From Phil Steele ranking the Longhorns as a top-five team to oddsmakers selecting Texas as the favorite in 11 of its 12 games so far, gambling types seem to love the 2013 Longhorn squad. Why is that? We'll take a look at several factors that they're likely considering.
1) The Longhorns return a bunch
Texas lost just two starters off its offense after the 2012 season, the Longhorns' No. 3 receiver in Marquise Goodwin and their starting tight end in D.J. Grant, who wasn't hugely productive. Defensively, the losses were more significant, with Texas losing first-round draft pick Kenny Vaccaro at safety and star pass-rusher Alex Okafor at defensive end. But in both cases, the Longhorns return a bunch of key depth that should offset those losses. And even without factoring that in, the 'Horns bring back 18-of-22 starters, enough for even the Average Joe to assume that they return a boatload from the previous season's team. Additionally, Phil Steele looks quite a bit at talent, as defined by players who were highly rated as recruits coming out of high school. And while Steele doesn't use FOXSportsNext's rankings as his be-all, end-all on that front, it's worth noting that the Longhorns put together top-three recruiting classes each season from 2010-2012. Many of those players are now in the starting lineup or in key rotational spots.
2) Texas brings back its quarterback
Bringing back a quarterback is always a huge condition of a high ranking … even if a team has an elite prospect at the position, quarterback is a spot that is listed as a big question mark without a returning starter. Not only does Texas return its starter in David Ash — and a top-25 player in passing efficiency to boot — but the Longhorn head signal caller is the most experienced quarterback in the Big 12. No other conference starter can match his 18 career starts, and only two other quarterbacks — TCU's Casey Pachall and Kansas's Jake Heaps — have double digit starts, with both of those players starting the bulk of those games in other conferences. Additionally, Heaps sat out all of last year while transferring, while Pachall missed most of last season as well. So not only is quarterback not a question mark for the Longhorns, but it's a question mark for most of Texas's 2013 conference opponents.
3) Oh, and the offensive line
Another factor that gamblers look at is offensive line starts, as starts are used as a gauge of offensive line cohesion. Anything over 80 is great, and if a team is over 100, said team is among the most experienced offensive lines in the country for that specific year. That said, Texas brings back a whopping 124 offensive line starts for the 2013 season. Here's how they break down: Mason Walters (38), Trey Hopkins (29), Dominic Espinosa (26), Josh Cochran (20) and Donald Hawkins (11). The interesting thing is that most expect JUCO transfer Desmond Harrison to fit in somewhere. If he wins a starting job, he would replace one of the above players' double-digit starts with his zero college starts.
4) Finished the year on a high note
Most coaches I talk to see bowl games as almost a season unto themselves. There's so much of a break between the season and the bowl that it's not really a great indicator of how good a team is, and the added time to prepare takes away or levels out the preparation advantage that can be gained by a great head coach during the season. Having said all that, bowl games are extremely important because they affect a team's morale through the offseason. They're also important because 1) they're typically played against a decent team and 2) gives oddsmakers one last juicy look at that season's team. Play well and win, as Texas did in the second half against Oregon State, and people are more likely to forget the fact that the Longhorns lost each of their last two regular season games.
5) And finally, there's the Big 12
Would the Longhorns be a top-five team if they were in the SEC? Probably not. But because Texas is in the Big 12, which has a perceived lack of talent at the top (read: no real national championship contenders), there's a vacancy that the Longhorns can easily hop into atop the league. Texas was third in the Big 12 a year ago despite fielding the worst defense — by some metrics — in school history. It isn't likely that the Longhorns will experience that kind of effort again this year. With all of the above factors, early odds installed Texas as favorites in 11 of its 12 games, with the Oklahoma game starting as a "pick 'em." Does that mean the Longhorns will run through the season unscathed? Of course not. But it's hard to find a more favorable situation than to be favored to win all but one game.