NCAA Football: Alamo Bowl-Utah vs Texas

The eyes of Texas may be upon the Longhorns, but the eyes of the nation haven't had as much reason to pay attention in recent years. Texas enters the 2020 season in a familiar position -- a position which the program has desperately tried to escape. Texas went 10-4 in 2018, finishing its season with an impressive win over Georgia in the Sugar Bowl. The win prompted Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger to declare that Texas was "back."

It wasn't. The Longhorns entered the 2019 season riding a wave of hype, beginning the year at No. 10 in the AP Poll. They would finish 8-5, the eighth time the team suffered at least five losses in the last 10 seasons. It was a season that resulted in a shuffling of the deck on the Texas coaching staff, and Tom Herman enters the 2020 season hoping his Longhorns can reshuffle the deck in the Big 12 as well.

2019 rewind

Final ranking: No. 33 | Achievements: Beat No. 11 Utah 38-10 in the Alamo Bowl

When trying to find the highlight of the 2019 season for Texas, you don't find yourself impressed as much by who it defeated but who it lost to. Yes, the Longhorns had two wins over teams that were ranked at the time, but the first came against a Kansas State team that finished 8-5 and was ranked mostly due to an upset win over Oklahoma. The second came against a Utah team in the Alamo Bowl, but like the Georgia win before, one could question how fired up the Utes were to play in that game after narrowly missing out on a College Football Playoff berth.

Two losses gave you a tantalizing glimpse of what Texas could be, though. Early in the season, it lost at home to LSU 45-38 in a thriller. Considering LSU would go on to dominate nearly everybody else it played, the fact Texas hung with it for the entire game was worth noticing. The Longhorns would perform similarly well against another playoff team, losing to Oklahoma 34-27 in October. Watching Texas in those two games, as well as its Alamo Bowl appearance, you see its potential when fired up and ready to play. It also frustrates you because you just don't see that energy every week.

Key departures

  • WR Devin Duvernay: Texas receivers caught 306 passes as a team last season. Duvernay caught 106 (34.6%), which was 68 more than anybody else on the team. While he's been a key part of the Longhorns offense in 2018, he became the alpha in 2019, finishing with 1,386 yards receiving and nine touchdowns. The speedy receiver (4.39 40) was a third-round pick of the Baltimore Ravens.
  • WR Collin Johnson: The receiver who finished 68 receptions behind Duvernay? That was Johnson, who managed to finish second on the team despite only playing in seven games due to injury. Johnson had been a focal point of the Texas passing attack for two seasons, but hamstring problems cost him six games in 2019. Still, the fifth-round pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars leaves Texas after having caught 188 passes for 2,624 yards and 15 touchdowns in 42 games.
  • S Brandon Jones: Jones was an integral part of a Texas defense that dealt with injuries and struggled in 2019. He finished the season second on the team with 86 tackles and also picked off two passes. He was the first Longhorn taken in the 2020 draft, going to the Dolphins in the third round.
  • DT Malcolm Roach: Roach was a factor on the interior of Texas' defensive line. He finished the season with 40 tackles, including nine tackles for a loss and three sacks. He signed with the New Orleans Saints as an undrafted free agent.
  • OC Tim Beck: Beck was initially demoted by Tom Herman after the season ended, but has since left to become the offensive coordinator at NC State. The Texas offense increased its points per game during each of Beck's seasons at the helm, but after failing so badly to meet preseason expectations, heads were going to have to roll in Austin. Beck's was one of them.
  • DC Todd Orlando: Orlando was another of the heads. The Longhorns allowed 27.5 points per game last season, the most during Herman's tenure. Of course, it's hard to know if it was Orlando's fault or just a natural result of young players being forced into key positions due to injuries. Orlando is now the defensive coordinator at USC.

Who's back?

  • QB Sam Ehlinger: You can make the argument that Texas will go as far as Ehlinger takes it in 2020. While Texas was disappointing overall last year, Ehlinger had his most impressive season yet. He passed for 3,663 yards and 32 touchdowns while also rushing for 663 yards and seven touchdowns. The 10 interceptions were a problem, though. Ehlinger mistakenly claimed that Texas was back after the Sugar Bowl win, but he has one more season to keep his promise.
  • RB Keaontay Ingram: While the Longhorns took a committee approach to the run game, Ingram finished the season leading the team with 853 yards rushing and was tied for the team lead with Ehlinger and QB-turned RB Roschon Johnson with seven.
  • WR Brennan Eagles: With Duvernay and Johnson gone, Eagles will be asked to take on a more significant role in 2020. He finished third on the team with 32 receptions for 522 yards last season, averaging an impressive 16.31 yards per reception.
  • OT Samuel Cosmi: Cosmi has made 26 starts in his first two seasons in Austin. He was named second-team All-Big 12 and was an honorable mention as the conference's Offensive Lineman of the Year last season. He'll anchor the line in 2020, and could be a first-round pick next spring.
  • LB Joseph Ossai: Ossai was undoubtedly a disruptive force on the Texas defense as a sophomore in 2019. He led the team in both sacks (5) and tackles for loss (13.5), but also picked off two passes, had nine QB hurries, a forced fumble and a blocked kick. Oh, and his 90 tackles were the most on the team as well. As great a season as it was, Texas would likely be better off as a whole if Ossai didn't have to do everything himself again in 2020.
  • S Caden Sterns: Sterns managed to finish third on the team in tackles with 58 despite missing four games during the season. That speaks to the impact he has when he's on the field, and the former five-star recruit is a crucial part of this defense.
  • S B.J. Foster: Stop me if you've heard this one before, but Foster is a former five-star recruit who missed four games last season due to injury. It's almost as if there were a reason the Texas defense finished 90th nationally in defensive pass efficiency. The health of both Foster and Sterns will be a critical part of any potential turnaround.

