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Is Texas football Back?: 2023 Season Preview


Photo Credit- Paul Tanner (Copyright)

It was just past midnight early in the morning of January 2, 2019, at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans. The #14 Texas Longhorns had just upset the 10.5-point favorites, the #5 Georgia Bulldogs, 28-21, in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. The college football world may not have known that they were watching a potential future dynasty rise to fame under Kirby Smart, but that night, the Longhorns were the topic of discussion, because they appeared to be that thing that we always talk about them being: back



Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger had run for his 16th rushing touchdown in the win, tying National Champion QB Vince Young for most rushing touchdowns in a season by a quarterback in program history, and went on that night to win Sugar Bowl MVP. ESPN’s Holly Rowe interviewed Ehlinger on the field after the game. He gave some excited answers after the win, but ended it off with one statement that college football hears every year: “Longhorn Nation, we’re back!”


 

Steve Sarkisian takes over Texas football

Texas had just parted ways with Former Head Coach Tom Herman, who wasn’t exactly a recruiting wiz. He signed some decent players, but the positional depth charts were all over the place. When Sarkisian arrived, he had nearly twice as many receivers as offensive linemen. Yikes. Herman did, however, bring winning seasons to Texas. His records in his 4 seasons on the Forty Acres were 7-6, 10-4, 8-5, and 7-3, respectively. He won a bowl game each year, winning the Texas Bowl, the Sugar Bowl, then two consecutive Alamo Bowls. But that wasn’t good enough for the University of Texas. They wanted more. On January 2, 2021, Herman was no longer a Longhorn.


Today, over two years later, the Texas Longhorns enter their final football season in the Big 12 Conference. Just over a year from now, they — along with the Oklahoma Sooners — will be officially moving to become members of the Southeastern Conference (SEC). The SEC is the premier conference in college football and has been for decades, which means that if Texas is gonna win and go on a run, this is the year to do it. It’s much easier to win your conference and potentially get to the Playoff when your hardest opponents are an Oklahoma team coached by Brent Venables and Texas Tech instead of Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, or LSU, so they need to win this year if they’re going to have a prayer entering the SEC next summer. 


Texas football new faces and outgoing players


Early impact freshman: WR Johntay Cook II LB Anthony Hill RB Cedric Baxter Jr CB Malik Muhammad


Impact Transfers: WR A.D. Mitchell (UGA) CB Gavin Holmes (WAKE) DT Trill Carter (MINN) S Jalen Catalon (ARK)


Key Departures: RB Bijan Robinson RB Roschon Johnson DL Moro Ojomo DL Keondre Coburn LB DeMarvion Overshown



The majority of programs in college football can’t recruit players that are good enough to start as true freshmen. Texas, on the other hand, has recruited over a dozen players this year that have a serious chance to get major playing time in 2023. Combine that class with the portal pickup of former 5-star recruit QB Quinn Ewers last year and you’ve got yourself a pretty elite recruiter in Sarkisian. But we’ve all seen the Longhorns’ recruiting class this year. We all know that it was #3 in the country. If there’s a time to do it, this is the year. And when you look at who Texas will likely be losing to the League after this season, it makes immediate success even more crucial. With transfers like Catalon and Holmes being added to form a pristine secondary and Carter being added to reinforce a defensive line that just lost two of its more important pieces put together with potential star linebackers Jaylon Ford and Anthony Hill in between, the Texas defense is in a perfect spot right now.


On offense, Texas has a QB room that could easily be considered the nation’s best featuring Ewers, Manning, and Maalik Murphy. As of right now, Ewers is the starter and Arch is likely to redshirt. Murphy will presumably slot in between them as QB2 and be able to take over as QB1 if anything were to happen to Ewers, just as it did in their Week 2 game vs. Alabama in 2022 when Hudson Card took over during Ewers’ absence. In the 2023 Orange & White Spring Game, Murphy impressed with his talent and his stat line of 9/13, 165 yards, and 1 TD. All signs point to him being a capable backup, voiding yet another injury.




Ewers moved from Southlake, Texas, to Columbus, Ohio, at 17 years old as a generational 5-star commit to the Buckeyes of The Ohio State University. He was the most highly-touted high school player since Vince Young. In his first year, Ewers was unable to get any playing time and redshirted his freshman season. When he saw that future second-overall pick C.J. Stroud would still be around, Ewers realized that he could start elsewhere and bring major change to whatever program he ended up at. On December 3, 2021, Ohio State’s 5-star QB Quinn Ewers entered the NCAA transfer portal. nine days later, he returned home: Quinn Ewers was a Texas Longhorn. 


