It was a crisp fall evening in Morgantown. One of those nights that felt like Winter could come at any moment, so you’d better layer up and put on your whiskey jacket.
The 58,570 in attendance were treated to a match-up between two Big 12 conference also-rans, the home team limping home on their way to a 4-8 record that started with a nary win over known powerhouse William & Mary and ended with back to back losses to Kansas and Iowa State.
In town were the once mighty Texas Longhorns, who just four years earlier were playing in the national championship game, but now were about as far from Pasadena, California that they could get, whether we are judging by culture, stature or distance.
The game itself was back and forth, Texas trailing by 10 in the second half before forcing overtime with an Anthony Fera 24-yard field goal on a drive that saw Case McCoy convert a 4th and 7 pass to Jaxon Shipley. In the extra period the Horns got a touchdown from Alex De La Torre to get the lead, and then Steve Edmond sealed the victory with an interception in the end zone.
Texas had their seventh victory of the year, ensuring a winning record.
November 9, 2013.
Antwaun Davis. Mitchell Becker. Naashon Hughes. None played that night, taking a redshirt their first year in the program. All likely watched it from their dorm room or traveled home for some of mom’s cooking.
Two days from now, the Texas Longhorns will take the field against the Maryland Terrapins, and those three players above are the only ones that can say they were on the roster of a winning team at the University of Texas.
Not Big 12 champion, not Alamo Bowl champion, or Meineke Car Care Bowl champion, but a team that won 7 games. At Texas.
Much has been written about Tom Herman taking over for Charlie Strong, because when you hire a coach in the middle of the night in a Waffle House or Whataburger or some other similar all-night eatery under the vapor lights of I-10 in Columbus, Texas in the dark of the night after Thanksgiving, there is a lot of time to reflect.
But finally, 281 days after he was (unofficially) hired, Herman will lead the team onto the field…and the fun, criticism and everything in between really begins.
What should we expect from the first year of the Herman era at Texas?
If you haven’t heard, we’re Texas, so of course in some circles there is talk of “9, maybe 10 wins if we get lucky” or 11-1 if you’re a writer who blocked me on Twitter long ago.
But of course I didn’t spend the first several paragraphs of this column just wasting space, it was to serve as a reminder…settle.
Before Texas can get even get back in the conversation of Big 12 titles, they must first do something they haven’t done a whole lot of recently…win.
All indications are that Tom Herman and staff have this crew headed in the right direction. The attention to detail and the reconstruction of not only the physical throne of Texas athletics but also the org chart were long overdue elixirs to what ailed the program.
And while Strong was rightfully given a one way Southwest Airlines flight to Tampa after losing to Kansas last season, he didn’t leave the cupboard bare – there is plenty of reason for optimism.
But this pervasive feeling around here that Texas is about to ascend to their rightful place on the throne is exactly what got them there in the first place – expecting things to fall into place, because well, if you still haven’t heard we’re Texas?
Nick Saban, Alabama head football coach and frequent Austin real estate investor, had a quote this summer that resounded in my head, speaking of their loss to Clemson in last January’s national championship game.
"We weren't able to finish the game like we needed to. Hopefully we won't waste the failure," Saban said.
Don’t waste the failure. The Longhorns have an entire roster full of players responsible for those 21 losses in the last three years. The slate is clean, but the memory should not be.
For his part, Herman is saying all the right things. Borrowing a phrase from legendary coach Bill Parcells, he recently stated that we are what our record says we are, and last season that was 5-7.
Saturday morning is finally the first opportunity to build on that failure.
On to the games...
BYU vs. LSU - 15 (New Orleans, LA):
It is already the second game of the year for the Cougars, who started their season last week with a lackluster 20-6 victory over Portland State. Junior quarterback Tanner Mangum’s roller coaster career is on the upswing again, as he was named the starter entering the year. He hardly set the field on fire last week, however, completing 16 passes for 194 yards and a touchdown.
Another year, another awesome defense, awesome running back (Junior Derrius Guice rushed for 1,387 yards and 15 touchdowns and wasn’t the Top 10 NFL draft pick from the LSU backfield), but questionable at quarterback, where Danny Etling is the latest to see if he just can’t screw anything up.
The Tigers’ defense gets all the billing in this one, but BYU is sneaky good on defense and should be able to keep this one close – if they don’t let the ball get rolling early.
LSU 28 BYU 17
ATS – BYU
SU – LSU
Texas A&M @ UCLA -4:
Kevin Sumlin begins his sixth year in College Station with high expectations…he didn’t win less than eight games in any of those previous five seasons, but the A&M athletic director made it clear this Spring – win more, or else.
Sumlin could put his job on the line in the
capable adequate five-fingered hands of Jake Hubenak, who starred in the JUCO ranks, but didn’t evoke memories of Bucky Richardson or Corey Pulling in spot duty last season, or Nick Starkel, a redshirt freshman who was a three star recruit from Argyle a year ago.