Fresh faces

  • WR Tarik Black: Considering what Texas loses at the receiver spot, it's not a shock to find them active on the transfer market this offseason. Black comes to Texas from Michigan as a graduate transfer with two years of eligibility remaining. There's little doubt about his talent, but he did miss 17 games in his first two seasons at Michigan due to foot injuries.
  • RB Bijan Robinson: As mentioned above, Texas had a running back-by-committee approach in 2019. Robinson could prove to be the committee in 2020. The Arizona native was the highest-rated member of Texas' 2020 class. He was ranked the No. 1 RB in the 2020 class and No. 15 player overall.
  • OC Mike Yurcich: Texas fans are familiar with Yurcich as he spent six seasons as the offensive coordinator at Oklahoma State under Mike Gundy. Those Cowboys offenses averaged 38 points and 478.3 yards per game. Last season, Yurcich was the passing game coordinator and QB coach at Ohio State, where Justin Fields had one of the most impressive seasons by a QB in college football history.
  • DC Chris Ash: Ash had four mostly forgettable seasons as Rutgers head coach, going 8-32 before getting fired after five games last season. Before that, however, he was quite successful as Ohio State's co-defensive coordinator on the same staff as Tom Herman. He'll be tasked with helping turn around a talented defense in Austin.

Critical games

  • Week 2 at LSU -- Sept. 12: Last season, LSU traveled to Austin and the win helped spark a magical season that resulted in a national title. This season, Texas is hoping a win in Baton Rouge could ignite a great season of its own. Considering how early in the year this is, how much LSU lost from last year's team and the environment in which this game will be played, we could learn a lot about the Longhorns.
  • Week 6 vs. Oklahoma -- Oct. 10: Probably the most important game on the schedule for the Longhorns each season. With the Big 12 Championship format, it's not a must-win, but the winner of this game gets a leg up on everybody else as far as reaching it.
  • Week 12 vs. Iowa State -- Nov. 21: Since the Big 12 plays a round-robin schedule, every game is important, but Iowa State figures to be one of the other teams competing with Texas for that second Big 12 Championship spot (assuming the other will go to Oklahoma). When these two meet late in the season, it could serve as a de facto semifinal of sorts.
  • Week 13 at Oklahoma State -- Nov. 27: As could this game. Oklahoma State had a disappointing season in 2019 itself but remains one of the most talented teams in the conference on the offensive side of the ball. The loser of this game is not likely to be playing for a Big 12 title.

2020 outlook

I watched a replay of the 2006 Rose Bowl between Texas and USC earlier this spring and came to a sudden realization. It wasn't about how it was one of the greatest games in college football history, nor was it that Vince Young was truly breathtaking to watch. Those were things I already knew.

What I realized is that, as important as that game was in the history of Texas' football program -- its first national title in 35 years -- that team and that game is also something of a curse. When people talk about Texas being "back," it's that Texas team they're inevitably referring to, even if that season was only in the middle of a run that saw the Longhorns average 11.2 wins per season for nine years, never winning fewer than 10 in a single season. It was the most successful stretch in program history. It also set a standard that is incredibly difficult for any program to maintain.

That success led directly to Mack Brown being dismissed after too many mediocre seasons, and the search for the next coach who could bring the program "back." First, it was Charlie Strong, who failed miserably. Sttrong was replaced by Tom Herman, who was seen as the ideal candidate to get the job done, having helped Ohio State win a national title as offensive coordinator in 2014 before turning Houston's program into a Group of Five powerhouse.

Surely, if Herman could have that kind of success at Houston, the sky was the limit with everything at Texas' disposal.

Now Herman enters his fourth season in Austin with a record of 25-15 overall and 17-10 in the Big 12. Two numbers that are better than what Texas had accomplished from 2010 to 2016, but don't scream "back" at anybody. Even with a decade having passed since the glory of Mack Brown's dominant run, expectations remain mostly the same at Texas in that they're both lofty and conflicting.

In a recent survey of Texas fans by The Athletic, 57.3% of respondents said they believe expectations for the program should be "College Football Playoff or bust." When asked what they thought Texas' record would be in 2020, the most popular answer among those respondents was 10-2, with it receiving 32.8% of the vote. Only 9.8% of the voters chose 12-0 or 11-1. That seems to fly in the face of the nearly 60% who believe this program should be competing for the playoff every season.

Fantasies and whims of a college football fanbase aside, 2020 looks to be a pivotal year for the Longhorns. While Oklahoma remains the prohibitive favorite, it enters the season with more questions surrounding it than it's had in recent years. Elsewhere in the conference, a serious contender has yet to emerge. Then there's Texas. A team with an impressive collection of talent and a senior quarterback. It's enough to make you wonder if Texas will finally be "back" in 2020, or if it'll just be back to the blackboard and starting over one more time.