In the first week of his redshirt freshman season at UT, Ewers started his first game at DKR-Texas Memorial Stadium against the Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks, going 16/24 and throwing for 225 yards and a TD. In Week 2, Ewers started in the biggest game on the Forty Acres since Texas A&M left for the SEC a decade earlier. In less than a quarter of play, Ewers threw for 158 yards, including 5 completions for nearly 100 yards to WR Xavier Worthy. With 37 seconds left in the first quarter, the Longhorns were first & goal. Right off the snap, two Crimson Tide d-linemen broke through the line. Future third overall NFL Draft pick EDGE Will Anderson Jr. dove for Ewers right away, but he escaped. Then, top 2024 NFL Draft prospect EDGE Dallas Turner jumped onto an airborne Ewers and smashed him to the ground, collapsing on top of his right shoulder. Ewers laid on the field for a minute or two then left the game and didn’t see any action for a month. In his first game back, he led his offense to a blowout 49-0 victory over the rival Oklahoma Sooners. It was after that that he struggled to find his game again. After the season, Sarkisian thought that he may have been shaken up by the injury. With a month to prepare for the 2022 Valero Alamo Bowl, Ewers came out sharp and threw for 369 yards. They may have lost the game 27-20 to the PAC-12’s Washington Huskies, but it gave “The Mullet” some momentum to carry into the offseason and next season…including shaving the mullet. 


At the end of the day, Quinn Ewers is still the generational talent he was out of high school. He could have a repeat of last season and he’d still be a top 10 NFL Draft pick simply because of that talent. Kind of like Anthony Richardson going fourth overall. The only question mark for Ewers is whether he can truly reach that potential. From what was seen in spring ball and heard from Sarkisian on his pre- and post-Alamo Bowl development, it sounds like Ewers is playing like he can. But yet again, a spring practice wearing a black jersey isn’t the same as having Dallas Turner lined up six feet away from you.

 

Texas Football: Offensive depth


On January 20, 2022, WR Isaiah Neyor announced he was transferring to the Forty Acres after leaving the University of Wyoming. Exactly one year later, just this past January, Georgia transfer WR Adonai Mitchell transferred to Texas. Adding those two to a receiving room featuring Herman recruit Jordan Whittington and Sarkisian recruits Xavier Worthy & TE Ja’Tavion Sanders is scary to imagine if you’re another Big 12 team.


Neyor missed the entirety of the 2022 season with a torn ACL, but that doesn’t cancel out the effect he can still have on this offense in 2023. As a Wyoming Cowboy in 2021, Neyor had 44 receptions for 878 yards. He had four games with over 70 receiving yards as well as an additional two games in November with 126 yards and 125 yards, respectively. In the 2021 Famous Idaho Potato Bowl against Kent State, Neyor had 87 more yards and a touchdown. Yes, these were stats against Mountain West defenses, but he also had a Mountain West QB in Chris Oladokun throwing to him. Oladokun was a 7th-round pick to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 2022 NFL Draft but was released before the preseason began and he’s been a free agent since. With a QB as talented as Ewers throwing to him at Texas and having four other receiving targets on that offense with him, he’s bound for success in Austin.


J.T. Sanders and Xavier Worthy are both currently projected to be 1st round picks in the 2024 NFL Draft by The Athletic. Having those two run rampant on defenses once again this year will surely be beneficial for the Longhorns. Some say that Ewers favored Worthy too much last season, and he did, but Worthy still outran his opposing defenders and got open. The most common problem was Worthy dropping the ball. Now this year, you’re getting an improved Worthy with two other receivers to take attention away from him. If you’re a defensive coordinator preparing to play Texas, you see all those names -- Worthy, Sanders, Mitchell, Neyor, and Whittington, who could all be #1 receivers at some of the top programs in America -- and you don’t know what you’re going to do. Do you put one defensive back on each guy if they’re all on the field together (and rest assured, that will happen plenty)? But if you do, you’re one-blown coverage away from giving up a touchdown without a safety. If you put out a safety, you’ve only got six guys lining up against an elite offensive line, which is essentially giving Ewers all day to either scramble for a first down or wait for one of his guys to get open. We’ll leave that ultimate decision to Pete Golding, Joe Klanderman, or Alex Grinch, but you’ve got yourself a sweet advantage over every defense you face if you’re Texas. When we get later in the year, we might see an injury or two, but in Week 2 against Alabama, they’ll have Kool-Aid McKinstry cover Worthy…then what? Who’s going to cover all those other guys? An advantage like that could be the dealbreaker in a game as closely matched as that one should be, and a win there is the biggest step toward a NY6 or CFP season.


Guarding the offense, Texas has an o-line that was elite last season. It consisted of two true freshmen, although they didn’t see any injuries. I don’t think I’m too crazy for proclaiming that as a one-time miracle. This year, the Longhorns’ line will consist of some combination of All-American T Kelvin Banks Jr., G D.J. Campbell, OL Andre Cojoe, OL Hayden Conner, G Cole Hutson, T Christian Jones, C Jake Majors, OL Connor Robertson, OL Connor Stroh, and G Neto Umeozulu, who has been overwhelmingly impressive in workouts this offseason. That’s 10 players on your roster that are capable of starting on your offensive line, meaning your backup 5 could compete with your starting five. That’s a good situation to have for yourself, and having that situation on the o-line was Sarkisian’s #1 goal when he arrived on campus nearly two and a half years ago. And he’s succeeded probably even more than he anticipated.


