Five Reasons Why Texas is Better This Year

Last year at this time, Texas was 4-2 and coming off a big win at Nebraska before it all fell apart. Texas wound up going 1-5 the rest of the way, with the lone victory coming against Florida Atlantic. This year, the Longhorns are 4-2 yet again, but here are five reasons to think they might be a better team.

1) The running game. Take out yardage lost to sacks, and the Longhorns are averaging 208.2 rushing yards per game and 4.8 yards per carry. That's more that 45 yards per game better than a year ago, and at a higher per-rush clip. There are a number of reasons for the change. First, the Longhorns aren't as banged up at running back. Second, they have more options. Third, the offensive line has opened more holes. And fourth, offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin has done a great job of getting the ball to players in positions to do something with it. Last year, only one player with 10 or more carries — D.J. Monroe — averaged more than 4.5 yards per carry. This year, that list includes every tailback, including Monroe (7.9), Fozzy Whittaker (5.1), Malcolm Brown (5.0) and Joe Bergeron (4.8). The only running back with 10 or more carries who hasn't hit that clip is Cody Johnson, who comes in for short-yardage situations.

2) Turnovers. Last year, the Longhorns were one of the worst teams in the country in turnover margin. So far this year they're even, committing 13 turnovers in six games and collecting 13. But that's a bit skewed by the Longhorns' poor effort against Oklahoma, where they were minus-4 in turnovers after committing five (three fumbles, two interceptions) and collecting one. Take out that contest, and the Longhorns are committing 1.6 turnovers per game, while collecting 2.4. That might not sound like much, but compared to last year's result, when Texas committed 2.5 turnovers per game and collected 1.5, it represents a pretty huge swing.

3) The secondary. At first glance, the Longhorns would seem to be worse against the pass. After all, last year's team allowed just 161.6 yards per game, to 216.3 yards this year. But more important numbers favor this year's Longhorns. They're allowing just 5.5 yards per passing attempt, down almost a full yard from last year. They're allowing a lower completion percentage (54.6 to 56.7) and have a better touchdown-to-interception ratio (it's even, at 6-6) than they did last year (13-8). Teams threw the ball less against last year's Longhorns, but less efficiently against this year's bunch. And with a pass rush that has struggled to hit home, much of that has to be credited to the secondary.

4) More playmakers offensively. This one is strictly on the eyeball test. Last year's wide receivers struggled to get open, and the running backs were a revolving door of injuries. This year, the Longhorns appear to be able to count on both Mike Davis and Jaxon Shipley in the former group, while Brown, Whittaker and Monroe have added an element of stability to the latter. The Longhorns are still looking for THE GUY at quarterback, but whoever wins the job will have more (and better) weapons than were available to last year's quarterback, Garrett Gilbert.

5) Better up the middle defensively. Coaches love to talk about run fits. It's a way to be totally vague about a play's failure without admitting that your team was simply bulled off the ball. And while then-Texas defensive coordinator Will Muschamp often cited run fits as part of last year's issues, part of the problem was just that the Longhorns were too easily creased, with the Longhorns' middle players often caught up in the wash. But having a heavier Keenan Robinson has helped in that regard this year. Part of the reason his tackles are gone are that he's clogged up his gap, forcing running backs into other ones. Kheeston Randall has also done an excellent job. Football, like baseball, requires a team to be strong up the middle to be strong defensively. And with the exception of three long run plays the past two games (all of which were obvious assignment busts), the Longhorns have been able to hold up in the middle.

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