Colorado at Texas • Oct. 15
Head Coach: Mack Brown (8th year)
2004 Record: 11-1, 7-1 Big 12
Texas returns seven offensive starters from last year's 11-1 Rose Bowl champion. It's no secret the Longhorn offense will be built around four returning linemen and QB Vince Young, the Rose Bowl MVP. VY was the nation's leading rushing quarterback (89.9 ypg) while directing college football's No. 2 ground game (299.2 ypg) last season.
The zone read will remain Texas' bread-and-butter play as Young runs the scheme like he invented it. The Heisman candidate has run circles around opponents on the way to a 17-2 mark as a starter, but can he beat top-notch defenses with his arm?
The passing game was an offensive emphasis during spring, with Young focusing especially on intermediate routes and getting on the same page with unproven receivers who inconsistent in 2004. But RS-sophomore SE Limas Sweed is poised for a breakout year. And FL Jordan Shipley, held out of contact this spring (after tearing an ACL last August), is expected to compete with starter Nate Jones as a deep ball threat. Senior David Thomas is the most versatile TE that head coach Mack Brown has ever coached. The All-Big 12 selection has the speed to stretch the field and will also play FB, H-back and WR this fall.
Aside from improving the passing game, the biggest emphasis of spring was compensating for the one that got away. Doak Walker Award winning RB Cedric Benson will be playing Sundays this fall in a Chicago Bears uniform, but Longhorn coaches liked enough of what they saw in sophomore Ramonce Taylor that the speedster finished spring ball atop the depth chart as Benson's heir apparent. Taylor is the fastest player (4.23) that Brown has ever recruited but, at 5-11 and 197 pounds, is not the prototypical power back that Brown prefers in his offense. Junior Selvin Young, Benson's understudy until suffering a season-ending ankle injury at Arkansas, missed spring drills for academic reasons. It left the door open for Taylor to prove his mettle and for what could be one of the most wide-open offenses in Brown's eight-year tenure at Texas.
With nine returning starters, the strength of this year's Longhorn team should be its defense. Texas is breaking in its third defensive coordinator in as many seasons after Brown hired 43-year old Gene Chizik in January. The former Auburn DC won the Frank Broyles Award honoring the nation's top assistant last season and follows fan-favorite Greg Robinson, who accepted the head coaching job at Syracuse.
DT Rodrique Wright, a consensus All-Big 12 choice and a pre-season All-American, anchors a loaded defensive front. Coaches are determined to manufacture an honest pass rush from the front four. Depth at DE, hit hard last season by attrition, is key.
The only place where Texas boasts more depth than along its D-line is in its secondary. The old man of the bunch is fifth-year senior Michael Huff, a consensus first-team All-Big 12 selection at SS last season. Chizik has the luxury of building his defense around the versatile Huff who, after logging a team-best 37 career starts, took snaps at cornerback during the spring just so coaches can get the best four DBs on the field. That would include veteran senior CB Cedric Griffin, who led all D-backs with 73 tackles last season.
You don't replace a once-in-a-lifetime talent like Butkus Award-winning outside linebacker Derrick Johnson, considered Texas' best defensive player since Tommy Nobis set the standard 40 years ago. But senior MLB Aaron Harris registered more tackles (118) last season than anyone wearing Burnt Orange. Otherwise, the linebackers need to grow up in a hurry because the schedule is particularly formidable during the first half of the season.
Texas' first-ever meeting with Ohio State (at Columbus, Sept. 10) and its annual border war against Oklahoma (in Dallas, Oct. 8) loom as season-defining. The Horns open Big 12 action on the road for the first time since 1998, and need to be focused when they play at Missouri the week before the OU game. The season finale at improving Texas A&M (Nov. 25) is a potential landmine. But if the Longhorns get past the Buckeyes and the Sooners, Brown's bunch will be solid favorites to post Ws the remainder of its games. If that is the case, the 2005 season would end in the very place where the year began for the Longhorns: the Rose Bowl, the site of the 2006 BCS National Championship.
Buffalo Outlook: Texas' manhandling of the Buffs in Boulder last fall served as a wake-up call for Colorado coaches. On Signing Day in February, Gary Barnett said the Buffs were taking a step toward closing the gap between CU and teams like Texas, a reference to the talent difference in the two programs. At this point, a win in Austin over Vince Young and the Longhorns looks like too tall a task. — Mark Collins