Finally, the RB room. If Texas has one weakness on the roster, it’s either the D-line or the RB room. They just recruited the #1 runningback in America in the Class of 2023 Cedric “C.J.” Baxter Jr., who will be ready to start playing as a true freshman but won’t be able to be a starter. Jonathan Brooks is the favorite in conversation around Austin to be the Week 1 starter, but that can change fast. Keilan Robinson (no, not Bijan, unfortunately) was a very capable third-stringer behind the aforementioned Bijan Robinson and Roschon Johnson, although he’s not a starter either. There are other options too in Jaydon Blue and recently converted Savion Red. These are five good RBs. None of them are great though. None of them are even Roschon Johnson, let alone Bijan. I would hope that Sarkisian pushed hard for Johnson to stay one more year because they need it. If Roschon Johnson was in this 2023 offense, I’d officially be convinced that Texas would beat any team they played by 50 points and that they’d be the 2024 National Champions a couple of hours down the road in Houston. Unfortunately, Jonathan Brooks is the best option. Not that Brooks is a bad option, but like I said and could cry out a hundred times: he’s not Roschon or Bijan. Brooks had 2 touchdowns on 8 carries in the Alamo Bowl vs. Washington though, so it’s not all bad. There is a bright side to the RB room, but it may not feel like it after the talent Texas has had at that position in the last couple of years. It may take time for Steve Sarkisian to get that position rolling along with the passing game, but it will still be one of the better groups in the conference. With what the Longhorns have on the rest of their offense, their running back room is more than sufficient.


To recap the defense, Texas has Jalen Catalon, Gavin Holmes, Ryan Watts, Jahdae Barron, and Terrance Brooks in their secondary. I can’t think of a secondary in the country with as much raw talent as that. They have Trill Carter, Byron Murphy, Alfred Collins, and T’Vondre Sweat that are well-above-average defenders on their line. If they have any injuries, there’s not much on the bench after Jaray Bledsoe. Luckily, the linebacker group can provide reinforcements. At linebacker, Texas will have the Class of 2023’s #1 LB Anthony Hill, last year’s breakout star Jaylon Ford (who won Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year in 2022, depending on who you ask), the experienced Jett Bush, David Gbenda, and Barryn Sorrell. Multiple freshmen can compete for a spot at some point. 


Texas football
Alabama Head Coach Nick Saban on the sideline at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, the site of the upcoming September 9th matchup between Alabama and Texas (Photo Courtesy: zambiniman, Flickr)


Texas football match-up breakdowns


Rice @ Texas: Texas wins. It’s Rice vs. Texas. Texas wins that. Always. Not even one of the smartest U.S. presidents to hold office can figure out why Rice plays Texas.


Texas @ Alabama: Alabama doesn’t have a QB right now. I’m not worried about Nick Saban finding a quality QB, but it might take more than two weeks. And we went over what Bama’s secondary looks like against Texas’s receiving corps, and that aspect alone might be the deciding factor. I’m taking Texas in a high-scoring close one. Maybe 42-38.


Wyoming @ Texas: Texas. Need I explain?


Texas @ Baylor: Baylor won the Big 12 just two seasons ago. Last year, ESPN College GameDay’s Des Howard predicted they’d go to the CFP last season, but they ended up having a failure of a season with an inexperienced QB Blake Shapen at the helm. That one off-year has caused Blake Shapen’s Baylor Bears to fall under the radar as the Big 12’s most underrated team and potentially America’s. I think that they’ll catch their rival Longhorns off guard in the first conference game of the year and their last against Texas for a long time. Baylor wins.


Kansas @ Texas: Texas wins this one. Kansas is still gonna be decent, but bowl eligibility is the best they’re going to do this year. Without QB Jalon Daniels, they’d just be the classic football Jayhawks. It’s an improved Texas team and a worse Kansas team compared to Texas’s 55-14 win at Kansas just this past November. With all that put together and at DKR, this should be a Longhorns gimme. Especially if they’re coming off a loss at Baylor.


Oklahoma vs. Texas (Dallas): This looks like it’ll be the best Red River Showdown we’ve had in a while. The #3 recruiting class of 2023 against the #4 recruiting class of 2023. Every other play stoppage, we’ll see split-screens of Arch Manning and Oklahoma QB Jackson Arnold on the sideline with Sean McDonough or Greg McElroy saying, “There’s the future of this rivalry.” But this game will be much bigger than that. Oklahoma won’t be their normal selves quite yet in the midst of this Brent Venables rebuild, so this should be a close Texas win.


