October 10, 2013

What happened to Texas Longhorns football?

A series of unfortunate events has turned the perennial national power into a Big 12 also-ran

Back in the glory days, when Texas’ football team last prepared to play for a national championship, the Longhorns were led by a senior quarterback named McCoy. They faced an undefeated, crimson-clad opponent to determine which team took home the BCS crystal football given to the nation’s top team at the conclusion of the 2009 season.

Heading into Saturday’s game against No. 12 Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl, the Longhorns are once again led by a senior quarterback named McCoy. They face another undefeated, crimson-clad opponent. But the stakes are much different.

This is Case McCoy, not NFL-bound brother Colt, who will be taking snaps in the Cotton Bowl. And these Longhorns (3-2, 2-0 Big 12) enter with a 25-19 record in their past 44 games under coach Mack Brown, whose job could be in jeopardy if Texas cannot defeat Oklahoma (5-0, 2-0) and energize what appears to be a fourth consecutive disappointing season.

How did the Longhorns go from facing Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game on Jan. 7, 2010, to becoming a multiseason also-ran in the Big 12 standings in less than four full years? Here are 12 reasons the Longhorns are in their predicament:

1 Quarterback woes: After sending three starting quarterbacks to the NFL (Chris Simms, Vince Young, Colt McCoy) during a nine-year stretch marked by double-digit victory totals every season (2001-09), the Longhorns have not gotten consistent play at the position since Colt McCoy was injured in the first quarter of the BCS title game against Alabama. Texas’ offense has been erratic and turnover-prone under Garrett Gilbert (2010-2011), who transferred to SMU for the 2012 season, and signal-callers David Ash and Case McCoy.

2 Offensive line drop-off: Despite landing multiple blue-chip recruits in the offensive trenches, the Longhorns’ last offensive linemen selected in the NFL Draft was OG Justin Blalock, a second-round pick by the Atlanta Falcons in 2007. That says a lot about player development at one of the most pivotal positions in college football.

3 Curious offensive tweak: After rising to prominence on the strength of a spread offense led by Vince Young (2003-05) and Colt McCoy (2006-09), Brown announced plans to place more emphasis on a power running game in 2010 to minimize pressure on new starting quarterback Garrett Gilbert. The timing was curious because Gilbert, the nation’s top-rated quarterback prospect in high school, had run a spread offense at Austin Lake Travis and had worked exclusively from the shotgun formation until arriving at Texas. The Longhorns also were rebuilding in the offensive line and the top returning rusher, Tré Newton, gained only 552 yards in 2009 behind a veteran unit.

Texas struggled with its new approach during a 2010 season marked by a 5-7 record, a Big 12-high 30 turnovers and the school’s lowest season scoring average (23.8) since 1991. Texas’ turnover ratio (minus-12) ranked No. 116 nationally among FBS schools. After the season, Brown said the losing record “goes back on coaches” and shuffled much of his staff, bringing in fresh play-callers on offense (Bryan Harsin) and defense (Manny Diaz). The Longhorns returned to more of an up-tempo spread offense this season.

4 Brown’s mea culpa: After completing the overhaul of his coaching staff in January 2011, Brown offered this bit of insight about the team’s dismal 2010 season: The Longhorns suffered a mental “hangover” after their loss to Alabama that decided the 2009 national title, and Brown identified himself as part of the problem.

“I do feel like I had a hangover after the national championship game. I don’t think I did a good job coming back out of it,” Brown said. “I didn’t realize it. I was pouting.”

Although Brown followed up by declaring himself “back in the game, full speed ahead” for the 2011 season, the admission about the lapse in focus did not endear him to Texas loyalists. It also helped recruiting rivals raise questions in prospects’ minds about the mental toughness within the Texas program.

