Josh Cooper gives a look at the Longhorns heading into 2011 for ESPN Insider and asks the question: Can Texas regain its spot among the nation's elite?
Improvement in a few key areas could help the Longhorns re-scale the Big 12 mountain in the near future.
The first? Passing efficiency.
[Offensive coordinator Bryan] Harsin's choice at quarterback, and his ability to mold the passing game will be an important first step for the Longhorns. Last season, Texas finished 58th in total offense and 103rd in passing efficiency. As described in last season's Eliminator series, total yardage gained doesn't correlate strongly with success in college football -- but passing efficiency does. And while, clearly, there were many differences between Texas' 2009 team that appeared in the national title game and last season's squad with a losing record, it's not insignificant that in 2009 the Horns had the conference's leader in QB rating (Colt McCoy) and in 2010 their starting quarterback finished 11th.
That's easier said than done. The quarterback race between Garrett Gilbert, Case McCoy and Connor Wood was far from resolved this spring, and the coaching staff hasn't tipped their hands on any leanings heading into fall camp.
But the point is absolutely correct. A good quarterback is more important in the Big 12 than in any other conference. If Texas doesn't get better at the position, regardless of who does it and how it happens, any other improvements will slide plenty possible wins into the loss column.
The next: Turnover margin, a stat Mack Brown repeated over and over again this spring and emphasized in spring practices.
Last season, Texas finished 116th in the country. (Want evidence of the importance of this stat? Among top-10 finishers in the category last season, six appeared in BCS bowl games.)
"We started every (spring) practice with ball security drills for everyone, offense and defense," Brown said. "We wanted the defensive guys to understand just as well as the offensive guys that when you get the ball, protect it. Then we tried to emphasize forcing turnovers in everything we did."
Agreed, here. Granted, the lack of a potent offense influenced this number, too. You can't blame the stat on bad fumble bounces. If Texas is racking up points, that obviously applies pressure on opposing offenses and quarterbacks, opening them up to mistakes.
Again, like I've said all offseason, you can trace the majority of Texas' problems back to the quarterback spot, even if Gilbert didn't get much help from his running backs, receivers and, most importantly, his offensive line last season.
Finally, the Longhorns need help in defensive efficiency.
The fact that the Longhorns' D was far better than what you would usually expect from a 5-7 team (Football Outsiders' advanced defensive efficiency metric ranked them the No. 31 defense) further demonstrates how much of an improvement the Horns will need out of the offense and, in particular, the quarterback position. Even when factoring in last season's disappointing campaign, the Longhorns rank in the top 20 of Football Outsiders' five-year adjusted power ratings, which are a strong indicator of next-year success.
In other words, the talent level is there for this to be an elite team in 2011. Now if they could just get that QB situation sorted out ...
No kidding. For the Longhorns, it's possible that a 2011 revival might be just that simple.