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The Week That Will Be : Back in the Saddle

The Horns start the 2019 season with their highest expectations in a decade. Can they live up to them?

NCAA Football: Sugar Bowl-Georgia vs Texas Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Two hundred and forty days ago, Texas manhandled Georgia on a day that was still the highlight of my year.

In every one of the approximately 5,760 hours since that fateful night there is some idiot on this planet of ours arguing that Georgia didn’t care about the game…but if that is the case, we can write off half of the Texas losses this century…and the fourth quarter of that game for that matter.

The year 2018 was a year of somewhat unexpected success for the Texas Longhorns, as they followed another inexplicable season opening loss to Maryland by reeling off six straight victories. While they would then finish the season with three more wins and three more losses, that was enough to earn them the trip to New Orleans for the Sugar Bowl.

Following that contest down on the floor of the Mercedes Benz Superdome, in the midst of the pandemonium of falling confetti and a decade’s worth of frustration being let out by the Longhorn fans remaining in the stands, quarterback Sam Ehlinger was being interviewed by ESPN’s Holly Rowe. In what is usually a very generic, unmemorable moment, Ehlinger had other ideas.

His words, as head coach Tom Herman looked on and cringed:

“We’re baaaack!” Ehlinger beamed, his grin as wide as Herman’s arms were crossed.

Ehlinger, of course was using a thinly veiled play on words to the great Vince Young, who uttered the now famous phrase “We’ll be back” while being interviewed after the Longhorns victory over Michigan at the Rose Bowl on New Years Day 2005, only to make his prophecy come true about 370 days later when the Longhorns returned to Pasadena and defeated USC for their last national title.

After Texas defeated a Georgia team that many felt should have been in that tournament last season, they showed on any given day they can run with the big dogs of college football again…and this year they may be even more equipped.

The depth of this year’s squad is at levels we haven’t seen in about a decade around here, with an actual three-deep on the offensive line, seniors in the right places on defense and wide receivers growing on trees out back of Bellmont. Even the young guys on the two-deep are insanely talented and ready to go.

And then of course, there is Sam.

Ehlinger was seemingly born to play quarterback at the University of Texas. He is the kind of player that you can just hear Brent Musberger waxing poetically about, regaling us with tales of him coming to DKR Texas Memorial Stadium as an infant. And if taking down Kyler Murray last season didn’t do it, his proclamation that night in New Orleans helped the legend grow as tall as the shadows of the great quarterbacks that preceded him in Austin.

Young said it himself earlier this month when he said that Ehlinger has that elusive “it”, whatever “it” is that separates the good ones from the great ones, that ability to rise above when the game is on the line and deliver the win.

“He has the guys dancing around him, I had that,” Young said.

I mean, wouldn’t you be honored to hear Vince Young say that people dance for you?

I wrote in this space one year ago this week that all I was seeking in 2018 was to be relevant again, and boy were the Longhorns ever relevant with that six game winning streak, vaulting them as high as 6th in the country in the Associated Press Poll.

The desire for this year?

Let’s hear from the Minister of Culture, who visited Texas practice last week:

“You own yourself, you are going to own the glory, you’re going to own the thrill of victory, you’re going to own what you’ve built, you’re going to own what you’re building, and own what you are still working to become.”

Own it. Your quarterback, your leader, has spoken.

Let’s embrace that mantle.

This season doesn’t start Saturday night, it started several months back, weeks after the Sugar Bowl when pre-dawn drivers up and down I-35 saw the lights aglow at DKR Texas Memorial Stadium, casting their cold lights upon largely player-driven workouts.

Around that time of the year was about the time that Texas players were forbidden to wear Sugar Bowl gear any longer.

That groundswell continued in February, when Texas wrapped up the third best recruiting class in the country, according to 247 Sports. It was their second such ranked class in two years.

That momentum through Spring ball and in 7 on 7 and in Summer workouts.

It culminates under the spotlight Saturday night, where a large segment of a cynical national audience will tune in feeling that the Georgia game was a fluke and that this team isn’t “back” until they win some hardware.

That’s fine. This team, and this quarterback, seems to play better when they have a chip on their shoulder.

Time will only tell if Texas is indeed “back”.

But if they are?

This year’s national title game is in New Orleans.

South Carolina -10.5 vs. North Carolina (Charlotte, NC):

This one pits one Texas former head coach against a guy who was supposed to succeed him. Now they both coach third tier programs with zero hope of contending for a national title, so what a blast to the future this would have been to a Texas fan about 10 years ago.

Anyhow, South Carolina is expected this year to take the step forward they were supposed to take last season, when they let Kentucky pass them and need to rally from 12 down to defeat Tennessee, who finished 2-6 in the SEC.

