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Is Texas “Top Shelf” in 2017?

Expectations are returning to the 40 acres, but will the Longhorns live up to them?

Getty Images - Tim Warner

The University of Texas expects to be a Tier 1 program in the Big 12. The University of Texas expects to be a Tier 1 program on the national stage. Instead, Texas flirted with Tier 3 irrelevance in in conference while failing to achieve a bowl eligible record in 2015 and 2016. However, a new coach and a new attitude has been established in Austin, and a move back to the top tier of the Big 12 is expected.

The Longhorns very young in 2016. Inconsistent play is the moniker of young squads and Texas acted the part. Turnovers and big plays made it difficult to put together a 60 minute effort. Shane Buechele played well for a true freshmen and D’Onta Foreman did everything possible to win games by himself. In the end, the squad failed to repeat its inspired performance against Notre Dame and fell short in 7 of their last 11 games.

Unlike other teams who lost to Kansas (are there any others?), the silver linings in a season of turmoil were not hard to spot. The running game was solid, if not spectacular. The defensive line was dominant most of the season. The young QB/WR battery has massive upside and flashed it.

More than anything else, the margin of loss is telling. Five of the seven Texas losses were by less than one score. Only Oklahoma State and TCU figured out how to dominate the Longhorns. Texas lost to OU, KSU, WVU, and KU by a collective 15 points. Breakdowns on less than 2 drives per game in those 4 decided the outcome negatively.

With a dearth of returning talent and the hiring of the hottest name in the NCAA coaching ranks, there is a reason to be optimistic on the 40 acres. The difficulty will be overcoming the standard disjointed transition that occurs with a coaching change. New schemes will be introduced and Texas will have to be on its game in the non-con schedule to avoid early season disillusionment.

What must Texas do to leave Tier 2 of the Big 12 and move back in to the conference elite? I have a few ideas.

Disciplined Defense

The story of the historically bad Texas defense is grounded in inconsistency. In particular, the inconsistency of the secondary. A team cannot blow assignments and play tentative pass defense in the Big 12 and expect to win. That is what Texas did week in and week out.

The defensive line played at a championship level most of the season. The linebacker corps made plays and was solid at times, but struggled to maintain focus throughout a game. The secondary would make plays for 2 downs and blow an assignment on the next 2. Each player group performed well in spots and poorly in others, but most of all, they were never on the same page.

Texas was 2nd in the Big 12 in average rushing yards per attempt (4.1). Texas was 2nd in overall sacks and 1st in sacks per game at 3.4. Meanwhile, they were 7th in overall pass defense and 9th in average yards per attempt against the pass. It is clear that an improvement in secondary play is needed and given the margin of loss, a more disciplined unit will result in more wins.

Introducing Mr. Orlando. The new DC is known for first season turnarounds and he inherits his most heralded unit in terms of recruiting rankings. He coaches aggressive play across the board that is proven to produce takeaways. This is the perfect approach for a defense that has been bitten in the past. Aggressive defense is played with defined responsibilities that limits the opportunity for the defensive players to “think.” Less thinking and more reaction will benefit the defense as a whole and the secondary in particular.

If Texas can achieve a similar, middling offensive effort, but improve their defense by playing more disciplined within the new scheme, then they can threaten the top tier of the Big 12. One additional key stop in 4 games may have resulted in 9 wins for the Longhorns in 2016. It is not unreasonable to believe that can occur with the returning talent and the new coaching staff.

Make This Buechele’s Team

Tom Herman has a long track record of success with quarterbacks and offenses. His system is predicated on a mobile quarterback who picks up first downs when the play call breaks down. At Iowa State he had Austen Arnaud, a mobile QB who lead the Cyclones to two straight bowl games. At Ohio State he was blessed with Braxton Miller and Cardale Jones for one game. Both players were mobile and caused defenses fits with their mobility. At Houston, Greg Ward torched defenses by moving the chains and extending plays with his legs.

Now, he has an incumbent starter in Shane Buechele. The concern is that Buechele’s strengths are not compatible with the Herman mold. True freshman Sam Ehlinger brings mobility to the position and Herman instilled a full-fledged battle for the position throughout the spring. In addition, Herman attempted to bring in graduate transfers Brandon Harris and Malik Zaire, though he missed on both. Harris and Zaire fit the mold of a Herman quarterback.

It isn’t that Buechele is immobile. He isn’t. But, his strength is down field throws from the pocket. It is a departure from the game Herman has coached since his days at Rice. However, Buechele has the potential to be a Tier 1 QB in the Big 12 if placed in a scheme that accentuates his strengths.

I believe it is critical for Texas to place the team in Buechele’s hands. The continuity and confidence derived from such a move will benefit the offense as a whole. It will allow for the development of the team in a consistent model and create expectations and feel in the passing game. It is possible that Herman is holding things open to motivate his incumbent, but it feels different to me.

A confident Buechele with the talent at wide receiver is dangerous for Texas opponents. A two QB system or an ill-fitting system and a short hook for Buechele provides an opportunity for opponents to continue to exploit the mistakes that will inevitably occur. To move to Tier 1, Texas must hitch their wagon to their incumbent QB.

Turnovers and 3rd Down Conversions

With D’Onta Foreman in the backfield, I was surprised to find that Texas ranked 9th in the Big 12 in 3rd down conversions at 36%. Only Kansas was worse at 33%. I was not surprised to see that Texas gave the ball away a massive 23 times and finished the year with a -3 turnover margin. 12 interceptions is expected for a freshman quarterback, but 11 fumbles is an inexcusable total.

These two statistical categories correlate to provide a glimpse at a team’s ability to sustain offense. Both end drives. Texas excelled at ending drives via failed 3rd conversion and turnovers. Both stress the defense with poor field position and quick turnarounds.

To improve as a team, Texas must achieve a 40% or higher 3rd down conversion rate and cut their turnovers down to below 20. The net result will be an improvement in time of possession and overall team efficiency. Texas was 7th in the conference in time of possession with a team that ran the football on 60% of its plays.

An increase in time of possession via less turnovers and converting on 3rd down will put Texas in a position to win all but a handful of the games on their 2017 schedule.

Will the Elevator Go To the Top Floor?

The blueprint for Tom Herman to return Texas to Tier 1 of the Big 12 is easy to see. How hard it is to execute will be seen early on in the season with tests against Maryland and USC.

Pick a QB, tighten up the defensive assignments, and cut down your turnovers. Hard to execute because this is the goal of every team…right. The difference at Texas is that gap between reality and a change is very small. The margin to be made up is small because the talent is in place and the staff has a proven track record in improving each of these critical areas.

If Texas does not out think itself, the stage is set for a resounding return to the top Tier of the Big 12. If they can figure it out early against September and early October opponents such as USC and Oklahoma, then look out, the Longhorns will be a Top Shelf offering once again.

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