The state of Texas football under Mack Brown; more Walkthrough
It's time to play the game that's sweeping the nation. That's right, get ready for another round of Guess When Mack Said That!
One of these quotes came on Oct. 25, 2010, two days after Texas lost to Iowa State at home to fall to 4-3 in a season the Longhorns eventually finished 5-7. One quote came out of Brown's mouth on Wednesday, four days after the Longhorns followed a road loss at BYU with a home loss to Ole Miss. So put on your thinking caps and ...
Guess ... When ... Mack ... Said ... That!
• Quote No. 1: "I'm not backing off at all. I still think this team's got a great shot. We've got a chance in every game left because I've seen it. I've seen it in practice. It's a great group of young people trying."
• Quote No. 2: "It's a great group of young people. They're trying. They want to."
Quote No. 1 is tricky, because it makes sense to reason that a 4-3 team -- with one of its losses coming against a nonconference opponent -- would still have a great shot at something. But no. It is the current 1-2 team that Brown believes still has a great shot. In fact, later in that response Brown pointed out that he did not say a similar sort of thing in 2010. Of course, quote No. 2 proves he said exactly that sort of thing in 2010. He sees now what he saw then, which makes it somewhat surprising that he expects a different result. It also makes it completely obvious why writers with a burnt-orange bent can write eerily plausible fan fiction about events that have yet to take place.
So what happened at Texas? How did a program that racked up double-digit wins every season from 2001-09 wind up in a dive that it appears Brown will not be able to pull out of? Plenty of people in college athletics would like to believe this is some sort of karmic retribution for the Longhorns jerking around the former Pac-10 and nearly destroying the Big 12 in the summer of 2010 as a negotiating ploy to get a favorable situation in the Big 12 to ensure plans for the Longhorn Network stayed on track. Plenty of people in College Station would say Texas deserves this fate for planning to use the Longhorn Network as a direct recruiting tool by sending cameras to the games of Texas recruits. That idea, revealed in 2011 during a radio interview with ESPN executive Dave Brown that now lives in infamy, was the final straw that sent Texas A&M running for a better deal in the SEC and nearly destroyed the Big 12 again.
But that stuff was all political. This is a football problem. That 5-7 campaign in 2010 was supposed to be the anomaly. The wins were supposed to soar into double digits again. Texas seemed to be on the right track in 2011, but the Longhorns stalled in 2012. The annihilation by Oklahoma was proof enough of that. Now, Texas will enter Big 12 play against Kansas State on Saturday needing a miracle run through the league to come close to meeting the lofty preseason expectations placed on a team that returned 19 starters.
Unfortunately for the Longhorns, starting quarterback David Ash is questionable. So is top receiver Mike Davis. This is the problem for Texas. The nation's wealthiest program, with its pick of players from the state that produces more AQ-conference talent than anywhere except Florida, with a team boasting more experience than anyone else in the conference, should have quality players ready. The Longhorns should have backups who, given enough practice time, can compete with -- if not whip -- every team in the Big 12 except Oklahoma. Why? Because it's Texas. It's the easiest recruiting job in America. Come to one of the planet's coolest cities to play for the program five generations of your family has pulled for while surrounded by the best of everything. Yet for some reason, Texas doesn't have the players.
If Texas had the players, the Longhorns would have tackled BYU quarterback Taysom Hill much more frequently than they did on Sept. 7. Instead, Hill ran for 259 yards. This was pinned on defensive coordinator Manny Diaz, who was fired the day after the 40-21 loss. But if Diaz was to blame, how did Texas allow Ole Miss tailback Jeff Scott to average 8.6 yards a carry the following week? Because of its built-in advantages, Texas should always have better players than BYU and Ole Miss, but that certainly didn't seem to be the case during their matchups. When a team gets dominated two consecutive weeks along the line of scrimmage, it's usually not a scheme issue. It's a talent issue.
According to the Rivals.com recruiting rankings, Brown has continued to bring in top-level talent. From 2009-12, when the bulk of the players contributing now were signed, Rivals.com ranked all of Texas' classes among the top five nationally. Recruiting rankings are specifically unpredictable, but generally they are decent indicators of future success. Besides, Texas was beating Alabama, LSU and Oklahoma for various prospects. The players those staffs have recruited successfully have gone on to win on the field. Wouldn't the others those staffs pursued also be good?
Did Texas coaches choose less brilliant athletes than before, or have they lost their ability to develop them? This college football's ultimate chicken-and-egg argument, and unfortunately it doesn't usually get answered until a new coach takes the helm. For example, we now can be fairly certain Charlie Weis recruited good players at Notre Dame but didn't develop them. (Because Brian Kelly did.) But what of Texas? Has the development stunted?