Texas @ Houston: I’m sure Texas’s anger over having to play in The Cage will be enough to fuel them to victory, especially coming off their bye week. But Dana Holgerson’s Cougars aren’t quite ready for the Power Five, and they will have a hard time being bowl eligible this season. Texas wins.


BYU @ Texas: These Cougars usually give Texas a hard time. But the last time they played, then-Texas Head Coach Charlie Strong didn’t have his program in a good place. In three seasons, Strong failed to achieve a .500 record after succeeding Mack Brown. In his first season, Texas lost 41-7 against BYU…in Austin. This is now nine years later though, and Texas is by far the better team. But BYU always finds a way to win. Even still, I don’t think that a guy who couldn’t make it at Pitt can win at DKR. Texas wins.


Kansas St. @ Texas: K-State is the most overrated team in the Big 12 this year. They’re a different team from the Big 12 Champions they were, and the essence of their 2022 offense, Deuce Vaughn, is now a Dallas Cowboy. If the Wildcats aren’t exposed by the first Saturday of November, Texas will be the ones to do it for sure. Texas wins this one by three scores.


Texas @ TCU: It was absolute nonsense to favor Texas by 7.5 over TCU a season ago. This year, that line would be warranted, but I think that taking the underdog Horned Frogs will be the right call again. Texas struggles against TCU. On the winning streak that Texas is on in this projection right now, TCU will be a trap game, especially at Fort Worth. TCU wins this one in a higher-scoring close game.


Texas @ Iowa St: Some think that a late November trip to Ames can cause problems, and they’re right. The Cyclones will field a better team this year as well. And last year, they weren’t that bad. 6 of their 8 losses were by one score, and they lost by 14 to OU. The TCU wasn’t so pretty, but they were the nation’s runner-ups. If Texas is coming off a loss here though, their should-be-dominant offense will trample Iowa State’s should-be-dominant defense. Texas wins.


Texas Tech @ Texas: For 67 years, the Red Raiders and Longhorns, separated mainly by roads 83 and 184 between Lubbock and Austin, have been conference rivals. Texas Tech joined many of its Texas counterparts, including UT, in the Southwest Conference in 1956, then followed Texas, Baylor, and Texas A&M to the Big 8 to form the new Big 12 Conference. Now, 27 years after the merger, the Longhorns are leaving for the SEC, ending their 63-year playing streak against TTU. The Longhorns lead the all-time series 54-18, but it all comes down to one final showdown at DKR. Under the lights. Black Friday. ABC primetime. This game will be huge for both teams. Tech will want to send their rivals off in Red Raider fashion, while Texas might be fighting for a Big 12 Championship berth (maybe that’ll all come down to this game) and wanting to avenge a blown-lead-turned-overtime-loss a year ago, 37-34, in Lubbock. I’m as high on the underrated Red Raiders as I am on the underrated Bears, but Texas isn’t losing their last Big 12 game at DKR. After this game, their next conference home game will be within the SEC: the Florida Gators, Kentucky Wildcats, Mississippi State Bulldogs, or the defending back-to-back national champion Georgia Bulldogs. So Texas will want this win enough to win the game. But this should be a rivalry matchup for the ages if you’re looking for true hatred.


In this projection, the Longhorns go 10-2 in regular season play, and 7-2 in their conference, likely good enough to make the Big 12 Championship in Arlington on December 2nd. They aren’t projected to lose to Baylor or TCU simply because those teams are better than Texas. After all, they’re not. The same thing could happen in games against Alabama and Oklahoma, too. Texas has the best roster in the Big 12, and if the best roster won every game, the Longhorns would go undefeated. And maybe they will, maybe they won’t, but the Big 12 is just too deep of a conference nowadays to produce an undefeated CFP-worthy team. Heck, TCU only won 2 conference games by more than 10 points last year. If the 12-team Playoff wasn’t a year away, it would be a long time before another Big 12 team could -- dare I say it? -- luck out the way the Horned Frogs did in 2022.


Texas has more talent this season than they might have for a long time to come. If there’s a year to win, it’s the year before almost all of your top players go to the NFL and the rest go to the #1 conference in the nation. If Sark is gonna win on the Forty Acres, this may be his one chance. Or maybe not. Maybe their next game against Georgia will mark a major turning point for the program again but more positively. But for now, the Longhorns are the only CFP-possible team in the Big 12 for the upcoming season by the looks of it, and they can be back…as long as Texas doesn’t pull a Texas.


Texas football
The Sun sets on the University of Texas Tower, lit up to celebrate the school's 2006 Rose Bowl victory over the USC Trojans for the National Championship (Photo Courtesy: wanderingYew2, Flickr)

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I think this is the first time this site has posted a real article.

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