading to Lincoln, Nebraska for one of the most highly anticipated games of the 2010 season.
After the heavy lifting of October is over with, the Longhorns leave the state of Texas only one more time to face Kansas State.
The season finale against talented Texas A&M is in Austin, by which point Gilbert and the Longhorns will be in full swing.
While the season has its cupcakes, the four week stretch of Tech, UCLA, OU, and Nebraska could potentially be one of the more daunting in college football.
However, this stretch could help Texas significantly in the court of public opinion. Even if the Longhorns drop a close game at either OU or Nebraska, it is still early enough in the season to where Texas won’t take a huge tumble in the polls (see 2008 Texas-OU).
A loss to Nebraska, assuming Texas does indeed lose a game, would be preferable because it wouldn’t likely affect Texas’ standing in the Big 12 South. If Texas were to lose to Nebraska, but win the south, it is very likely that the two teams would remain in the top 10 when they square off in the Big 12 title game.
A Texas win over Nebraska in Dallas could potentially vault the Longhorns into the National Championship depending on what happens around the country. Either way, Texas would be headed to Glendale (site of the Fiesta Bowl).
Despite the loss of do-everything safety Earl Thomas, the Texas secondary could very well be the best unit in the nation.
After three straight seasons of serious underachievement along the back line, the 2009 season introduced a new-look secondary riddled with NFL talent.
Aaron Williams, Curtis Brown, Chykie Brown, and Blake Gideon all return from a pass defense that ranked 19th in the country. While that isn’t an overly impressive ranking, take into consideration how often teams had to throw the ball because the first ranked Texas run defense had shut down their running games.
This group led the nation with 25 interceptions. Here’s a breakdown of the takeaways.
The other three interceptions belonged to linebackers.
Defensive coordinator Will Muschamp believes this unit will be even better than last year’s group because this will be their third year in his defensive system.
Williams, (Curtis) Brown, and Gideon are all All-American, All-Big 12, and Thorpe Award candidates.
The talent behind the big three is considerable as well.
Christian Scott will be taking over for Thomas at FS, and coaches rave about his natural instincts and physique.
Nolan Brewster and Kenny Vaccaro are two guys to watch in relief roles of both Gideon and Scott at both safety positions.
Brewster is a fantastic cover safety while Vaccaro provides some serious grit in stopping the run.
Freshmen Bryant Jackson, Eyron Barnett, Carryington Byndom, Bryant Jackson, Adrian Philips, and A.J. White will all compete for playing time in Texas’ Nickel package.
3. Garrett Gilbert
Garrett Gilbert will be one of the big reasons why Texas will make a title run in 2010.
Now don’t get me wrong, he will struggle. At times, he may struggle a lot depending on how fast he grasps the offense and gets used to the speed of the college game.
However, this gifted sophomore has a leg up after enduring the nightmare that was the 2009 National Championship.
A horrible first half, in which the youngster looked flat-out overmatched, gave way to a memorable second half in which he threw two touchdowns and nearly led Texas to the comeback of the century.
His mistakes eventually doomed Texas, but in the same token, his flashes of brilliance gave the Longhorns something to rally around in a game in which nothing went right for the boys in burnt orange.
Gilbert has embraced the role as the team’s leader and he showed his rapid maturation during a three touchdown performance at the annual Orange-White spring scrimmage.
Gilbert’s prototypical tools at quarterback will make him a force to be reckoned with once he gets fully acclimated with the offense, which I expect to happen a lot sooner than most people think.
With a stable of talented receivers and a new, but experienced line in front of him, Gilbert has everything he needs to keep Texas’ offense among the best in the nation.
It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Gilbert toss anywhere from 10 to 12 picks this season, but a 20-25 touchdown effort is just as likely.
A key element in helping Gilbert keep the mistakes to a minimum and the offense rolling is…
2. A Running Game
What is this running game you speak of?
Not since 2007 has Texas had a 1,000 yard rusher (Jamaal Charles) and it’s been even longer since Texas has had a really consistent running game.
You’d have to go back to 2004, when Cedric Benson spearheaded the second best rushing attack in college football.
In those days, the Longhorn offense revolved around the traditional I-formation and one-back sets, making Benson the focal point.
Since 2005, when the spread was implemented to fit the talents of Vince Young, and later Colt McCoy, down-hill running disappeared in the offense, giving way to a zone-read based attack that featured more quarterback runs and more lateral running by the running backs.
While Young and McCoy’s rushing totals grew (both led the team in rushing once in their careers), production from the running back position steadily declined, bottoming out last season.
Texas ranked 61st in the nation in rushing offense in 2009. It doesn’t get much worse for a program who’s very rise to prominence centered around a prolific running attack.
That being said, there is talent at running back.
It starts with Tre’ Newton, who led the Longhorns with 552 yards and six touchdowns last season.