I have a theory about this, and it goes back to something Brown told me in an interview in 2010. We were discussing the Longhorns' intended shift to a more pro-style running game in the post-Colt McCoy era, and Brown said something that probably would have sounded more shocking and set off more alarm bells if the Longhorns hadn't just gone 13-1. "I was scared to death of wind and rain with Colt," Brown said, "because we had lost our ability to run."
The coach at Texas was afraid of the weather because his offense had become so reliant on a special quarterback -- either McCoy or Vince Young -- that it had forgotten how to do the basics. Let's repeat that: The coach at Texas, who should have better players than almost every team on the schedule, was afraid of the weather. Looking back now, it seems so obvious. At least on offense, Texas had the great fortune of back-to-back dynamo quarterbacks. Young and McCoy could take over games. Defenses had to devote so much energy to stopping them that everyone else had it easy. Any recruiting or developmental deficiencies were masked by this advantage. As soon as the elite quarterbacks went away, the flaws became apparent. Maybe Tyrone Swoopes, the freshman coaches elected not to play against Ole Miss, will relieve Case McCoy this week against Kansas State and spark a Texas offensive renaissance, just as Young did in 2003 when everyone was calling for Brown's job. That's really the only chance the Longhorns have on that side of the ball. Another special quarterback must emerge, or defenses will feast.
The Texas defense is a little more of a mystery. Former coordinator Will Muschamp's 2010 defense finished ninth in the nation in yards per play (4.6) and fifth in total defense (300.2 yards a game). Diaz's first Texas defense in 2011 finished ninth in the nation with an identical yards-per-play number and 11th in total defense (306.1 yards a game). Both units led the Big 12 in those categories. Then the wheels came off in 2012. Plagued by poor tackling, Texas allowed 5.9 yards a play and 404.2 yards a game.
A look at the NFL draft adds some context, because NFL personnel people don't care about school colors when they evaluate. (Just check out what Unnamed NFL Scout says every April. The guy is merciless.) Since 2009, Texas has had 20 players drafted. Of those, 16 played defense. The NFL was already unimpressed with the Texas offense. So maybe the defense is experiencing a talent lull while the offense has continued to flounder. That's a bad combination, but it doesn't explain everything.
Some of Brown's personnel moves offer more clues. After he hired Bennie Wylie in January 2011 to assist Jeff Madden in the weight room, Brown said this to The New York Times: "When I started doing my evaluation here, I was in my own little world and I didn't realize that just about everyone in the upper part of Division I-A football had their own football strength coach. We had a departmental wide strength coach, and we were wearing him out and he was doing too much." Not only did everyone have their own football strength coach at that time, some programs -- such as Alabama and Florida State -- had nine weight room assistants that were essentially analogues to the nine position coaches. In 2012, the NCAA instituted a rule that limited the number of strength coaches per team to five, but the 2011 episode proved how behind the times Texas was. The same was true this past offseason when Brown hired Patrick Suddes away from Alabama to be the Longhorns' director of player personnel and overhaul the Texas recruiting machine. The Crimson Tide, who are winning all the national titles the Longhorns keep dreaming about, have an advanced scouting department. Texas has more money than Alabama, but until recently athletic director DeLoss Dodds has not opened his wallet to compete with the Alabamas and Ohio States.
Texas seems to have made the correct moves behind the scenes, but the Longhorns made them about three or four years late. That fact and a major state university now swinging its SEC affiliation and recent Heisman Trophy winner as a cudgel in Lone Star State recruiting have complicated matters a bit.
Maybe Brown is correct. Maybe the Longhorns can save their season by winning the Big 12. But the prognosis is grim. At least three Big 12 programs (Baylor, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State) appear to have better players than Texas pretty much across the board. On Saturday, the Longhorns will face a team that never -- at least according to the recruiting services -- has better players than Texas but has managed to beat the Longhorns in five consecutive meetings.
If Kansas State makes it a sixth consecutive win on Saturday, it should be a clear sign. The program that always has done more with less will have once again beaten the program that usually does less with more. That great group of young people is trying, but it may not have the tools it needs to win.
• Florida A&M at Ohio State: Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer said Wednesday that quarterback Braxton Miller (knee) is moving at full speed but could still be limited on Saturday against the Rattlers. Don't expect Meyer to take many risks with Miller with Wisconsin looming next week. Backup Kenny Guiton has guided the offense ably. He can handle this one if necessary.
