TexasMack Brown, head coach of the Texas Longhorns, exorcised a major demon last year by defeating his nemesis, the Oklahoma Sooners, in the Red River Shootout. To be sure, the Sooners fielded an extremely young and inexperienced team, but Texas's convincing 45-12 thrashing of them, along with their early season victory over Ohio State, at Columbus, showed them to be a serious contender for a national championship. They fulfilled that promise with a thrilling 41-38 come-from-behind victory over USC in the title game.
While the ‘Horns lost their all-everything quarterback Vince Young, they are still loaded with talent at every position. Unlike virtually every other team in the nation, Texas has no apparent weaknesses, though perhaps just a bit of uncertainty. If they again survive an early season encounter with Ohio State and can defeat Oklahoma, Texas should contend for back-to-back national championships.
There is no real secret to Texas's recruiting prowess. They own the state of Texas. One hundred and seven of the 118 players on Texas's roster come from in-state. Over the last five years, the Longhorns' recruiting classes have been no lower than 14. They finished first in 2002 and third in 2006.
On offense, Texas features tremendous skill position talent though one major uncertainty. The loss of Vince Young, who elected to forego his final year of eligibility for the NFL, has left a void at quarterback. Texas isn't exactly devoid of talent at that position, it's just young. Colt McCoy, looks to have the inside track for the starting nod, though he will have to fight off early enrollee and true freshman, Jevan Snead. Scout.com rated McCoy as the No. 14 quarterback in the nation in 2005 and Snead rated at No. 6 in 2006.
While there's bound to be some growing pains, the return of three running backs, each of whom had at least one seventy-five yard game is bound to help. Jamaal Charles is the best of the bunch and should have a huge year. At receiver, Billy Pittman and Limas Sweed, the top two wide receivers from last season, both return. Tight end Jermichael Finley must replace the huge shoes of David Thomas but should be able to do so. The offensive line returns three starters, each of whom received some type of all-conference honor. Tackle Justin Blalock is the best of the three. Texas put up Playstation-like numbers on offense last year and, even with the loss of Young, should do so again.
Defensively, Texas suffered more losses but have outstanding players returning and very solid back-ups stepping into starter roles. The defensive line should be solid with returning starting ends Tim Crowder and Brian Robison sandwiching the returning starter at defensive tackle, Frank Okam. Defensive coordinator Gene Chizek would undoubtedly like to see more sacks from the defensive line, but the overall total of 34 was acceptable. In addition, the defense accounted for 117 tackles for loss. The linebacking corps returns two of three starters, Robert Killebrew and Rashad Bobino. Both should contend for post-season honors. The secondary lost two stars in cornerback Cedric Griffin and safety Michael Huff, but there's plenty of talent to rebuild. Michael Griffin returns at free safety and his twin brother Marcus will man the other safety spot. Last year the defense surrendered only 213 points in 13 games. If the secondary comes together and plays well, they should be able to duplicate that effort.
Texas must replace both its kicker and punter and that could play a role in close games. Unfortunately for Texas's opponents, there just won't be that many close games. Look for the Longhorns to win the Big 12 South and the conference championship game. If they can get by Ohio State, at Austin, in the second game of the year, then they should be back in the national title game.
Texas A&MPerhaps no team in America more disappointed themselves, their fans, and prognosticators everywhere, than did Texas A&M. Nearly every preseason publication had them ranked in the top 25, and many predicted they would challenge their archrival Texas for the Big 12 South crown. Instead, the Aggies fell to a 5-6 record and 3-5 in the Big 12. The reason for this decline isn't complicated. Texas A&M's defense ranked No. 107 nationally in yards allowed and were dead last in pass defense. Though head coach Dennis Franchione positively spun last year's results as an opportunity to develop young talent, the fact is that off-season changes on the defensive coaching staff told the true story of just how disappointing the 2005's defensive performance really was.
Texas A&M has been a force in recruiting over the last five years. Their best class, in 2002, came in at a Scout.com No. 8. Their 2006 class represented their lowest ranking in that time span but it still finished in the top 25 at No. 21. There appears to be plenty of talent on hand for Franchione and his staff to develop.
