Breaking down the preseason favorites.
Hide the women and children, and most of the men. Last year was supposed to be a set-up year for the big push in 2009, but Colt McCoy turned the corner from "boyish-looking, occasionally overwhelmed game manager" to RoboQB and almost jumped the line: I saw him live in his best game, against Missouri, and I'm pretty confident when I say very few quarterbacks could have matched McCoy's evening against the Tigers -- 29-of-32 for 337 yards, four total touchdowns and a 35-0 first half lead -- against air. He was also 17-of-19 with three touchdowns against Arkansas, 38-of-45 for 391 against Oklahoma State, 23-of-28 for 311 against Texas A&M, etc. He was the first player in NCAA history to complete 75-plus percent of his passes across an entire season: You know, the kid rocks.
That is, he rocked -- I'm just as confident when I say McCoy won't threaten that number again, ridiculous as it is. But all he really has to do to retain "elite" status is come in the vicinity of it, and in that regard, he should be safe, literally, behind four-fifths of an offensive line that only gave up one sack per roughly 19 pass attempts (and the new full-timer, Michael Huey, is a former top-40 recruit who started three games in '08). The receivers ... there are receivers. But their eminence is a distant concern next to keeping McCoy clean enough to just recreate last year's machine-like production: 41 points per game in conference games is obviously a national championship number.
All the ways you will disappoint us. Where is the running game? Texas produced a 1,000-yard rusher each of Mack Brown's first eight seasons and was going on more than a decade straight when the streak ended in 2006 with Jamaal Charles at just 831 yards, and after a big junior send-off for Charles in '07, the 'Horns plummeted on the ground last year. It's not necessarily an automatic concern when the quarterback is the leading rusher -- Vince Young led UT with over 1,000 yards as the focal point of a dominant offense that spread the ball around a lot in 2005 -- but as workhorse runners go, there's a considerable difference between Young and Colt McCoy. Colt had by far the most carries on the team last year and led with 561 yards while Vondrell McGee, Chris Ogbonnaya, short-yardage favorite Cody Johnson and Fozzy Whittaker split the rest, without much distinction. UT enters the year with only one 1,000-yard running back in the last four seasons, and no one in this backfield who's come close.
The 1,000-yard barrier may be semantic, but the impact of the running game is not: Five of UT's seven losses with McCoy at quarterback the last three years have come in dismal rushing efforts, including last year's only loss at Texas Tech. In the same span, the 'Horns are 20-2 when going over four yards per carry. He made it through last year, but they can't afford risking McCoy on double-digit carries on a weekly basis again.
The only reason not to lead with the massive departures on the defensive line is UT's consistent success against the run: The 'Horns have finished in the top-10 nationally three years in a row, and led the nation in sacks last year. But you don't graduate five members of the defensive line rotation, three of whom were drafted in the first four rounds and one of whom, Brian Orakpo, may have been the best defensive player in the country last year, without expecting some kind of dropoff. It helps that Big 12 opponents are so pass-happy, but senior Sergio Kindle, who found a role as a pass rusher last year after a couple disappointing seasons at linebacker, needs to channel his inner Orakpo ASAP against Sam Bradford, Zac Robinson and whichever future record-breaker Mike Leach is breaking in this year.
Stumbling blocks. This isn't the kind of schedule that allows for margin of error, mainly because the non-conference lineup is filled again with delicious but empty cupcakes UL-Monroe, Wyoming, UTEP and Central Florida, meaning -- like last year, when UT's most impressive non-con win was over Rice -- a loss in the Big 12 will be particularly devastating in the polls. The 'Horns need to win all three of their big division games, Texas Tech, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, to avoid becoming tangled in another web of one-loss teams vying for a shot in December. Because Texas Tech falls so unusually early on the schedule (Sept. 19), it might be possible to overcome a loss to the Raiders by running off 10 straight wins, the Oklahoma rivals included. But a later loss, to, say, potentially dangerous Kansas in November, would be crippling without a lot of help.
Visions of champions past. Show me a prolific, pass-first champ with a veteran, heavily accented coach who cut his teeth in the Tar Heel State, an annoyingly clean-cut, record-setting quarterback you can take home to mother and a talented defense that only needs to be good enough to keep opposing offenses under 30, and I'll show you the 1996 Florida Gators. Texas isn't coming off anything like the horrific beating Nebraska put on the '95 Gators in the Fiesta Bowl, and Colt McCoy is free of the premature Reagan part that plagued Danny Wuerffel. But a third win over Oklahoma in four years would cast scout favorite Sam Bradford as a vaguely Peyton Manning-like figure to McCoy's Wuerffel, and Sergio Kindle can revive Johnny Rutledge's role as a hybrid edge-rushing terror. (You may not remember Rutledge, the less-celebrated predecessor to Jevan Kearse, but if Kindle finishes second on the team in tackles with five sacks, 12 tackles for loss and four forced fumbles, he'll be everybody's All-American.) McCoy's yardage and efficiency last year were very comparable to Wuerffel's in UF's championship season.
Crystal ball Says ... Even without a distinguished running back -- and there are certainly enough candidates to emerge in that role -- you can't question the offense, which was only held under 400 yards once last year and took a last-second miracle to beat even then. McCoy could easily have a 4,000-yard, 40-touchdown, Heisman-winning season in him. The questions are all about the defense, which was great by Big 12 standards (first in total and scoring defense) but pretty meh against decent teams -- even discarding Missouri's deceiving, garbage-time rally to 31 points after being dominated in the first half, UT legitimately allowed 35 points to Oklahoma, 24 to Oklahoma State and 39 to Texas Tech, and well over 400 yards to all of them. Ok. State and Ohio State both went over 200 yards rushing, and the Longhorns lose a huge chunk of their very good front four.
So there's almost inevitably going to be another shootout like the one last year in Lubbock, that comes down to who has the ball last. (Or who actually catches the damn interception that's right in your hands!) But I don't think this team will be significantly outplayed by anyone one on the schedule, and there are much worse odds than that.
out of five.