5 Gilbert factor: Brown is criticized for failing to sign either of the past two Heisman Trophy winners, a pair of quarterbacks from Texas high schools who became stars at Baylor (Robert Griffin III) and Texas A&M (Johnny Manziel). But he did sign Garrett Gilbert, the 2008 Parade magazine National Player of the Year. It is accurate to say Gilbert’s high-school credentials (12,540 passing yards) and early pledge to the Longhorns limited interest from other elite signal-callers in the 2008, 2009 and 2010 classes because Gilbert roundly was viewed as Texas’ next star quarterback once Colt McCoy graduated.

When Gilbert struggled, Texas had no other heralded quarterback on the roster to plug in as a replacement. Texas’ recruiting efforts at the position in 2011 (Manziel’s class; David Ash’s class), 2012 and 2013 have yet to yield anything more than modest returns.

6 Muschamp factor: Brown, a stellar recruiter who prefers to uplift players, lost a key balancing element in the locker room when defensive coordinator Will Muschamp took the head coaching job at Florida after the 2010 season. Muschamp, a demanding disciplinarian tutored by Alabama coach Nick Saban, gave the Longhorns a hard-edged, physical mindset that is missing today. As the individual who once held the title of Texas’ coach-in-waiting, Muschamp’s departure also raised questions about the program’s direction once Brown’s record began slipping.

7 Horrible home losses: After winning 16 consecutive home games, Texas fell to UCLA 34-12 as a 15-point favorite in Austin on Sept. 25, 2010. In the team’s next home game, Texas dropped a 28-21 decision to Iowa State, which entered as a 20-point underdog. The Longhorns eventually lost four consecutive home games in 2010, showing a vulnerability in Austin that continues to plague the team. Texas dropped two home games in 2011 and 2012 and fell to Ole Miss 44-23 at home earlier this season.

8 Defensive drop-off: Texas has struggled in recent seasons to stop the run, particularly against teams with mobile quarterbacks. The Longhorns allowed a school-record 550 rushing yards in a Sept. 7 loss to Brigham Young, triggering the dismissal of defensive coordinator Manny Diaz. In last week’s 31-30 victory over Iowa State, the Longhorns were outrushed by a 201-119 margin.

9 Lack of player development: Few gauges are more meaningless, when judged over time, than the annual ranking of recruiting classes on national signing day. Texas, under Brown, shines every February in the estimation of recruiting analysts. But teams that win championships develop the players who arrive on campus.

That is where Texas has lagged behind Big 12 peers in recent years, based on an annual Star-Telegram study in which production points are assigned to each recruiting class at the end of that class’ five-year eligibility window. Points are awarded based on signees’ career honors as college players. The higher the point value, the better the recruiting class.

Using that scale over the past three seasons, Texas’ classes — comprising signees who completed their eligibility in 2010, 2011 and 2012 — received 19 production points in that three-year cycle. That ranked fourth among teams in the former Big 12 South Division, behind the three-year point totals for Oklahoma (62), Oklahoma State (50) and Texas Tech (21). Only Baylor (17) and Texas A&M (14) had fewer production points than Texas from its classes signed in 2006, 2007 and 2008.

10 Recruiting busts: Texas has had its share of recruiting misses in recent seasons, at multiple positions. But that is true at every school. What stands out in Austin is the inability to land a consistent quarterback who has shown big-game moxie in any of the past three signing classes.

11 Locker room leaders: Texas’ best teams under Brown were prodded by peer pressure, with multiple players willing to call out teammates behind closed doors or in huddles if they believed effort was lacking. The list of take-charge types has included QB Vince Young, QB Colt McCoy, DE Brian Orakpo, DT Roy Miller, DE/OLB Sergio Kindle and OL Kasey Studdard. Texas seems to be short on fiery leaders in this year’s locker room, an issue that dates to the 2010 squad.

12 No big-game magic: The Longhorns, who posted a 20-3 mark against ranked opponents from 2004-2009, have gone 3-13 in their last 16 encounters against opponents ranked in The Associated Press’ Top 25 poll. Texas is 0-1 against ranked opponents this season, a 44-23 loss to No. 25 Ole Miss on Sept. 14.

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