• Tennessee at Florida: More than likely, Tennessee will have a new starting quarterback when the Volunteers take the field at The Swamp on Saturday. Dissatisfied with Justin Worley, coach Butch Jones opened the competition this week. That means redshirt freshman Nathan Peterman or one of two true freshmen -- Josh Dobbs or Riley Ferguson -- will start against a salty Florida defense still angry that the Miami game slipped away.
• Michigan State at Notre Dame: The Spartans' signal-callers know how those Tennessee quarterbacks feel. Until this week, they were locked in a four-way competition. Now, it's Connor Cook's offense. He'll try not to make the defense do the bulk of the scoring. That worked against Western Michigan and South Florida. It won't work in South Bend.
• Utah State at USC: Yes, the Trojans lost to Washington State. Yes, Utah State quarterback Chuckie Keeton is a joy to watch. But USC's issues aren't on defense. In fact, that group is quite sound. The Lane Kiffin handwringing will probably have to wait until the Trojans get back into Pac-12 play.
• Arkansas at Rutgers: Bret Bielema gets his first real test as the Razorbacks' coach. It remains to be seen who will start at quarterback for Rutgers. Gary Nova remains questionable after suffering a concussion. Chas Dodd will start if Nova can't.
• Arizona State at Stanford: The Cardinal must dive headfirst into the Pac-12 schedule against a team that looks capable of challenging for the South division title. Arizona State got gashed by Wisconsin on the ground last week, so expect Stanford to try to pound the ball even more than usual.
• Auburn at LSU: Auburn is undeniably better under Gus Malzahn, but LSU's offense is undeniably better under first-year coordinator Cam Cameron. We'll see which team has really improved in Tiger Stadium.
• Michigan at Connecticut: After nearly losing to Akron last week, Michigan needs to come back strong. If the Wolverines can't do that against a team that lost to Towson in Week 1, they have bigger problems.
• Utah at BYU: The Holy War -- or, as I prefer to call it, Church vs. State -- is always entertaining. Last year, Utah fans stormed the field three times.
Vintage video of the week
I found this week's video while perusing the college football subreddit on Reddit.com. Redditor yngvii had posted it as a reminder of what college football used to look like. Watching an offensive strategy film from the 1940s made me think of Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.
How did I make that connection? Clinton-Dix was briefly ejected on Saturday in College Station essentially for making a play on the ball. His ejection was overturned when a replay official determined he was not targeting the head of a Texas A&M receiver, but officials still marched off a 15-yard penalty. That part of the targeting rule must be changed -- the player either committed a foul or he did not -- but the rule is here to stay because recent research on concussions is too jarring to ignore and the potential lawsuits could destroy the game entirely. The targeting rule could fundamentally change the way defense is played, just as a potential rule against all blocking below the waist might fundamentally change the way offense is played. (Bye bye option.) The results may seem strange now, but guess what? We'll get over it.
Watch this video. The game we see every Saturday in no way resembles this. (Except for single-digit linemen, which have come back with a vengeance.) Nearly seventy years of rule and schematic changes have rendered football unrecognizable to the fans in the stands at those games, yet football is more popular than ever. Of all sports, football has evolved the most in the shortest amount of time. It must continue to evolve, but my guess is we'll complain a little and then eventually forget anything changed at all.
A word on secret tapes
Now that Nebraska coach Bo Pelini has joined Casey Kasem on the list of people whose originally private profanity-laced tirades have been released to the world, let's remember that we all have moments that we pray never get captured on tape. For Pelini, that moment came after a comeback win in a week his quarterback got ripped and thousands of fans bailed. For me, it's when I'm alone in the car in traffic behind someone who hasn't noticed the right arrow has turned green.
If anyone had a recorder running in that situation, the resulting audio would include a helpful honk, a warning honk and me laying on the horn. This would be followed by my use of what Ralphie from A Christmas Story called "the queen mother of all dirty words" as every part of speech, including adverb and gerund. If such a recording leaked, SI might take 48 hours to test the winds of public opinion before deciding whether to back me, too. Fortunately, people understood the circumstances in Pelini's case. If he gets canned, let it be for football reasons. Not for that tape.
On the menu
If you're in the Los Angeles area to watch Utah State-USC or New Mexico State-UCLA, first accept my condolences that you couldn't find better games. Then allow me to suggest something that will make your trip more fulfilling. Follow Kogi BBQ on Twitter and pay attention. Kogi trucks serve up short rib tacos that will make you weep, but they're always on the move. Kogi usually runs three trucks -- typically in the Valley, LA proper and Orange County -- and diners get a few hours advance notice on Twitter. If you're lucky, Kogi will also be serving up the Cheezy Wheezy -- a grilled cheese on sourdough with cheddar, bananas, peanut butter and salsa Naranja.