The time has almost arrived to see how much the Longhorns have improved in year two of the Charlie Strong era.
But the first test of the season has the chance of being one of the more difficult challenges on the schedule.
As of Thursday, Texas remains a 9-point underdog against No. 11 Notre Dame, and the Longhorns are not getting much benefit of the doubt that they can upset the Irish in South Bend. Not a single Sports Illustrated College Football writer picked Texas to upset Notre Dame, and that sentiment is pretty standard among the national media.
There is a lot of uncertainty surrounding the Longhorns two-deep, primarily because of the lack of experienced players in key positions. Meanwhile, Notre Dame returns 15 players that started in more than half of the games in 2014.
How will the Longhorns match up with the experienced Fighting Irish in South Bend, Ind. Saturday night? Here's a position-by-position breakdown of Texas vs. Notre Dame.
(Notre Dame analysis provided by Jake Brown of Irish Illustrated; Texas analysis provided by Taylor Gaspar of Horns Digest.)
*** TEXAS OFFENSIVE LINE vs. NOTRE DAME DEFENSIVE LINE * * *
|LT: Connor Williams, Marcus Hutchins||DE: Romeo Okwara, Andrew Trumbetti|
|LG: Sedrick Flowers, Elijah Rodriguez||DT: Sheldon Day, Jay Hayes|
|C: Taylor Doyle, Jake Raulerson||DT: Daniel Cage, Jerry Tillery|
|RG: Patrick Vahe, Brandon Hodges||DE: Isaac Rochell, Jonathan Bonner|
|RT: Kent Perkins, Tristan Nickelson|
Patrick Vahe and Connor Williams were both impressive athletes at the high school level. However, how effective they can be at Texas is yet to be seen. Sedrick Flowers, Taylor Doyle and Kent Perkins combine for a decent amount of experience, but will it be enough to erase the unknown of Vahe and Williams? That answer remains a mystery and makes this position a big question mark heading into South Bend.
There's some solid top end talent in Sheldon Day and Isaac Rochell. But from there it gets murky. Jarron Jones is out for the season with a knee injury. Notre Dame needs something out of guys like Romeo Okwara and Andrew Trumbetti in terms of pass rush. Freshman Jerry Tillery is a wild card. He's earned rave reviews in camp before Daniel Cage pushed into a starter's role on the inside. There are probably more unknowns at this group than any other on the roster.
Starting two true freshmen offensive linemen does not necessarily sound like a recipe for success, but that’s what the Longhorns plan to do against the Irish. Even if Notre Dame’s d-line is one of the biggest concerns, it’s nearly impossible to give Texas the edge without seeing how the true freshmen can perform on the big stage.
**EDGE: NOTRE DAME**
*** TEXAS RUNNING BACKS vs. NOTRE DAME LINEBACKERS * * *
|RB: Johnathan Gray, D'Onta Foreman||LB: Joe Schmidt, Nyles Morgan OR Jarrett Grace|
|HB: Alex De La Torre, Logan Mills||LB: Jaylon Smith, Te'von Coney|
|LB: James Onwualu, Greer Martini|
Some may think Johnathan Gray has yet to play up to his five-star, Gatorade Player of the Year hype, but he has also been splitting reps since his freshman year. He will finally have the chance to be THE guy this season and it begins in South Bend.
One of the deeper positions on the roster. Jaylon Smith is an elite college player and likely first round draft pick. Joe Schmidt will orchestrate the entire operation from the middle. That doesn't even get to talented sophomore Nyles Morgan, veteran reserve Jarrett Grace and the steady James Onwualu. Throw in Greer Martini, pressed into action last season as a freshman, and you have a lot of reliable players.
A lot of the success of the run game will be determined by the success of the offensive line, so as of right now, it’s difficult to expect the running backs to be extremely effective against Notre Dame’s linebackers.