On offense, the Aggies return seven starters though they do lose quarterback Reggie McNeal. McNeal never really achieved any comfort level in the spread option, an offense that A&M adopted only last season. His probable replacement, Stephen McGee, seemed much more at home in that attack and certainly the coaching staff hopes he flourishes. In 2004, McGee was Scout.com's No. 12-rated quarterback in the nation. McGee should have plenty of help on offense. Courtney Lewis, is the Aggies top returning rusher, and tight end Martellus Bennett, an absolutely freakish athlete who also plays on the basketball team, is poised for a breakout year at tight end. One area of concern for A&M is wide receiver. The two projected starters coming out of spring, Chad Schroeder and Earvin Taylor, only caught a combined 23 passes for a little over 400 yards. To be fair, Taylor only played in two games due to injury but they still have much to prove. The offensive line returns four starters and should be a strength. Center Cody Wallace has been named to the preseason Rimington Award watch list.
Major changes on defense marked the off-season. Texas A&M switched to a 4-2-5 defensive alignment and then went in search of personnel, particularly safeties, to run it. By replacing a linebacker with a defensive back, the Aggies hope to improve upon their almost 305 passing yards per game allowed last year. A&M will have to do it with relatively young and inexperienced players. Only three seniors emerged as number one on the two deep after spring practice. Six of the top ten tacklers from 2005 departed, but linebacker Justin Warren returns. Sophomores Melvin Bullitt and Devin Gregg represent the only experience in the secondary, but given last year's performance that may be a good thing. Defensive tackle Red Bryant and defensive end Chris Harrington will need to step up their games considerably if they're going to create enough pass rush to help the inexperienced secondary.
Texas A&M failed to live up to the high expectations set for them in 2005. If they are going to see the kind of improvement that the coaching staff and legion of Aggie fans demand, the defense must come together and give what should be a formidable offense a chance to produce victories. A&M will be better but probably not good enough to take the heat off of Franchione.
Texas TechHead coach Mike Leach's Texas Tech Red Raiders aren't the only team in college football to run the spread attack, but no one does it better. Leach, who is beginning his seventh year at Texas Tech, has improved the Red Raiders passing offense from 175 yards per game in 1999, the year before he arrived, to 385 yards per game in 2005. Now, Leach is searching for more balance; not balance between the pass and the run but balance between the offense and the defense. Last year's Red Raider defense ranked No. 30 in the nation in total defense and that improvement can only mean great things.
On offense, the big story is that for the first time since 2001, there won't be a redshirt senior running the show. Sophomore Graham Harrell got the starting nod over freshman Chris Todd but Leach acknowledged that it was very close. Harrell will benefit from having Tech's top four receivers back. Danny Amendola, Jarrett Hicks, Robert Johnson and Joel Filani return 231 catches and 3,200 yards. The loss of running back Taurean Henderson's 67 catches is less of a concern than his ability to pick up the blitz and protect the quarterback. Leach says that his replacement will be whoever emerges as the best blocker. The offensive line returns four starters so Harrell should be well-protected. The offense may struggle to put up the kind of numbers that it did in 2005, 496 yards per game and a No.6 total offense ranking.
The Red Raiders lost six starters on defense but will return three starters from 2004 that did not play last year because of injuries. Linebackers Fletcher Session and Keyunta Dawson are the best defensive players returning from last year's squad. With the return from injuries of Brock Stratton, Setch Nitschmann and defensive tackle Dek Bake, this could well be the best and most experienced Red Raider defense to date. If they can improve upon last year's impressive performance, then this could be a very special year for Texas Tech.
For the first time in Mike Leach's tenure, the major question marks are on offense, not defense. If the Red Raider offense performs at levels comparable to years past, and the defense continues to improve, this could be the year the Tech breaks through. With Texas and Oklahoma also in the Big 12 South, winning the division could be a tall task. I do believe that some day it will happen but I just don't think it's this year.