The fact that the offense is supposed to carry a Will Muschamp squad tells you all you need to know about 2019, as the Gamecocks return the conference’s most experienced starter in Jake Bentley, who has 32 career starts under his belt. Of course starting games doesn’t mean much if you continuously hand the ball over to the other team as Bentley likes to do with 30 career interceptions in those starts.

If Muschamp can keep Bentley from Uncle Rico’ing it all over Columbia, the Gamecocks could take that step.

North Carolina was so desperate for relevance that they went out and hired Mack Brown, who was fired resigned from Texas after the 2013 season but quit coaching a couple years prior. Mack brought Phil Longo from Ole Miss as his offensive coordinator, and with an experienced offensive line and some talent in the skill positions, they should take a step forward from their one win over FBS opponents in 2018.

True Freshman Sam Howell is the signal caller for Mack in his return to Tobacco Road, but it won’t matter who the quarterback is if the defense can’t improve on the 35 points per game they gave up last season.

Mack might very well win some games at North Carolina, but it doesn’t start with this one.

South Carolina 31 North Carolina 21

ATS – North Carolina

SU – South Carolina

Boise State vs. Florida State -5 (Jacksonville, FL):

Boise State has to fly over Tallahassee to get to this game in Jacksonville, so I’m not sure how much of a neutral site game it is, but whatever, I’m sure they are getting a nice paycheck to overlook that fact.

The Seminoles had a disastrous 2018 season, one that saw them miss a bowl game for the first time since bowl games were truly special, but there is some hope for a turnaround this year as fan favorite James Blackman is once again the starting quarterback for the Seminoles. He started 12 games in 2017 before being replaced by Deondre Francois last season much like that season of the Dukes of Hazzard where Bo and Luke were mysteriously replaced by cousins that were awfully like them.

Coordinating the offense for Florida State this season is….Kendal Briles. That has been very quiet since the initial upswell, no?

Boise State has a good chance at a New Years Six bowl if true freshman quarterback Hank Bachmeier can adequately replace the school’s all-time leading passer Brett Rypien…no pressure there.

Bachmeier does have an experienced defense behind him, however, as the Broncos return 10 of their top 13 tacklers from a defense that finished 38th (one spot behind Florida State) in defensive S&P+ last season.

Boise might be running on all cylinders later in the season, but I have bad memories of their trip to Stillwater last season, where they lost 44-21. The Seminoles start this campaign off on a good note.

Florida State 24 Boise State 20

ATS – Boise State

SU – Florida State

Auburn -3 vs. Oregon (Arlington, TX):

The Pac-12 desperately wants this game, as the conference is struggling to be relevant. Last year it was Washington that took the L for the conference, falling to Auburn 21-16 in Atlanta in the season opener.

Oregon surprisingly returns quarterback Justin Herbert, who could be a New York Giant right now, but instead returned to head what should be a very potent Oregon offense. They are led in front by an offense line that returns four members of the All-Pac 12 team.

The Ducks also have some talent in their defensive front, and while their secondary was often porous last season, they did manage to come up with 17 interceptions.

That offensive line will be tested early, as Auburn has one of the better defensive fronts in the country. The Tigers will start true freshman quarterback (this seems to be a pattern) Bo Nix, Mr. Football in Alabama in 2018. The decorated schoolboy, who led his high school team to two state championships, is the son of former Auburn signal caller Patrick Nix, which makes me feel really old.

It is your standard SEC vs. Pac-12 matchup. If Oregon can manage not to get pushed all over the field, and if they give Herbert the opportunity to shine, this is a very winnable football game, which will do wonders for their season…and the conference’s.

Oregon 28 Auburn 21

ATS – Oregon

SU – Oregon

Oklahoma State -14 @ Oregon State:

Since Christmas Eve of 2013, when Oregon State defeated Boise State 38-23 in the Hawaii Bowl, the Beavers have a 14-46 record, which includes 6 conference victories.


They had a terrible 2018 season, one that saw them go 2-10, which was actually an improvement over their 1-11 2017 season. As you can guess when their record is that bad, they had some atrocious statistics, giving up 539 yards and 46 points per game while also allowing 48 sacks.

There is some optimism in Corvallis, only because it can’t get much worse. Quarterback Jake Luton started parts of the last two seasons but also missed a lot of time to injury, including a spinal injury in 2017.

Mike Gundy doesn’t want to name a starting quarterback for Oklahoma State, trying to keep that 2-10 team on its toes. His choices are former Texas high school phenom Spencer Sanders, a 4-star recruit in 2018 (and has an awesome teen angst villain name) or former Hawaii quarterback Dru Brown, a graduate transfer.