**EDGE: NOTRE DAME**
*** TEXAS RECEIVERS vs. NOTRE DAME SECONDARY * * *
|H: Marcus Johnson, Daje Johnson OR Ryan Newsome||CB: KeiVarae Russell, Devin Butler|
|Z: John Burt, Dorian Leonard||S: Max Redfield, Matthias Farley|
|X: Armanti Foreman, Jacorey Warrick||S: Elijah Shumate, Drue Tranquill|
|CB: Cole Luke, Nick Coleman|
The Longhorns have a speedy, talented group of wide receivers that have the chance to be difference makers on the field. Marcus Johnson, Armanti Foreman and Daje Johnson lead the group in experience, and true freshman John Burt made a name for himself in fall camp, which helped him secure a starting spot. Overall the receiving core has a lot of potential heading into South Bend.
KeiVarae Russell is back after last year's suspension and makes a great tandem with Cole Luke. Matthias Farley is another reliable veteran. The biggest question marks are at safety. Can Elijah Shumate put it all together? Is this the year Max Redfield steps into his five-star billing? Both have been wildly inconsistent in their careers. Another question: How does losing freshman Shaun Crawford, who was working toward a nickel back slot, for the season impact everything else?
This is a tricky battle. Notre Dame has talented corners but a lot of questions at safety. Texas has a lot of speed and potential talent, but a lot of the success will be determined on the quarterback play. If Swoopes and/or Heard do their jobs, the receivers should have an edge over Notre Dame’s secondary.
*** TEXAS QUARTERBACKS vs. NOTRE DAME QUARTERBACKS * * *
|QB: Tyrone Swoopes, Jerrod Heard||QB: Malik Zaire, DeShone Kizer|
Tyrone Swoopes secured the starting role after fall camp, but Jerrod Heard is still expected to see the field in South Bend. Although the coaches have commended Swoopes for making strides throughout the offseason, it is difficult to erase the memory he left on the field towards the end of the 2014 season. Meanwhile, Heard did not do enough during the offseason to secure the No. 1 position. How will the new offense impact the QBs performance? Will Swoopes be able to bounce back from adversity? Will Heard be a different player when he's under the lights? There are a lot of questions but not a lot of answers at this point of the season.
Malik Zaire is finally the man after Everett Golson chose to finish his career at Florida State. Zaire played well against LSU in last year's bowl game when the Irish relied on the run more heavily. I'm most interested to see how Zaire holds up when a team forces him to win a game with his arm. **ANALYSIS:** Zaire may not have a lot of starting experience, but he did show up and lead his team to victory in he Music City Bowl against LSU. His bowl performance - where he rushed for 96 yards and a TD and completed 80 percent of his passes for 108 yards and a score - gives him a slight edge over the Swoopes-Heard tandem.
**EDGE: NOTRE DAME**
*** TEXAS DEFENSIVE LINE vs. NOTRE DAME OFFENSIVE LINE * * *
|DE: Shiro Davis, Bryce Cottrell||LT: Ronnie Stanley, Hunter Bivin|
|DT: Desmond Jackson, Paul Boyette Jr.||LG: Quenton Nelson, Alex Bars|
|DT: Poona Ford, Hassan Ridgeway||C: Nick Martin, Sam Mustipher|
|DE: Naashon Hughes, Derick Roberson||RG: Steve Elmer, Colin McGovern|
|RT: Mike McGlinchey, Mark Harrell|
The Longhorns defensive line has a chance of being pretty salty this season. The return of Desmond Jackson only helps the line, while Naashon Hughes has impressed throughout fall camp and could be a major difference maker if he continues his progression throughout the season. Poona Ford will get his first career start in South Bend, so it will be interesting to see how well he can handle the Irish’s OL.
Few programs have recruited offensive line as well as Notre Dame over the last few years. Tackle Ronnie Stanley turned down the NFL to return for another year and could be a top five pick next spring if the fall goes according to plan. Nick Martin is an anchor for the unit at center. It's a very together, well-coached unit that Harry Hiestand has put together.
This could be one of the most even battles Saturday evening. Both units have the chance of being filthy in 2015, but the Irish might have a slight edge over the Longhorns due to the level of veteran, elite talent at the position. It could go either way, but the home field advantage plays into Notre Dame's favor.
