August is here and that means college football season is starting soon. The first games of the 2017 season kick off Aug. 26. And as it quickly approaches, we have 25 days to preview each of the 25 teams in our updated Dr. Saturday 2017 preseason poll. Check here every day to find out who we think the 25 best teams in the country will be. Fair warning, however. We’re probably going to be wrong.
No. 20 TEXAS
2016 record: 5-7
Returning starters: 7 offense, 10 defense
Biggest non-conference game: Sept. 16 at USC
Biggest conference game: Oct. 20 vs. Oklahoma
Key returning player: LB Malik Jefferson
Key departed player: RB D’Onta Foreman
Three things to know about Texas
• There’s a new man in charge.
It’s hard to remember a hotter coaching prospect than Tom Herman in recent memory. His profile rose dramatically during his three seasons as offensive coordinator under Urban Meyer at Ohio State. His success in Columbus got him the Houston job and all he did was lead the Cougars to 13 wins and a Peach Bowl victory over Florida State in his first season. He followed that up with nine more wins (including one over Oklahoma) in 2016, prompting a bidding war between UT and LSU for his services.
Herman chose Texas, where he spent the 1999 and 2000 seasons as a graduate assistant under Mack Brown. Herman is taking over the Longhorns amid one of the program’s worst stretches — three straight losing seasons. But Charlie Strong didn’t leave the cupboard empty; the Longhorns have a lot of talent and are capable of vaulting back into the upper echelon of the Big 12. However, UT won’t be at the level of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State just yet.
Yes, yes, I know. We’re hyping up the return of Texas again, but with Herman it’s hard not to be optimistic about an improvement.
Still, Herman hasn’t kept quiet about some of the challenges Texas has. Off the field, UT has already hit the ground running with facility upgrades (the new locker room was unveiled a few days ago) and recruiting as Herman evaluates the roster and instills a new culture where losing is unacceptable. He knows the expectations for a turnaround are there, but at Big 12 Media Days he not-so subtly tried to walk them back a bit.
“Ever since the first team meeting that we had, which was a very political one and a direct one, our guys have bought in. And I will say that the buy-in level has been extremely high from the number of players that I think really, truly believe in what we’re preaching, that believe in our way of doing things,” Herman said.
“Now, the day-to-day, hour-to-hour, minute-by-minute execution of that belief and of that buy-in is still something that we’re learning how to do, especially when things get very difficult and you’re faced with adverse situations, but the belief is there, and that’s the first step. We’re well on our way. All of you are going to ask me about expectations. I don’t know. I know that these guys are going to be trained as well as anybody in the country, and we’re going to play to our maximum potential. What that is, I don’t know right now.
“I feel good that these guys are willing to do whatever we ask them to coming off the three-year stretch that this program has had. They don’t want that to be their legacy. They want to be remembered as the team and the group that turned this thing around. I think we’re well on our way.”
• Texas’ success could depend on the development of quarterback Shane Buechele.
Buechele showed flashes of brilliance in 2016 as a true freshman, throwing for 2,958 yards and 21 touchdowns. He also often looked like a true freshman who tried to do too much. He held on to the ball too long. He threw 11 interceptions, five of which came in the final three games of the season, all losses, including three in the disastrous loss at Kansas.
So there are obvious steps forward for Buechele to take. Herman, who hasn’t named Buechele the starter just yet with freshman Sam Ehlinger also in the mix, helped Ohio State win the national title with its third-string QB and turned converted receiver Greg Ward into a star quarterback at Houston. He can coach up quarterbacks, but it will be interesting to see how Buechele fits into Herman’s system, which uses a lot of run-pass options. Buechele only ran for 151 yards last year, but Herman thinks he is athletic enough to get the job done.
“For our offense to work, you don’t have to be Braxton Miller or Michael Vick,” Herman said in January. “You have to at least make the defense pay if they ignore the quarterback in the run game. You don’t have to hit home runs. As long as you’re hitting singles and doubles, then you’re going to have success in this offense.”
Buechele has an experienced offensive line to play behind and a deep group of solid receivers, but running back looks like a question mark. With 2,000-yard rusher D’Onta Foreman off to the NFL, it looks like 250-pound Chris Warren (836 yards in two seasons) will get the first crack at lead back duties. There aren’t many experienced options behind him.
The schedule won’t be easy on Buechele and the Longhorns, either. A trip west to USC comes in Week 3. The Big 12 slate opens at Iowa State but follows with Kansas State, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State on consecutive Saturdays. That’s quite a stretch. Texas will need Buechele at his best.
• The UT defense has the chance to be much improved if it stays healthy. The Longhorns return most of their top performers from last year and have several entrenched starters: linebackers Malik Jefferson, Anthony Wheeler and Naashon Hughes, defensive backs Kris Boyd and P.J. Locke, linemen Poona Ford and Malcolm Roach, among others. It’s a young group that struggled mightily in the early parts of 2016, but got better as the year progressed.
There’s a new coordinator in place for the defense. Herman brought Todd Orlando with him from Houston after he led the No. 13 defense in the country in 2016. Orlando’s UH defense allowed only 319 yards per game and was especially stout against the run. He inherits a defense with experienced players who maybe haven’t played at their full potential. Can Orlando bring it out of them?
Also, it must be noted that depth could be an issue. If there are injuries, things could go downhill pretty quickly. Cornerback especially seems like a thin position where younger players need to step up.
For more Texas news, visit Orangebloods.com.
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