While the introduction of round-robin scheduling led Bellmont to assure everyone that Texas would schedule more interesting games before conference play, in the year 2011 playing the entire league will not serve to lighten the difficulty level of Texas' opponents.
This season we're essentially replacing a Sam Houston St or La Lafayette date with Missouri and Kansas. Opponents that have access to greater resources than do our average non-conference foes and who are far more accustomed to competing against Texas. As we'll see in our examination of the conference, this does not make a return to 10 wins more likely. We have some strategic advantages this year but are facing a league of teams with lots of returning offensive linemen and defenses stocked with defensive backs and pass-rushers.
Some of you may be over-saturated with preseason projections, though I doubt it, but my aim here is to take a glimpse at all of our conference foes and project the following:
What will they be good at? What will they suck at? How do they match up against the rest of the league? How do they match up against Texas?
We're going to get right into the strategies of each team and consider the likelihood of a 10 win season, or bowl eligibility, or being mired in mediocrity...let's start at home.
Longhorn Scott has us very well pegged as a Power running team and Mack's early announcement of Chet Moss' position switch to fullback confirms that our primary focus this year will be on 2-back formations and running concepts like Power O.
Our strengths on offense, few as they may be, are these: we have a very talented incoming power-back and a stable of serviceable running backs on campus, we have the best interior Offensive line in the conference with young talents Trey Hopkins and Mason Walters on either side of Snow who is one of the conference's best centers, we have some up and coming wide receivers, loads of fast skill players, and a coaching staff who can scheme raw materials into industrial capital.
The addition of Harsin is the key in that last strength because we had many of these same assets last year and couldn't get out of our own way en route to the end zone. So long as we find a quarterback who can avoid interceptions and who knows where the ball should go (big ifs) we can do a lot building around Power O and the holes smashed by our offensive line. Guys like Mike Davis and DJ Monroe offer big play possibilities if they can be featured in packages that are complemented by a running game that can get 4-6 yards consistently on 1st and 2nd down.
On defense we are loaded with skilled pass-rushers, we have several good open field tacklers in our linebacking corp and in the defensive backfield (Vaccaro, Phillips), and we have one very legit defensive tackle. Whereas Texas fans pull their hair at the thought of fielding someone next to Kheeston Randall the rest of the conference (as you will soon see) is wishing to Cthulhu that they had just one Kheeston Randall on their roster this season.
Our weaknesses on defense are as follows: we don't have a 2nd defensive tackle yet and consequently need a way to flush the pocket down the middle and protect our linebackers from 2nd level blocks, we don't have a between the tackles middle linebacker who can stonewall blocks and plug holes, and we don't have anyone who can play on an island against the likes of Justin Blackmon.
On offense we are missing experience at receiver, a quarterback, and a TE/HB/FB who is an asset in run blocking and a reasonable threat in the passing game. I particularly curse Greg Davis for that last shortcoming as his disinterest in the running game led us to fail to develop a position that is now primarily featured in modern multiple offenses. Sigh, anyway, we are also without reliable offensive tackles which means we need all of Harsin's Boise trickery in moving the pocket, playing Ole' with pass-rushers, and building from the running game because last year's playbook would possibly fail even harder without Kyle Hix, if you can believe it.
Most of that should have been review for totebaggers like yourselves, the more interesting concern is this: which of our conference foes are equipped with the schemes and personnel to exploit our soft underbelly on defense? Or our inexperience outside? Who has the bodies and toughness to plug our running game? I've divided the conference into groupings based on those very metrics.
Turner Gill was that name you always heard when some commentator asked why a school wasn't interviewing more black candidates for head coach. Overlooked in that discussion was the fact that Turner Gill wasn't a worthy candidate for most of those major positions. His Kansas team was held to a field goal opening day against North Dakota St last year.
Neither of their tackles top 285 lbs. and their best end is gone. I don't see any reason our team would struggle to run right over this crew unless we get banged up or are considerably worse than I foresee.
On offense they don't know who their quarterback is and lack a Dezmon Briscoe or Kerry Meier that would alarm you in the passing game while their OL gave up multiple sacks against any defense with a pass-rushing pulse last season. Let's not filter through the mess in Lawrence, suffice to say that they are a work in progress and we will defeat them.
We get them at home this year, we always win that one right? Seriously, if we lose to this team in Austin again Mack's career will be in serious jeopardy. That said, they do pose a few problems.
One is that they are actually still built to defend teams that like to run the ball and their 2 outside linebackers combined last year for 241 tackles, 13 TFL, 7 INT and 6 PBU. They return a fairly competent noseguard in Stephen Ruempolhamer as well. Against a Greg Davis run game they would absorb it along with his sideline passing game for 400 total yards and 17 points.
However, even if they could do the same to this year's crew the odds of this offense reaching 28 points again on Diaz's defense are pretty poor. Last year's effort was made possible mostly due to turnovers and the success of the zone-read featuring Arnaud and Robinson against our frustrated defense. Both of those players are now gone.