Newton will likely start for the Longhorns on Sept. 4th, but it remains to be seen if he can hold the job. He was the most consistent ball carrier a year ago and also showed some real prowess as an extra pass blocker.
Fozzy Whittaker will be the main challenger for the starting job. Though he has been plagued with injuries for most of his career, Whittaker can still prove to be the top scat-back on the roster.
His combination of speed and vision make him a real weapon if he can stay healthy for longer stretches of time.
Power back Cody Johnson has led the team in rushing touchdowns over his first two seasons, bludgeoning his way into the end zone 24 times.
However, many of those scores came from the goal line. Still, Johnson displays surprising agility for such a big back and he can really turn on the jets when you least expect it (see 2008 Texas-Texas A&M game).
Senior Vondrell McGee has been productive at times, but will likely cede carries to the younger, more talented backs.
The most interesting prospect in the group is RS-freshman Chris Whaley. After sitting last season with some injury issues, Whaley came on strong in the spring game, carrying the ball for a team-high 77 yards on 14 carries.
Whaley is a rare blend of size and speed and can really get down the field. He is best suited to gash teams in the middle, but he has shown the ability to make quick cuts to the outside.
If Newton and Whittaker falter, it’ll be Whaley’s job to lose.
I have hope for the running game this season due to the switch back to a more conventional running attack, similar to the one Texas ran up until 2005.
With more down-hill running out of the I, and some big blockers to plow the way, look for a resurgent running attack that will take the pressure off of Gilbert and the passing game.
Texas struggled mightily against OU, Nebraska, and Alabama because they couldn’t get any semblance of a running game going, which in turn led to some serious woes with the passing game.
While it isn’t an instant fix, an even slightly improved running game will do wonders for an often one-dimensional Texas offense.
1. Chaos Theory
I can’t remember if I’ve ever discussed my Chaos Theory on Bleacher Report, but it really is quite simple.
Everyone immediately ranked ahead of and behind you (in this case Texas) loses, sealing your place in the title game as long as you keep winning.
Unfortunately, the last few seasons, my Chaos Theory has included Texas in its grand design to turn college football upside down.
The Chaos Theory works the same way for every team in college football essentially. If you get the right breaks and win all of your games, you’re in.
This is simply a look at the Chaos Theory in action from the Texas perspective.
Now let’s take a hypothetical look at the preseason top five and apply the Chaos Theory.
While the Tide are the prohibitive favorites to repeat in 2010, I believe they could very well be the first top five team (other than Florida) to lose.
While a home game against Penn State doesn’t look so dangerous, don’t underestimate Joe Pa’s always stingy defenses.
If Alabama makes it through that, they have a game against Arkansas, on the road, two weeks later.
This game wasn’t close a year ago, but Ryan Mallett and company should be ready to play this time.
But it is more than likely that Bama will be undefeated headed into a home contest with Florida. Florida is rebuilding, but lets not forget that the Tide defense will be replacing nine starters.
The Tide may end up going down by early October, and a second loss at either LSU or at home against Auburn isn’t out of the question.
Ohio State’s first test comes against the Miami Hurricanes in a week two match up in Columbus.
Terrelle Pryor and the Buckeyes should be in a good position to win this game, but I don’t doubt the chances of Jacory Harris and the ‘Canes pulling off a big upset early in the year.
If Ohio State survives, the next real threats come either at Wisconsin on 16th or at Iowa on Nov. 30th. If Pryor is still struggling to find consistency, the Buckeyes could end up losing one ore both of these games.
What’s even more devastating is the fact that a loss to Iowa would come too late in the season for any kind of rebound in the polls.
Florida will likely be undefeated headed into their game with Alabama, and should the Gators pull of the upset, they will likely either jump to one or two in the polls.
Games versus LSU and Georgia at home could be quite challenging, but the season finale at Florida State looks treacherous.
If the Gators were to make it this far and lose to the Seminoles, the effect in the poles would be irreparable for Urban Meyer’s club.
And then there’s the fact that a pair of one loss SEC teams would face off in the SEC Championship. While the winner would still likely have an outside shot at the National Title, the loser would be finished.
Boise State essentially has a two game season, but it could all end on opening day as they face off against No. 6 Virginia Tech.
While Virginia Tech could likely rebound from a loss so early in the season, any loss on the schedule for the Broncos would end their National Championship hopes outright due to the weakness of the WAC conference slate.
If they don’t get bitten by the Hokies, don’t be surprised if the Beavers of Oregon State nab them later in the season.
So if we were to go with the assumption that Texas doesn’t lose a game, and that the other preseason top five teams all lose once or twice, we could be looking at a Texas-ACC or a Texas-one loss SEC team National Championship game.
The Longhorns would fluctuate between any of the five spots in the top five throughout the season, but would ultimately end up in Glendale because of their undefeated record and the misfortune of teams around them.