This group has definitely over-achieved. They are one of the top few teams in the nation, although by any metric the talent in the program should be less than many other programs. Don't believe me? Let's look at the talent that came in, via recruiting. Using Rivals, here are the average ratings of the past five classes of select programs and the weighted averages using this formula: (1X2008 rating + 2X2007 + 3X2006 + 4X2005 + 3X2004)/13. The reason the 2004 classes are weighed no more than the 2006 class is that typically some of the most talented players don't stay for five years.
1. USC (Ave. rank) 2.6, (wt. ave.) 1.69
2. Florida 5.6, 7.8
3. Georgia 7.2, 7.31
4. FSU 7.6, 5.92
5. OU 8.0, 7.46
6. Michigan 9.0, 8.38
7. LSU 9.2, 10.31
8. Miami 9.8, 9.62
9. tOSU 10.4, 11.15
10. Texas 10.8, 11.46
11. Alabama 11.0, 13.15
Wow. Would you have guessed that so many other programs out-recruited us over the past few years? Would you have guessed that the OU program that has lost to Texas 3 of the last 4 years had that significant of a recruiting advantage? I think it's interesting that Texas' recruiting is closer to resurgent Alabama than to the Sooners. As for programs doing less with more, how about Miami, Michigan, FSU and Georgia?
How about what the conference coaches think about our current talent? We had four players selected to the Big 12 all conference team this year, compared to three Red Raiders and nine Sooners. In other words, the Big 12 coaches think Texas has good, but not great talent. They think OU has great talent. Here's a comparison of all Big 12 players from UT and OU, per the coaches:
Year UT OU
1998 3 1
1999 6 0
2000 4 5
2001 4 5
2002 5 7
2003 4 9
2004 6 8
2005 9 5
2006 5 5
2007 2 6
2008 4 9
When OU was beating UT five straight games (2000 - 2004), OU had 34 all-Big 12 players to UT's 23. That made sense...OU was better. Since 2005, UT has had 11 all-Big 12 players, and OU has had 20. So, OU has out-recruited Texas by a significant margin, and has turned its larger number of super-blues into a notably larger number of elite players. Given that Texas has beaten OU 2 of those three post-2005 seasons, perhaps we should revisit the conventional wisdom about which staff relies on overwhelming talent to win, and which staff can game plan for a big game.
How talented is this roster compared to other Texas teams under Mack? I think a good metric for pure elite star quality talent is the number of NFL-quality players on a team. By this measure, this is not one of Mack's most talented teams. The 2005 squad was the most talented, with an amazing 18 future NFLers (V. Young, Hall, Thomas, S. Young, J. Charles, Sweed, Sendlein, Scott, Blalock, Studdard, Robison, Crowder, Okam, Lokey, Brown, Ross, C. Griffin, M. Griffin and Huff). The 2001 team was probably second, followed by the 2004 and 2006 squads. Who on the 2008 Longhorn team looks likely for the NFL? Orakpo, for sure, despite not being truly healthy until this year. Roy Miller, probably. Kindle, probably, for his physical potential if not his actual position skills. After that, there's just a bunch of guys who might be low second day draft picks or free agents (Cosby, Muckelroy), or very young players who might turn into major talents (Thomas, the young OL). Frankly, this team did not have the raw talent of a third of Mack's teams at Texas. I would estimate the 2005, 2001, 2004, and 2006 teams to have more elite talent. The 2000, 2002, and 2003 teams are comparable talent-wise. Prediction- OU, Missouri, and Texas Tech will all have more players drafted in 2009 than Texas.
So, we've established that this team is not one of the most talented that Texas has had under Brown. How good was it, though, as a team? Pre-season, the AP pegged Texas as #11(and they sure didn't have Utah ahead of us). Let's compare final AP rankings and Sagarin rankings (his Predictor model where available) of past teams under Mack:
Year Record Sagarin AP
1998 9 - 3 87.76 (16) 15
1999 9 - 5 83.19 (18) 21
2000 9 - 3 88.59 (10) 12
2001 11 - 2 96.35 (3) 5
2002 11 - 2 90.33 (5) 6
2003 10 - 3 89.27 (6) 12
2004 11 - 1 84.33 (15) 5 (I have no idea why Sagarin's "Predictor" model had us so low; I am concluding there was an error)
2005 13 - 0 106.03 (1) 1
2006 10 - 3 85.85 (13) 13
2007 10 - 3 85.13 (12) 10
2008 12 - 1 95.25 (4) 4
The 2005 team was Mack's best, followed by the 2001, 2004, and 2008 teams in some order. Judging by record, and quality of wins, I'm saying the 2008 team was the second-most accomplished squad coached by Mack. Look at it this way. I was a freshman in 1981, when Texas finished second in the nation. Texas beat OU, TAMU, and won a major bowl game that year (the Cotton Bowl was a big one back then). That has only happened twice since then- 2005 and 2008 (Texas beat OU, TAMU, and MSU in the Cotton Bowl in '98, but the Cotton Bowl was second tier by then).
Texas beat this MNC-winning coach this year...