Briles has done a markedly better job in the last few years in developing OL than has Texas and the fact that Baylor is routinely putting more big guys in the NFL draft than us should be a source of fantastic motivation for Searels. This year they return 4 starters to block for the famous Robert Griffin III and a cast of very fast receivers and backs.
They list a TE on the depth chart but this is a 4 WR spread team that lives by the improvisations of Robert Griffin, 4 verticals plays, and your shotgun-spread arsenal of zone-runs, QB draws, and screens.
Where this fails is against a zone-defense such as Diaz employs with guys like Hicks, Acho, and Vaccaro on the field. Baylor caught us last year by getting Kendall Wright isolated on Blake Gideon, Jay Finley finding a huge crease and easily outrunning Gideon and Scott in the open field, and landing some turnovers that gave them awesome field position.
Against Gideon+Vaccaro and a zone defense those iso-situations will be tougher to come by and in general I expect our back 7 to be 5x less vulnerable to big runs and yards after catch thanks to the zone scheme and Vaccaro's constant presence.
Their defense has perhaps one credible pass-rusher, a small nickel lineup featuring Ahmad Dixon in place of a 3rd LB, and one remaining 300+ pound DT. This is a group begging to get pounded by Johnson and Malcolm Brown.
The fact that Texas handled Robert Griffin quite competently last year should give you confidence that his "Heisman" skills won't enough to make a difference. A difficult task to be sure, but they are designed to get fast players in space and handle the same strategy from opponents and consequently the 7 or so legitimately good athletes on their team won't be of much use in standing up to a Walters-Snow double team or trying to truck-stick Keenan Robinson.
Lonnie Edwards is probably the best guard in the conference and every OL, while Tuberville has been trying to slim them down to make zone blocks, is 300+ pounds and a returning starter. That lot is blocking for Eric Stephens who had over 800 all purpose yards last year and Aaron Crawford. On the outside they have their usual cast of experienced possession receivers who used to cause everyone fits back when 4 and 5 receiver sets overmaxed everyone's capacity to defend the forward pass.
Now that everyone is stockpiling pass-rushers and defensive backs the name of the game for the Red Raiders is running over people on hitch screens and zone runs slowly but surely. Not particularly frightening but they were pretty efficient at it against everyone but us and OU. They have a new quarterback this year who isn't the beneficiary of Leach tutoring so we'll see how that goes for them.
Their OL could lean on our front pretty heavily over the course of 4 quarters which makes them fairly dangerous, but I imagine that a new starter against Diaz blitz schemes with little in the way of a home-run threat at the skill positions could be a recipe for disaster, this team is no longer the litmus test for whether a coordinator can handle the Air-Raid.
On defense they lose Colbe Whitlock, at freaking last, and start two tiny defensive tackles in front of the TCU coverage schemes brought from Ft. Worth by former Horned Frog DB coach Chad Glasgow. Whitlock gave us fits the last 2 seasons and his departure should be celebrated by us all, not least of all because he left no protege to follow him. Glasgow does have quite a lot to work with in the defensive backfield with Cody Davis (a freshman All-American) and some experienced corners and safeties, I think he'll put together a pretty strong unit.
Again, it's a team that is fairly well built to handle a spread passing game but has no answer for lead blocks by fullbacks or future NFL guards save for dusting off their 8-man fronts and hoping their 200 pound backfield doesn't get tired of tackling Brown and co. Remember that Nebraska struggled doing this last year with Jared Crick and Lavonte David so...
Really most of the danger from K St. from year to year is that they consistently match up well against us and seem to have coaching staffs who know exactly how to befuddle us every season. Greg Davis wasn't their only victim either as they have consistently found ways to attack our defenses as well. Then there is their towering dominance over us in the other sports which I can't explain in this space or any other.
I'm sure Mack is hoping that our staff overhaul will cause Snyder and co. to be forced to finally throw out their "how to clown Texas" cheat sheet and that will certainly help but this team will still be fairly well built to challenge our weak spots.
They lost Daniel Thomas, around whom they focused their offense like a West Texas HS around the black athlete on the team, but replace him with transfer Bryce Brown from Tennessee who is next to go into the Snyder meat grinder.
The interior OL is gone but this was already a patchwork job by Snyder of mixed running/option schemes, JuCO and 2nd tier Texas athletes, and mental toughness...essentially all the things that give a finesse team fits.
I'm betting that Randall has a stronger performance in this game and that the team will have more toughness overall to take advantage of their sizable talent gap in a scrap against this lot.
On defense they have several guys back in the secondary and lose only a few pieces from a front 7 that the league absolutely ran over last year for over 6 yards per carry. It's an improved unit though that has been infused with JuCo talent and a Miami transfer at linebacker (Arthur Brown) who was apparently the best LB last year playing on the scout team. DE Meshak and co. will pass through the fire of easy Div II schools and be in far better form when we meet again. We get them late in the year before A&M at home and it would be the easiest of these games to drop.
This one tells us if the cultural transformation is complete or a work in progress because Snyder turns non-qualifiers and cast-offs into smashmouth teams of the sort we want to become.
Next post we'll get into the ranked teams.