Consider this the optimist's companion piece to my friend Peter Bean's What Could Go Wrong post in which he lays out the plausible worst case scenarios for the 2012 Texas Longhorns. His list makes a lot of sense, but I can imagine scenarios for a successful season even with one or two of his concerns eventuating. Like Eric Idle, I'd rather look on the bright side of life. With the right improvements and a smidgen of luck and good health, the 2012 Longhorns are fully capable of not only winning 10 games and contending for the Big 12 title, but perhaps putting together an unanticipated special season - which is the most enjoyable fan experience you can have. See the beloved 2008 squad.
Ride with me (side-saddle!) on a herd of unicorns shitting jellybeans through a meadow of licorice and penny candy as we explore what goes right in 2012.
1. Offensive health. You might be tempted to say team health and that's fair, but I have a more focused proposition for you - 90% of our offensive improvement and 75% of our total team improvement rests on the health of five players. If - in order - QB David Ash, LT Donald Hawkins, RT Josh Cochran, #1 WR Jaxon Shipley and Trey Hopkins (de facto #3 OT, best interior OL) remain healthy, our offense will be substantially improved. Normal wear and tear in the interior OL, TE, and at RB can be absorbed without crippling our ambitions and a repeat of three significant injuries to the RB position is improbable. Our defense has the lion's share of our best players, and it also has the best depth. That means most of our seasonal beta probably rests on the health of five guys. They stay healthy, we win a lot.
2. Ash gets better. A true freshman QB who spent most of the Fall camp getting third team reps asked to carry the team surrounded by subpar receiving options, injured RBs, and bad OL play against good opponents, struggled badly. I am shocked. Yet, history tells us that QBs who gain experience, with actual starter's preparation and good coaching, comfort with scheme, and improved personnel around them tend to get significantly better. That hypothesis was put to the test at the end of the season when Ash showed what he's capable of against Cal. 2375 yards passing, 7.7 YPA, 19 TDs, 11 ints isn't crazy talk. It's likely. And it'll do.
3. The defense dominates. We return eight starters. Several of them will be in the NFL one day. We're markedly improved in the secondary with experience and athletes at every position, our front four will be very good and surprisingly deep, and LB is loaded with raw talent. Our DC is top notch and installation, assignments, and teaching basic concepts now gives way to more specific game planning and kick-ass exotica. Offenses will score less, gain fewer yards, and we'll create more cheap touchdowns with Pick 6s and forced fumbles. LSU and Alabama wonder if this is a winning formula.
4. Schedule. We'll play several good teams, but the order in which we play them, our non-conference ramp up, even our mix of home vs. road games is pretty much ideal for building confidence and dividing the season into tidy sections. Three winnable non-cons (Wyoming, New Mexico, @ Ole Miss) to get the offense rolling and the defense feeling their oats against spread teams gives way to a two week break for reassessment and game planning for the next stretch against: an inexperienced OSU offense in Stillwater, a welcome to the Big 12 statement game at home against West Virginia, and in Week 7 of the college football season (our 6th game) - OU in Dallas. Immediately after, we taper down with four very winnable games against Baylor, @ Tech, @ Kansas, Iowa St,; get another two week break to lick wounds and game plan for a two game finale of TCU and Kansas State. A final stretch in which I fully expect to be in contention for the Big 12 title. BTW, OU's last three games: @ WVU, OSU, @ TCU. If you can draw up a Big 12 schedule better suited to our needs, I'd love to see it.
5. Expected improvements in Year 2. Mack Brown, complacency-o-holic, made the choice to get better. It hurt to see the butcher's bill continue to roll in based on past behaviors and it will continue for some time, but every day of complacency sobriety has us looking and feeling better. Real S&C should show up on the field; another year of experience makes exploitable freshman into dangerous sophomores; Year 2 in better schemes means players think less and do more; sulks and under-performers are on notice or already gone; fans will embrace the momentum of a fast start and promising early returns - creating its own reciprocal momentum for the team; more veteran OL will start to finally blossom; solid offense will stop hamstringing good defense as it did in 2010/2011. The kicking game is a worry, but good kickers coming from nowhere at Texas has heavy precedent (what's up Micheal Pollak?) and the talent level in our coverage personnel is markedly better. Besides, going for it on 4th down in a number of traditional field goal or punting situations is the right call. So let fear do the work of reason.
Is anything on this list nuts? It doesn't take much (or any) imagination to conjure very realistic scenarios in which this team kicks some ass in 2012.
Cheer up, Peter. We're gonna make it after all.