Last year in College Station the Aggies had a comfortable lead against the Bruins well into the fourth quarter, but two quick UCLA touchdowns sent the game to overtime – where the Aggies prevailed.
UCLA returns all-world quarterback Josh Rosen, but like last year, if they don’t show the ability to run the football (the Bruins finished 127th in the country in yards per carry) he isn’t going to be able to do it all himself.
The Aggies have a veteran secondary (which sometimes isn’t a good thing), but are very green up front…going to be hard to beat Rosen on his turf like that.
UCLA 38 Texas A&M 24
ATS – UCLA
SU – UCLA
West Virginia vs. Virginia Tech -4 (Landover, MD):
Most polls seem to have West Virginia in the pre-season Top 25, but with only 8 returning starters at a program that rebuilds, not reloads, that seems to be optimistic.
Former Florida quarterback Will Grier is the starter for Dana Holgersen, but with most of his top targets, and maybe more important, most of his offensive line being new bodies, he will have to shoulder a big load – something he couldn’t do in Gainesville.
I’m a big fan of Justin Fuente – the Hokies weren’t expected to do much last season in his first season in Blacksburg, but all he did was take them to the ACC Championship game, where he almost knocked off eventual national champion Clemson.
Virginia Tech 41 West Virginia 24
ATS – Virginia Tech
SU – Virginia Tech
Michigan -4 vs. Florida (Arlington, TX):
I think all you need to know about this one is that 10% of Florida’s roster is currently suspended for being idiots, and Jim Harbaugh is completely in the head of Jim McElwain.
Michigan 28 Florida 13
ATS – Michigan
SU – Michigan
Alabama -7 vs. Florida State (Atlanta, GA):
What a juicy matchup the new playoff format brings us in week one.
How juicy? This is the first time in the history of the Associated Press pre-season poll that the #1 team has faced off against a Top 3 team.
Both quarterbacks are led by young, dynamic quarterbacks. Florida State’s Deondre Francois and Alabama’s Jalen Hurst combined for more than 6,000 yards passing and compiled a combined 24-4 record…as freshmen.
I could sit here and tell you that both teams lost three big targets on offense, and tell you how many defensive starters they lost – but let’s be real, they’re still Alabama and Florida State, they’ll manage.
This one will come down to which quarterback plays the best. Will Hurts play like he did against Clemson (131 yards passing) or LSU (107 yards passing) or will he play like he did against Mississippi State (347 yards) or Auburn (286 yards). Francois was much the same – great results mixed with awful, but not getting in the way outings.
Seriously. Just flip a coin.
Alabama 24 Florida State 23
ATS – Florida State
SU – Alabama
Maryland @ Texas -18:
Every time someone stopped me this Summer – and I think this is the third year in a row I’ve had this stance – they ask me, “How good is Texas going to be this year?”
My answer: tell me how good the quarterback is, then I can tell you.
Texas is as loaded as they have been in quite some time. Perhaps the best group of wide receivers since Roy, BJ and Sloan, a real, live offensive line, running backs could be better but if the line is improved they’ll be okay there as well.
Defense is a relative term in the Big 12, but the arrival of Todd Orlando and another year of experience for a talented bunch should be able to disguise the holes that they have up front – if anyone plays to their talent level.
But if Shane Buechele struggles (and let’s be clear here, when healthy last season he was more than adequate, and often times outstanding), then it muddies the picture.
But, first things first, the Terrapins.
You’ve heard all offseason about Maryland’s pass rush (third in the Big 10 in 2016), but let’s be real here, they’re not the Buddy Ryan Philadelphia Eagles here. That pass rush gave up 191 points in a four game stretch to Indiana, Michigan, Ohio State and Nebraska last fall – all losses – and gave up more than 420 yards a game on the season.
Tyrrell Pigrome gets the start under center for Maryland. The sophomore completed only 52% of his passes last season in limited duty, only averaging 4.5 yards per attempt. He can run, sure, but if one can’t pass then it is much easier to plan for that.
The ground game works for the Terrapins, as Ty Johnson and Lorenzo Harrison combined for more than 1,600 yards last season – if the Longhorns defensive woes aren’t behind them, this is a team that can stick around and grind you all day.
But while those offensive linemen can run block, they must spend all practice working on that. Four starters return on a unit that gave up 49 sacks in 2016, which marked the second-worst effort in all of college football, behind San Jose State, who the Longhorns will see next Saturday.
We won’t get all the answers on Saturday, but we’ll get some, and I think we’ll like what we see.
Texas 38 Maryland 17
ATS – Texas
SU – Texas
For entertainment purposes only. Save your money for much more serious matters than football.