On the evening of Sep. 4, 2016, Texas Longhorns gadget quarterback Tyrone Swoopes dove head-first into the burnt orange end zone at Darrell K Royal Stadium in Austin, Texas for a third and final time. With outstretched arms, he manage to extend the football past the white of the paydirt and simultaneously lift Texas to a 50-47 double-overtime victory. As teammates embraced him with a celebratory dogpile a few yards away from his landing spot, ESPN’s Joe Tessitore bellowed into the mic four words that have proven every bit as infamous as they are elusive.
“Texas is back, folks!” Tessitore shouted, punctuating a season-opening victory over No. 10 Notre Dame.
Few people would have predicted at the time that Swoopes and his end-game heroics would signal not the beginning of a new era, but rather the end of a current one. On that particular night, Texas was, indeed, back. They were the toast of college football. But as fast as its rise to relevance was, its stay was equally fleeting. What appeared to be a corner turned for third-year coach Charlie Strong ended as a second consecutive 5-7 season. Eighty-three days later, he was out of a job. The only back Texas was, it turned out, was back in the market for a head coach.
Tom Herman, Strong’s successor, could be on the cusp of a similar breakout Strong briefly enjoyed as he enters his third season coaching in Austin. After a tumultuous 7-6 season in his inaugural season, Herman and his Horns strung together an impressive 10-win season last year that culminated with a Big 12 title game appearance and a Sugar Bowl victory. Expectations at Texas are high. Texas, some might even say, could be back. And here’s why:
1. An elite defense
Big 12 football is antonymous with restricting defenses. Most teams in the league run a spread, uptempo offensive system that generates points, creates Saturday shootouts, and pressures defenses so consistently they amount to nothing but a muleta for the end zone of the opposing team’s offense. Points are scored as frequently as Tom Herman smacks his gum on the sidelines. But as nearly every program in the conference adapts to that reality, Texas has managed to stay stingy on defense.
Last season, Texas ranked second nationally in fourth-down conversion percentage allowed, 18th in third-down conversions, and third in the league in yards per play while holding teams to 25.9 points per game, a mark that was well ahead of Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, West Virginia, Texas Tech, Baylor and Kansas, and just behind Iowa State, TCU and Kansas State. They should be even better this year under Todd Orlando, who is quite clearly the best defensive mind in the conference.
And perhaps best of all for UT: the anchor of the defense — Caden Sterns — is back. After starring as a freshman safety last season, Sterns, the reigning winner of the Defensive Freshman of the Year, could be be an All-Big 12 caliber enforcer on the back line. Sterns and fellow safety Brandon Jones are the most dynamic and talented 1-2 safety duo in the Big 12 … by a pretty substantial margin. Even with eight starters gone from last year’s defensive unit, Orlando and Herman have recruited so consistently well that the Longhorns will simply reload at every position.
2. Sam Ehlinger is going to be a Heisman contender
Earlier this summer, at an event at his alma mater Louisiana Tech, Hall of Fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw offered up this controversial take on Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger.
“He ain’t that good.”
Ain’t that good! That’s like giving Torchy’s Tacos a two-star review. (For the record: we all know Torchy’s is a five-star.) Ehlinger had a 19:2 touchdown-to-interception ratio from a clean pocket last year which was among the country’s best, and his 113.5 passer rating from a clean pocket, according to Pro Football Focus, leads all returning Big 12 quarterbacks. Even in a league that features Jalen Hurts, Brock Purdy, Charlie Brewer and Alan Bowman, Ehlinger is the clear-cut best signal-caller in line to make a push for the Heisman Trophy. The damage he can do not just with his arm (he’s the top returning QB in total passing yards) but also with his legs (he’s the top returning QB in total rushing yards) unlocks opportunities for himself and for Texas.
3. OU’s retooling
This is perhaps Texas’ biggest benefit. Since the College Football Playoff’s inception, only one Big 12 program — Oklahoma — has busted down the Final Four door. Not TCU. Not Baylor. Not even Texas. And this year, after losing its second consecutive Heisman Trophy winner, OU appears to actually be retooling.
Jalen Hurts is at QB, and the Alabama transfer should be good and serviceable. Heisman-good, though? Probably not. The playing field on which OU has held a gigantic advantage, at quarterback, has been leveled.
Another question mark for OU is the defense, which was abysmal last year. Under first year coach Alex Grinch, optimism seems to be flowing out of Norman. But until he proves as good a hire as many have suggested it was for Lincoln Riley, it’s still a spot that can’t be counted as a strength. At least not yet. And until OU figures out its identity, which for years has centered around elite quarterback play, Texas should have the upper hand on its rival not only with a defense-first identity, but with the best quarterback in the league running the show. If OU’s history of college football playoff appearances should teach us one thing, it’s that warts on a team can be hidden by an elite quarterback. In the case of Texas, it’s the biggest reason to buy preseason stock in them finally crashing the playoff, finally announcing to the world that they are, in fact, back.