Not since the 1998 season has a Texas Longhorn team come into a season with more question marks or doubt about what kind of team they could be. In 1998 new head coach Mack Brown took over a team that went 4-7 the year before with embarrassing losses to UCLA (66-3) at home, at Oklahoma State 42-16, at Baylor 23-21, and at Texas A&M 27-16. In Brown's first season, the team rebounded right away with a 9-3 record, a #15 final ranking, and wins over Mississippi State in the Cotton Bowl, at #7 Nebraska, and #6 Texas A&M.
So once again Texas is coming off a non-bowl season and while not changing head coaches, major changes were made with new offensive and defensive coordinators. What's the difference between 1998 and 2011? The 1998 team had Major Applewhite and Ricky Williams; who are the Longhorn leaders at those positions this year? In 1998 Ricky Williams rushed for 2,124 yards and 27 touchdowns; do they have any running back on the roster that's capable of rushing for even half of those totals? Likewise, is Garrett Gilbert capable of playing to the level of even a young Applewhite?
At running back I believe the answer lies in true freshman and 5-star recruit Malcolm Brown. Mack has a tendency to play the upper-classmen (Malcolm currently sits 3rd on the depth chart) despite talent or results so it remains to be seen how many carries the freshman Brown will get. Same storyline at quarterback; coming off a 10 TD/17 INT year does Gilbert (a junior) deserve to start over freshman Case McCoy who clearly outplayed him in the spring game? New offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin is certainly a more creative play-caller than his predecessor which could help Gilbert, but will it be enough to at least take Texas' offense from 58th overall to top 25-30? If they also cut down on their high number of turnovers, it could be. However, even if Gilbert plays better, I believe he showed last year that he's not capable of being a high-end quarterback. Colt McCoy threw for 29 touchdowns as a freshman; even in a bad situation, he should have shown us flashes of the talent he was recruited for.
I believe this team is in transition, and while it may hurt at first, it's better to rip off the band-aid and get it over with. Mack needs to get over his fear of freshman and start Case McCoy and Malcolm Brown. The schedule is fairly easy this year; even if the young guys go through growing pains, the team should still win more games than last year and make a bowl game. As a die-hard Longhorn fan I'd be willing to suffer one more "down" season of 7-5 to give the young guys playing time and the chance to turn into a team of the caliber Texas fans are used to watching each Saturday.
My official prediction: 8-4 (4th place)
Just for a second, let's relive the magic of 2005.
Offensive Coordinator - Bryan Harsin from Boise State
Defensive Coordinator - Manny Diaz from Mississippi State
Starting Receivers - Jaxon Shipley/John Harris In; Malcolm Williams/James Kirkendoll Out
Starting Center - Dominic Espinosa
Running Backs - Fozzy Whittaker at halfback, Cody Johnson moves to fullback
Cornerbacks - Sophomores Carrington Byndom & Adrian Phillips start
What's the Same:
Head Coach - Mack Brown
Defensive Backs/Asst. Coach - Duane Akina
Quarterback - Garrett Gilbert
Top Receiver - Mike Davis
Offensive Line - Returns 4 starters
Defensive Line - Returns 3 starters
Linebackers - Returns 3 starters
Strong Safety - Blake Gideon (Senior)