This was a terrific season, as amazing in its own way as the 1998 and 2005 seasons. In the Big 12 this year, there was a head coach winning big by out-talenting opponents with a bunch of highly-touted blue chips the NFL was salivating for, and another head coach winning bigger by outscheming opponents with a less touted group of overachievers. The former is Bob Stoops and the latter is Mack Brown. Earlier this season, I wrote this team is the toughest out in college football. I still mean that. In baseball, a "tough out" is a batter whose effectiveness at the plate exceeds his raw ability. A "tough out" won't be fooled by the same set up twice, will foul off a great pitcher's best stuff until the pitcher makes a mistake and grooves one. A "tough out" makes the most of every opportunity given. Texas showed up flat for one game this year, in Lubbock, and came within seconds of stealing a win. That's a tough out. Texas lost three games last year, saw its best big play producers, Jamaal Charles (who was key in beating NU and OSU last year) and Limas Sweed drafted, and improved significantly. This team got it done with savvy and determination.
...And this MNC-winning coach...
Why was this team so much greater than the sum of its parts? The usual reasons- coaching and character. Mack has changed his approach, and some key new coaches were added. Mack has reverted to his 2004 - 2005 emphasis on physical practices. This is key. Mack spent his formative years as a head coach at talent-poor programs where the worst thing that could happen in practice was to lose one of your very few talented players to injury. He learned to emphasize non-physical practices, and trying to get as much done as possible with no more hitting than needed. In 2004, Tomey pointed out to him that his 2nd teamers at Texas were much more talented than his second teamers at Tulane or UNC (or Tomey had in Arizona), and that Mack really should be worrying about the risks of going into games soft, rather than with dinged starters. Mack has gone back to physical practices, and we now have one of the more physical Longhorn teams in Mack's tenure this year.
...and this MNC-winning coach.
Another change is the emphasis on earning starting spots. It's easy for coaches to get lazy with the depth chart. They have a ridiculous amount of work to do during the season, and when you're winning, why spend much time thinking about changes to the depth chart? The danger to this approach is that starters get complacent knowing they won't be challenged, and reserves check out mentally knowing only an injury will get them playing time. This attitude gives you teams that can't get better during the season. This year, Mack made a conscious decision to restore depth chart competitiveness, and it has helped this team keep its edge. A friend once pointed out to me that the only thing that makes college football enjoyable is playing. All the other stuff- supervised workouts, drills, meetings- are pure drudgery without the benefit of actually getting to play in a game. Having a system where a guy can earn playing time (or conversely, lose it) hones a team's edge. One of the earliest, and most interesting, examples is at the kicker position. Bailey has been a very good kicker the last 1 ½ seasons. He was beaten out this year by Hunter Lawrence. If you're going to have competition, why not at every position, even if it's the one position coaches most like to just find a capable guy and forget? Other examples are in the secondary, where freshmen Gideon and Thomas jumped players a couple classes ahead of them to get starting positions, or DE, where converted RB Melton escaped the dog house and forced Lewis to DT.
Muschamp has made a huge difference on defense. We had the best defense in the Big 12, and by a mile. This was despite seven new starters on defense, including two freshmen in the secondary and a converted RB on the DL. This defense went up against all of the best offenses in the Big 12, and held them all below their scoring averages. It made great adjustments, holding OU to only 2 TDs in the 2nd half (one gifted by a wrong "roughing the kicker" penalty), and keeping them from crossing UT's 39 yard line on three possessions after Texas took the lead. Until Crabtree's great catch and run, Tech's offense only had 3 2nd half points.
On the offensive side, the changes from prior years were not as obvious, but still were significant. First, the team recognized its identity from the start. It didn't spend the first half of the season trying to run a pro-set scheme it lacked the personnel and coaching for. Perhaps this was due to reports of ones scrimmaging against ones during fall practices- we had our illusions squashed before the real games started. Any way, we embraced the offense we could run- a basic spread that relied on the QB as a running threat. If we had a Jamaal Charles or a healthy Limas Sweed in this offense, we'd be as good as we were in 2005. We don't, and we aren't, but we are as effective as these guys' performance can make us. They wring every drop of performance out of their ability, and this is one of the nation's best offenses.
This leads to the other factor this year- character. These guys are fighters. They never gave up, never packed it in. They came closer to winning all of their games than any team in the country. Lacking game breaking talent, our star players compensated by doing everything else under their control well. Remember Cosby's downfield blocks against OU and tOSU? When Collins refused to let an injury stop the no huddle just before Cosby's Fiesta Bowl game winner? Ogbannaya may not be an elite runner or receiver, but he did everything needed from a running back at a competitive level. Kindle didn't always know which gap to charge through, but when picking the wrong one he kept going full speed and often cleaned up broken plays afterwards. There's a time in great teams' seasons when the schemes aren't enough to win the day, and the players have to take ownership of their season. This team did that in October.
At season's end, this team with tenth-best raw talent ended up arguably the best team in the nation. No conference championship, no BCS championship, and no need to back down its claim as the nation's best one iota. This team finished with scoreboard over #5 OU, and #9 tOSU, both at neutral sites. The schedule gave us games against coaches with three D-1A MNCs (Schnellenberger, Stoops, and Tressell), and three other coaches with BCS games on their resumes (Price, Petrino, and Mangino). Texas beat them all. I know the final polls only had us at #4. This kind of team- the kind that wins with smarts and determination- always does better in the objective results on the field than in the subjective assessment of the polls.
I thought about finishing this report with a forecast for next year's team, but this isn't the right time for that. Let's save that for the summer. I will make this prediction- a lot of these players are going to be very successful in life, and I wouldn't be surprised to see a lot of them become very successful coaches.