13 for '13: Texas comes of age, again

Thirteen recurring themes for the offseason agenda. Read the full list.

David Ash capped an up-and-down season with a fourth-quarter comeback in the Alamo Bowl. (US Presswire)

OK, stop me if you've heard this one before. Here's Texas, an established power with bottomless resources, the best-paid coaching staff in college athletics, massively hyped recruiting classes, and finally, after two years of growing pains and disappointment, a roster that looks like it's ready to bear fruit. Here is a team with all the pieces in place.

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On offense, the Longhorns get back last year's starting quarterback, the top three rushers, five of the top six receivers and all five regular starters on the line. Defensively, there's an abundance of returning starters, the vast majority of whom have a future at the next level. The roster as a whole is still packed with former blue-chip recruits who have already picked up some valuable battle scars as underclassmen.

If that story sounds familiar in 2013, it should: It's poached essentially verbatim from the more optimistic of the preseason previews last year, which envisioned the 2012 Longhorns as the edition to end the lingering malaise of 2010 and 2011 -- and restore the program to the pedestal that it occupied throughout the previous decade, as a perennial contender for Big 12 titles and BCS bowls. Instead, the redemption tour was defined by injuries, inconsistency and especially a humiliating, blowout loss at the hands of Oklahoma, from which it never really recovered. If not for a late, improbable rally to beat Oregon State in the Alamo Bowl, Texas would have finished outside of the final polls for the third year in a row.

What was true last summer will be true again this fall, only more so: With 22 players back who started at least five games in 2012 and a dozen more with some starting experience in their careers, the 2013 Longhorns have arguably played more college football than any other team in the nation. It's entirely possible the starting lineup this fall will consist exclusively of juniors and seniors. And given that they play for Texas, expectations will inevitably collide with the outer bounds of optimism.

That assumption would be harder to dismiss if the 2012 team hadn't taken several tangible steps forward even while seeming to run in place. That is most obviously true at quarterback, a source of constant trauma and intrigue over the previous two seasons, where sophomore David Ash made the job his own with a blockbuster September. Ash spent most of the season ranked among the most efficient passers in the nation and punched his "clutch" card in come-from-behind wins over Oklahoma State and Oregon State. The offense as a whole improved its scoring average by more than a touchdown per game over 2011, and it outperformed the 2009 attack that played in the BCS Championship Game in terms of yards per game, yards per play, third-down percentage and giveaways.

But the high points only made the inconsistency that much more frustrating. The offense showed up early against Oklahoma State and West Virginia; the defense did not, running for cover in a pair of down-to-the-wire shootouts. By the time the defense pulled it together for late-season slugfests against TCU and Kansas State, the offense had gone into hibernation. Ash was occasionally brilliant and occasionally found himself benched for ineffectiveness. Three different guys had their turn as the feature running back, delivered a big game or two apiece, and spent the rest of the season struggling for carries. The defense managed to lead the Big 12 in tackles for loss while also finishing dead last against the run. Twice, the mounting optimism of a four-game winning streak was dissolved by the reality of back-to-back losses.

Malcolm Brown and Johnathan Gray were the most touted tailbacks in their respective recruiting classes. (US Presswire)

The sum was the most maddening campaign yet in an ongoing, three-year rebuilding project that seems to be measuring progress in inches. Ultimately, the only clear difference between the 2012 Horns and the disappointments of 2010 and 2011 was the end of two-year losing streaks against Baylor and Oklahoma State. If the next step is a Big 12 title, lopsided losses at the hands of co-champs Oklahoma and Kansas State were sobering reminders of just how far the 'Horns still have to go.

Still, the combination of experience, talent and pedigree will make them hard to ignore as potential dark horses -- especially in a conference conspicuously lacking an obvious overlord. The last four Big 12 championships have been claimed by four different teams, and Kansas State and Oklahoma are both facing significant attrition, beginning with the departures of their celebrated senior quarterbacks. Texas was arguably the best of the rest and has the fewest questions in the league from a personnel standpoint.

There will only be two significant changes this fall, one on each side of the ball: Offensively, play-calling duties will fall to a new coordinator, former UT quarterback Major Applewhite, who takes over for departed OC Brian Harsin; on defense, the pass rush will badly miss outgoing senior Alex Okafor, a two-time All-Big 12 pick. (Though the pass rush will also benefit from the return of Jackson Jeffcoat, a legitimate All-America candidate before he was sidelined with a season-ending injury in October.) The other faces are all essentially the same.

If that's a good thing -- if the last two years really have been stepping stones toward a breakthrough -- time is running out to prove it. If Ash can't turn the corner with 18 career starts under his belt and fellow veterans surrounding him at every position, why is there any reason to believe he ever will? If Mack Brown can't get Texas back to the BCS with the most experienced locker room of his tenure, there will be no shortage of critics asking the same question. At age 61, only a clear step forward can ensure his bosses aren't among them.

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