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Texas Football Has Returned & Looks Ready to Change the Big 12

Tom Herman
A surprising, hard-fought Maryland victory over Texas in early September was a powerful and important moment for a Terrapins program recovering from the loss of one of their own, linemen Jordan McNair. Yet, it meant something completely on the Texas sideline, appearing to be the start of the latest disappointing campaign for the Longhorns. Just four months later, the Longhorns come away with a significantly different feeling, having pounded fifth-ranked Georgia to win the Sugar Bowl. The transformation of the program has been painful at times, but Tom Herman's Texas seems to have arrived. Their physical and aggressive style of play is a distinct shift from past Longhorns' teams, and puts this team in a very unique position in the pass-happy Big 12. However, that may be just what is necessary to break Oklahoma's hold on the conference, and put the 'Horns in position to compete for National Titles once more.

While serving as the offensive coordinator at Ohio State and later the head coach at Houston, Tom Herman ran offenses that were up-tempo and predicated around speed and a vertical passing game. However, the Longhorns' offense that helped propel the team to a Sugar Bowl victory looked much different, instead leaning on physicality and their ground attack to defeat the SEC runner-ups. In fact, their play all season has resembled more of a Bill Snyder Kansas State team than any other Big 12 squad, a marked shift for the program and Herman. This shows Herman's ability to adapt and evolve based on the personnel he has, and how he wants to attack opponents. The ability to adapt may seem like an important aspect of any successful head coach, but it is something Herman's predecessors in Austin, Mack Brown and Charlie Strong, weren't able to do successfully. Brown brought in offensive guru Major Applewhite to be his offensive coordinator at one point, and tried to change his offense to match modern college football. Yet, Brown's in-the-box thinking hurt him when it came to recruiting and player development, eventually leading to his dismissal. The same can be said for Strong, who wasn't able to implement a successful recruiting system, and never made the correct changes he needed on his staff. Herman has shown he can recruit and implement a system, while running it to perfection. Instead of an offense that leans on the vertical passing game and just pure speed, Texas has used the powerful running of QB Sam Ehlinger all season, along with a physical and big core of receivers, led by Collin Johnson and Lil'Jordan Humphrey, to have one of their most successful offensive years in a decade. Herman has also done a great job shaping a Texas defense from okay to superb, particularly down the stretch in 2018. He has deferred to longtime assistant Todd Orlando as the defensive coordinator, with good results. Orlando, who is compensated with a handsome 1.1 million dollar salary as a coordinator, has used an aggressive, blitz-heavy scheme. Thanks to the recruitment of personnel that fit this scheme, the Longhorns' defense improved to 68th in the country this year in total defense. That may not seem overly impressive, but considering the conference they played in and the opponents they faced, its pretty strong. In fact, UT had the second-best defense in the conference this season despite incredibly inexperienced in their secondary, where a number of true freshman played meaningful snaps. That improvement is a far cry away from some of the Texas defenses under Brown and Strong, which were absolutely thrashed time and time again.

Herman's ability to evolve and match his personnel to his scheme, while also making the right decisions on his staff, are the main reason why this Texas program really has the feeling of being "back". Brown and Strong were able to have their moments, but top-to-bottom, Herman has blown them away in terms of recruiting and improving the program. Yet, with a huge, important victory like a New Year's Six Bowl win, expectations will rise to new heights. Texas fans and boosters are going to be into this team like they haven't in years, and pretty soon, ten win seasons might not cut it. This is going to be a distinct and complicated challenge for the Longhorns, as returning to national relevancy is certainly easier said than done. Just look at Miami; after a ten-win 2017 that included a trip to the ACC Championship, the Hurricanes looked to be "back" and were a preseason Top 10 team from most college football experts. Yet, old issues and pressure cracked them, and they fell back to a 7-6 record, that included losing to fellow disappointing Wisconsin by over four touchdowns.

In order to truly be "back", the next logical step for Texas is to win the Big 12, after getting to the Big 12 Championship in 2018. That means overcoming archrival Oklahoma, who has won the league four consecutive years now, while boasting two straight Heisman winners and making the College Football Playoff three times in that span. Texas plays a significantly different brand of football than do the Sooners, and the rest of the conference for that matter. Outside of what Snyder ran for a long time at K-State, and what Matt Rhule is trying to implement currently at Baylor, the conference is clearly a spread, pass-happy league. Yet, that could actually work out in Texas' favor, as their physical, hard-nosed style of play is rare in the Big 12, but certainly not college football. While football continues to move towards passing the ball, the teams that have dominated the sport as of late still play a physical brand of football. Look no further than the SEC's continued success, or even the success of Clemson or Ohio State, both programs that know how to sprinkle in physicality with their aerial attacks. While making the jump "back" into the national spotlight is tremendously difficult in the unpredictable college football landscape, Herman already proved he can mix up and change his team as necessary en route to a 10-4 season. He will likely need to do more tweaking of his scheme in the future, but the Texas Longhorns sent a real message on New Year's Day. They are more than ready to compete once more with the big boys of the sport, and appear to have the right guy in charge to do just that.

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