Ever since the Longhorns went 5-7 in 2010, the team has been faced by a repeated question: when will Texas be TEXAS again?
And with a roster that includes 19 returning starters, even more key depth and some preseason top-10 mention — Phil Steele picked the Longhorns No. 4, while FootballOutsiders.com, a site that prepares its rankings based on advanced statistics, ranked Texas No. 8 — it appears that the Longhorns have a chance to get back to the same level they were at from 1999-2009, when Texas won at least 10 games each season.
But in order to do so, Longhorn coach Mack Brown said it's time for Texas to put its money where its mouth is.
"Now we've gotta shut up and do it," Brown said in his preseason press conference Sunday. "I can sit here and say all I want and I've heard it: We have improved. Anybody that knows anything about football would say we've got a better chance going into this season than we did two years ago. Or last year. And if nothing more for the fact that we have two older quarterbacks that have played a lot and been in the fire ... an older team. So those things help you as much as anything."
In fact, Texas returns a full-time starter at the quarterback position for the first time since Colt McCoy came back for his senior year in 2009. The Longhorns suffered through offensive struggles with Garrett Gilbert in that ill-fated 2010 season, then started Gilbert, Case McCoy and David Ash at times in 2010. Last season, the job was Ash's, and he started every game other than the Kansas State contest, which he missed with injury. And his return should be a huge key in 2013.
"You've got to be settled at quarterback to be good, in my estimation," Brown said. "So everything is better right now than it was at that point. And I'm expecting our defense to step back up and answer the challenge this year. So we did feel like that we played a lot of young guys that would take some hits early. So when they got older we would be better and they are older.
"So that's why I'm more confident this team will be the best one we've had in the last two years or three years, and we've improved each year and we tried to win every game of those each year," Brown said. "But we also knew that we were going to take some hits by playing young guys, and now we've got an older team. It should be fun to watch them play."
Brown's point about an experienced defense is well-taken. In 2011, the Longhorns finished ninth nationally in Defensive S&P+, an advanced metric that accounts for play-by-play success, play explosiveness, drive efficiency and one that is filtered through a team's competition. On that team, the Longhorns were highly experienced up the middle, Brown said, with senior defensive tackle Kheeston Randall, senior linebackers Keenan Robinson and Emmanuel Acho and senior safety Blake Gideon.
Last season, the Texas offense improved massively, jumping from 84th in the nation in S&P+ to 24th, but the defense, missing the four seniors listed above, along with experienced players like Jordan Hicks and Jackson Jeffcoat for more than half the season, dropped from ninth to 32nd.*
* In Texas's woeful 2010 season, the Longhorns were 88th in Offensive S&P+ and 32nd in Defensive S&P+. For contrast, the season before, when the Longhorns went to the BCS National Championship game, the Longhorns were 34th offensively and second defensively.
In a way, 2013 was always going to be a goal year. The Longhorns recruited at an incredibly high level from 2010-2012, and those 2010 players are now redshirt juniors and seniors, with the 2011 crop as juniors and redshirt sophomores. And that experience is somewhat balanced across the roster.
After Brown replaced most of his staff before the 2011 season, the offense had to fight through inexperience in year one while a more experienced defense carried the show. In 2012, the offense had more experience, and was the better unit. In 2013, the stars have apparently aligned, with both units bringing back a number of starters and key contributors on both sides of the ball, who now have multiple years working under their coaches and who know what to expect.
"We felt we had a chance to win all the games last year," Brown said. "As you sit and look at it, it sounds like we just said, let's not be good for two years to plan on the third one. That's not the case at all. We tried to win. We tried to win the 5-7 year right after the national championship game, who would have thought of that?
"But it is what it is," Brown said. "And you can see when things have happened over the last two years it makes you want to step up and fix the problems you have had. And we think we have more of an ability to fix them now than we did the last three years."
Can Texas fix those problems and sync up a top-25 offense and defense? The feeling inside the program is absolutely, and from defensive coordinator Manny Diaz's statement after the spring game that the goal was to win the Big 12 title to Brown's press conference on Sunday, the Longhorns aren't hiding from expectations.
"I just feel like the attitude of the entire team is that we get this thing now, and we're older," Brown said. "You've gotta have discipline from within. And it seems like they've done that this summer. They've got a very accountable summer."