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Top 25 team preview: No. 11 Texas Longhorns

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Johnathan Gray is part of a trio of talented Texas running backs who have had trouble staying healthy.

Can Alabama make a run at a third straight national title? Can Ohio State replicate last year's 12-0 campaign? Can Oregon maintain its standard of success under new leadership? With the college football season approaching, Sports Illustrated unveils its preseason Top 25.

For more college football preview content, check out SI's 2013 schedule guide, four teams that can beat Alabama package, preseason All-America Team, media roundtable and much more.

The case for

The Longhorns at last look like the kind of talent-laden team Mack Brown once trotted out on an annual basis. Nineteen starters return from last year's 9-4 squad, which struggled mightily on defense before generating 10 sacks in a 31-27 Alamo Bowl win over No. 13 Oregon State. Standout defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat and outside linebacker Jordan Hicks, who both missed most of 2012 with injuries, are back as well. David Ash, overwhelmed as a true freshman in 2011, is now the Big 12's most experienced quarterback (18 starts), and receiver Mike Davis leads a proven group of skill players. The Longhorns began installing a hurry-up offense during bowl practices and amped it up in the spring. The new scheme is a nice fit for Ash, a 67.3 percent passer last season. "We're not trying to throw the ball 65, 70 times a game," said offensive coordinator Major Applewhite, "but we are going to throw it more."

The case against

The defense is counting on the development of several players (linebackers Steve Edmond and Peter Jinkins, safety Mykkele Thompson) who have started games in the past. And while Ash came up big in several road wins last year, he has struggled with consistency and was benched twice.

Schedule analysis

A Sept. 7 trip to defensive-minded BYU presents an early challenge, but as usual the Red River Rivalry (Oct. 12) will define the season. After Oklahoma, the Longhorns get a bye before a crucial road matchup with TCU, which beat them in Austin last year, and finish the season with an in-state showdown at Baylor.

Key stat

118-38: The combined score of Texas' losses to Oklahoma in the past two Red River Rivalry games (55-17 in 2011, 63-21 in 2012). The 'Horns last beat the Sooners during their 2009 BCS title-game season.

Breakout player

WR Daje Johnson: Look for the 5-foot-10, 180-pound sophomore, who clocked a 4.34 40 at a high school combine, to motion in and out of the backfield and break for daylight on speed sweeps and swing passes. He may also return kickoffs. Announcers: It's duh-JAY.

Freshman to watch

QB Tyrone Swoopes: While unlikely to see significant playing time unless Ash gets hurt, the 6-4, 245-pound quarterback already has 'Horns fans dreaming about the future -- and eliciting comparisons to the similarly built Vince Young -- after dazzling onlookers with several impressive runs at Texas' spring game. The U.S. Army All-American and Rivals.com four-star prospect is already No. 3 on the depth chart and could see the field in situational packages.

X-factor

Running back health: Texas' tailback triumvirate of juniors Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron and sophomore Johnathan Gray should be the envy of nearly every team in the country, but all three have been hampered by injuries at various points in their careers. In turn, Texas ranked just 53rd nationally in rushing offense last season. Brown, considered the most explosive of the bunch, notched 100-yard nights in two of his first three games last year before a Week 4 injury limited him to 24 carries the rest of the way. If healthy, he should be a difference-maker.

Projected 2013 stats (By RotoWire.com)

QB David Ash: 3,021 passing yards, 23 TDs; 163 rushing yards, 2 TDs

RB Jonathan Gray: 766 rushing yards, 7 TDs; 120 receiving yards

WR Jaxon Shipley: 872 receiving yards, 9 TDs; 70 rushing yards

Coach speak: Mack Brown

SI: How's your confidence level compared with last year's, when you were coming off a 5-7 season?

MB: Two years ago we stunk on offense and were good on defense. Last year we stunk on defense but were pretty good on offense. This year we're going to be older, we've got depth, the quarterback's older. I finally think that all comes together and we're a lot better.

SI: You've lacked experience and depth the last few years. But shouldn't Texas always be Texas?

MB: If you go back, that happened at Oklahoma, USC, Ohio State, Michigan. For a coach who's at a place for 15 years, it usually happens. You look up and all of a sudden nothing's working, you've lost your swagger. The expectations that are out there, we created. They weren't here when I got here. So I'm proud of those. ... It's not like every minute of my day isn't spent trying to get us back and get better. I remember '98.

SI: Are you aware of the "Mack Brown recruited Johnny Manziel as a safety" meme?

MB: We offered David Ash that year, and we're proud of where he is and where he's headed.

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