I’m not sure if it matters who plays the most against Oregon State, but you would think Gundy would want to establish a hierarchy before they travel to Austin in three weeks.

But that is Austin, this is Corvallis.

Oklahoma State 38 Oregon State 21

ATS – Oklahoma State

SU – Oklahoma State

Houston @ Oklahoma -23.5:

The last time these two teams met, Tom Herman’s Houston squad beat Bob Stoops and Baker Mayfield’s Okahoma team in Houston. Of course Lincoln Riley now leads the Sooners onto the field, while the Cougars are led by…Dana Holgersen???

Of course, Oklahoma boasts the last two Heisman Trophy winners, with Jalen Hurts hopeful to be the third, but Houston features their own special weapon under center as D’Eriq King accounted for an astounding 50 touchdowns last season, 36 through the air and 14 on the ground.

If this Oklahoma defense isn’t much improved since last season, and all we have heard all off-season is how much better they will be, it could be an interesting game in Norman.

I see this one being pretty close for a half before Oklahoma realizes that Ed Oliver no longer plays for Houston and pounds it on the ground the rest of the way.

Oklahoma 48 Houston 27

ATS – Houston

SU – Oklahoma

Louisiana Tech @ Texas -20.5

Saturday night’s contest will be the first ever meeting between these two teams, and you win a gold star if can name which conference Louisiana Tech plays in…

If you guessed Conference USA, then the gold star is in the mail.

The Bulldogs went 8-5 in 2018, capping off their season with a bowl victory over Hawaii (their fifth straight bowl victory), but the highlight of their season might very well be hanging within a field goal well into the fourth quarter against LSU in Baton Rouge (Texas should really schedule them, too), a game in which they put up 21 points against a typically stingy LSU defense in Death Valley.

It is somewhat a trend of the Skip Holtz coached team. Two years ago they lost by one point to a 9-win South Carolina team in Columbia, and three years ago they lost to Arkansas by a point in Fayetteville.

Simply put, this isn’t your standard game against a directional school of a state that borders us but Texas is really big so it takes like half a day to drive anywhere anyhow and we have to stop at all five Buccees on the way.

Which seems like a relevant point when Texas has lost a non-marquee non-conference game six years in a row now.

Holtz enters his 7th year at the helm in Ruston, a year that he’ll try to improve upon an offense that wasn’t very good last season (111th in S&P+ rankings), but the good news is that they return a lot on offense, including fifth year quarterback J’Mar Smith, six offensive linemen that have starting experience and 1,000-yard receiver Adrian Hardy (who had 10 catches for 181 yards and two touchdowns against a LSU team that usually features a good defensive back or two last year). And they have balance too, as their top two backs combined for more than 1,200 offensive yards last season.

J’Mar Smith is an interesting study, as he has already graduated from Louisiana Tech and probably could have entered the Bru McCoy Transfer Portal and garnered some interest. He threw for 3,160 yards and 15 touchdowns but did also toss 10 interceptions in 2018. He’s not much of a rushing threat, only rushing for 159 yards and three touchdowns last season.

Oh, and he was drafted by the San Diego Padres in the 24th round of the MLB draft as a catcher, so he has that going for him if this football thing doesn’t work out.

On defense the Bulldogs have to replace Jaylon Ferguson, the all-time leader in sacks in the FBS classification. Ferguson had 17.5 sacks last season, which was good enough to get their defensive coordinator hired by Manny Diaz in Miami. Former Notre Dame defensive coordinator and UCONN head coach Bob Diaco is now the man in the booth for Louisiana Tech. Diaco is known as a bend but not break specialist

The Bulldogs were 116th in the country in special teams efficiency. They couldn’t kick field goals longer than 40 yards. They couldn’t kickoff. When they did kickoff, they couldn’t cover them. You name it, they were bad at it.

A favorable conference schedule says that they’ll win eight games again and be in a bowl game, which should come in handy should Texas be sweating out BCS positioning late in the year.

With Texas a bit saddled by injuries, and the tendency for young teams to read their own headlines, and the fact that they might not want to showcase too much with LSU coming to town in 7 days, you might have been fearful that Texas overlooks this one.

But then the village idiot himself opened his mouth.

“We open up with Texas this year,” former Louisiana Tech Bulldog Terry Bradshaw said at a school event earlier this summer. “One year, they signed three (five-star) quarterbacks, two are now gone. And the one that’s playing, he ain’t that good … I’ll take our boys any day.”

We can’t be held responsible for what Sam does.

Texas 38 Louisiana Tech 21

ATS – Louisiana Tech

SU – Texas

For entertainment purposes only. Save your money for a beer at Smokey’s Midway.