Texas’ Strong appears ready to embrace offensive reality of Big 12

Texas coach Charlie Strong enters Saturday’s regular-season finale against Baylor with a 10-14 record as the Longhorns’ coach.
Texas coach Charlie Strong enters Saturday’s regular-season finale against Baylor with a 10-14 record as the Longhorns’ coach. AP

The curtain is about to drop on a Big 12 football season destined to produce two historic firsts: the league’s first participant in the College Football Playoff (Oklahoma), coupled with the first — and likely last — firing of an Iowa State football coach in the same season his team shut out Texas.

In perhaps the biggest historic upset of all, the Texas coach who absorbed that 24-0 drubbing in Ames, Iowa, (Charlie Strong) will be back in 2016 despite producing back-to-back losing records in his first two seasons in Austin.

The last Texas coach to survive that type of slow start was Dana X. Bible, who posted records of 2-6-1 (1937) and 1-8 (1938) in his first two seasons with the Longhorns before rebounding to win three conference championships and post a 63-31-1 record in 10 seasons at the school.

Whether Strong, who will enter Saturday’s regular-season finale against Baylor with a 10-14 mark as Texas’ coach, can follow Bible’s lead and flip the script in his third season in Austin will be determined next year. For now, Strong appears he will be the next coach to embrace one of many lessons Big 12 fans should have learned this season. Among them:

Offensive overhauls work for defensive gurus. No. 3 Oklahoma (11-1) won this year’s Big 12 title thanks to an energy infusion from first-year offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley that restored the dormant “Big Game Bob” reputation to defensive-minded coach Bob Stoops. In 2014, TCU’s Gary Patterson, another top defensive mind, saw his team improve from 4-8 to 12-1 and Big 12 champs in the Horned Frogs’ first season under co-offensive coordinators Doug Meacham and Sonny Cumbie.

Strong, another noted defensive strategist, must find his offensive catalyst at Texas (4-7, 3-5 Big 12) this off-season after two years of abysmal offensive performances if he plans to finish his five-year contract that runs through the 2018 season. That is why reports have surfaced this week about Strong’s interest in Cumbie, who also oversees the TCU quarterbacks. Expect an offensive overhaul on that side of the ball at Texas in 2016, regardless of whom Strong empowers as his new play-caller.

“Rising Tide” programs here to stay. It took lots of high-profile injuries to key players at No. 11 TCU (10-2, 7-2 Big 12) and No. 12 Baylor (9-2, 6-2) to allow OU (11-1, 8-1) to surpass both and become this year’s Big 12 champion and apparent playoff-invitee-in-waiting. No. 17 Oklahoma State (10-2, 7-2) also factored heavily into this year’s title chase.

What this should say to fans and administrators of blue-blood programs at Oklahoma and Texas is that the rising tide from the middle of the Big 12 pack is not a short-term aberration as many naysayers want to believe. Established coaches at TCU (Gary Patterson), Baylor (Art Briles) and OSU (Mike Gundy) have built solid foundations and recruiting connections over time that helped those teams win or share Big 12 titles in 2011 (OSU), 2013 (Baylor) and 2014 (Baylor, TCU) on top of this year’s near-misses.

None of those three coaches appear likely to leave their schools any time soon, and Texas Tech’s Kliff Kingsbury is making headway toward becoming the fourth member of the “Rising Tide” club. Expect more balanced races, not fewer, in the Big 12’s immediate future.

Nonconference slates need upgrades. Among the Big 12’s four playoff contenders this season, only No. 3 Oklahoma spent time inside the projected four-team bracket in any set of CFP rankings. Worth noting: OU played zero FCS opponents this season, while Baylor (Lamar), TCU (Stephen F. Austin) and Oklahoma State (Central Arkansas) had one each.

Until league teams wean themselves away from such games, Big 12 schools that schedule FCS opponents can expect to need a 12-0 regular-season record to land a CFP playoff berth. The 50/50 calls will continue to go to other 11-1 candidates with better nonconference schedules. That is significant because no Big 12 champ has posted an undefeated record since the league instituted a nine-game, round-robin schedule in 2011. Ever since, the best finish by any Big 12 champion in any season has been 11-1. Teams should schedule accordingly in September.

Honors candidates are one-sided. In a league known for putting up points, it should surprise no one that all five of the Big 12’s finalists for national honors at next week’s Home Depot College Football Awards are offensive players. The list includes two quarterbacks in the mix for the Davey O’Brien Award (TCU’s Trevone Boykin, OU’s Baker Mayfield), two receivers competing for the Biletnikoff Award (TCU’s Josh Doctson, Baylor’s Corey Coleman) and Baylor offensive lineman Spencer Drango, one of three finalists for the Outland Trophy.

Rushing resurgence rampant. Six Big 12 schools have produced a 1,000-yard rusher this season, doubling the league’s total from last season (three). Five backs have averaged more than 100 yards per game, up from one last season. The proliferation of better-balanced offenses should bode well for bowl season, where the Big 12 seeks to improve on last year’s 2-5 mark.

Of the league’s 1,000-yard rushers, five can pad their stats in the postseason: Texas Tech’s DeAndre Washington (1,455 yards, 14 TDs), West Virginia’s Wendell Smallwood (1,306 yards, eight TDs), Baylor’s Shock Linwood (1,298 yards, 10 TDs), Oklahoma’s Samaje Perine (1,291 yards, 15 TDs) and TCU’s Aaron Green (1,171 yards, 10 TDs). The only exception is Iowa State’s Mike Warren (1,339 yards, five TDs), a redshirt freshman whose team has completed its season.

Burch’s picks

No. 12 Baylor 35, Texas 24 (11 a.m. Saturday, ESPN): Bears secure a Sugar Bowl berth by clinching the Longhorns’ first season with eight or more losses since 1956.

Kansas State 31, West Virginia 28 (3:30 p.m. Saturday, FS1): Wildcats rally for sixth victory, become bowl-eligible in final week of season.

Last week: 4-1

Season: 60-13

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