**EDGE: NOTRE DAME**
*** TEXAS LINEBACKERS vs. NOTRE DAME RUNNING BACKS * * *
|SLB: Peter Jinkens, Cameron Townsend||RB: Tarean Folston, C.J. Prosise|
|MLB: Malik Jefferson, Timothy Cole|
|WLB: Edwin Freeman, Anthony Wheeler|
Linebacker is one of the biggest question marks for the Texas defense, mainly because Peter Jinkens and Timothy Cole are the only guys on the two-deep to ever play a snap of college football. Malik Jefferson has potential to be a standout player for Texas, but he will likely make rookie mistakes, especially since he is playing at a new position.
Tarean Folston is the featured back after running for 889 yards last season. Former five-star prospect Greg Bryant is gone to junior college while C.J. Prosise will settle into the backfield after playing wide receiver. How deep will Notre Dame go? Freshman Dexter Williams might be worth a look.
This is another position battle that could go either way Saturday night. Tarean Folston is running behind a veteran o-line, but the Irish do not have a lot of experience behind Folston. Meanwhile, two-of-three starters for Texas have never played a down of college football, but Jefferson has all of the potential in the world to become a stud player for the Longhorns. Still, the lack of experience makes it difficult to give Texas the edge over Notre Dame.
**EDGE: NOTRE DAME**
*** TEXAS SECONDARY vs. NOTRE DAME RECEIVERS * * *
|CB: Duke Thomas, Davante Davis||WR: Chris Brown OR Corey Robinson|
|FS: Jason Hall, P.J. Locke||WR: Amir Carlisle OR Torii Hunter Jr.|
|SS: Dylan Haines, Kevin Vaccaro||WR: Will Fuller, Equanimeous St. Brown|
|CB: John Bonney, Antwuan Davis|
|NB: John Bonney OR Duke Thomas, P.J. Locke|
The first-team secondary should be pretty solid against Notre Dame. Duke Thomas, Jason Hall and Dylan Haines know what it is like to play against big opponents, so it will be up to them to help out redshirt freshman starter John Bonney and any young backups when/if they need it.
Will Fuller gets all the headlines after a breakout 2014 season with 76 catches for 1094 yards and 15 touchdowns. Others to remember include veteran Chris Brown and Corey Robinson, a threat in the red zone thanks to his size alone.
The Irish have talent at receiver, but also have a quarterback who has only completed 21 career passes. Texas returns veteran players in the secondary who were effective in the Longhorns' game plan last season. With a lot of the receivers success dependent on Zaire, Texas should have the slight edge over Notre Dame.
*** TEXAS SPECIAL TEAMS vs. NOTRE DAME SPECIAL TEAMS * * *
|K: Nick Rose, Nick Jordan||K: Justin Yoon, John Chereson|
|P: Michael Dickson, Mitchell Becker||P: Tyler Newsome, Jeff Riney|
|PR: Daje Johnson, Duke Thomas||PR: C.J. Sanders, Will Fuller|
|KR: Daje Johnson, Johnathan Gray||KR: Amir Carlisle OR C.J. Sanders OR C.J. Prosise|
Kicker Nick Rose was a viral video sensation over the offseason, posting a back-flip kick and hitting an 80-yard field goal. It was entertaining, but how will he do if he has to hit a 40-yard attempt against Notre Dame? Rose made 67 percent of field goal attempts last season, and that percentage needs to increase to help out the Longhorns offense. Punting will be a question mark as the Longhorns are starting true freshman Michael Davidson. The return game should be pretty solid with Daje Johnson, Duke Thomas and Johnathan Gray in the mix.
This area of the game hasn't been a particular strength for Notre Dame in recent years. Kicker Justin Yoon and punter Tyler Newsome will replace Kyle Brindza, who handled both duties last year. Yoon is a true freshman. C.J. Sanders is someone to remember in the return game. He's just a freshman but made a name for himself in that area as a recruit.
Notre Dame has new starters on special teams, including two freshmen. The Texas kicking game was not entirely consistent last season, but the veteran group of Rose, Johnson, Thomas and Gray could give Texas a slight advantage.