A punchless defense has Charlie Strong's future at Texas in the balance. That's lent a familiar feeling to Red River Rivalry week—once again, the Longhorns may need to beat Oklahoma to save Strong's job.
AUSTIN — Texas linebacker Breckyn Hager watched teammate Jordan Elliott scroll through tweets on his phone while waiting for class Monday. "It said TRENDING: Charlie Strong," Hager said. "I looked at it and I said, 'God dang.'"
Hours later, Strong stood in a press conference and announced that he had demoted defensive coordinator Vance Bedford. Strong, who made his name as a defensive coordinator at South Carolina and Florida before running his first program at Louisville, will call the defense when the Longhorns face Oklahoma in Dallas on Saturday.
For the second consecutive year, Strong faces what feels like a must-win Red River Rivalry meeting. Last year, he had demoted offensive coordinator Shawn Watson weeks before the Oklahoma game. This year, he has busted Bedford down to secondary coach days before meeting the Sooners. After two coordinator demotions in two seasons, it has become obvious that the next logical move is one spot higher on the organizational chart.
Strong knows this. He knows it has been reported that his job security hangs in the balance from this point forward. Texas has never fired a coach midseason, and it probably won't start now. (Besides, who on the Texas staff would the administration trust to run the program in the interim anyway?) So Strong has eight games to turn things around. He saved his job by beating Oklahoma last year, but the Longhorns still only finished with five wins. Simply beating the Sooners won't be enough this time.
Texas needs to make a run, and to do that it will have to shore up a defense that allowed 6.6 yards per play and 48.7 points per game against Notre Dame, Cal and Oklahoma State. The Longhorns have forced exactly one turnover, a sobering statistic in a league where the only sure way to slow an opponent's offense is to take away the ball. "There's eight games left, guys. We can still make a lot of noise," Strong said. "I say to them all the time that we are just as talented as anybody in this conference. Now let's go play. We can go score on offense. We've just got to get a few stops and get some turnovers on defense, and we're going to be fine."
Nothing the Longhorns have done on defense so far this season suggests they'll be fine, so Strong will have to find a way to put his players in better positions against quarterback Baker Mayfield and the Sooners. The Texas offense, which has experienced a renaissance under new coordinator Sterlin Gilbert and freshman quarterback Shane Buechele, must find a way to keep producing without tailback Chris Warren III, who will miss the game with a knee injury. Fellow tailback D'Onta Foreman (abdomen) has been cleared to play and should return, so 250-pound senior quarterback Tyrone Swoopes—who comes in when Texas goes to its 18 Wheeler package—will not have to carry the Longhorns' running game by himself.
For Swoopes, dealing with outside angst has been the norm for most of his college career. Mack Brown was forced out when Swoopes was a freshman. Strong had a honeymoon period that first year, but he was on the verge of getting dumped last year when Texas stunned an Oklahoma team that wound up running the table, winning the Big 12 and making the College Football Playoff. "We all expected for it to kind of turn around after that game," Swoopes said. "But things happen."
Now, despite having a functional offense for the first time since Colt McCoy's senior season in 2009, the Longhorns find themselves in exactly the same position they were in entering the Oklahoma game last year. This, by the way, is one reason Swoopes deleted the Twitter app from his phone earlier this year. He's older, wiser and carries a lot more hard-earned cynicism than his sophomore teammate Hager. "I'm not looking at what people are saying about us," Swoopes said. "I know it's not good."
Strong had a frank discussion this week with Texas's players about his situation. He also insisted they don't worry about him and worry instead about winning. "We're not focused on that," offensive tackle Connor Williams said. "And the coaches don't want us to be focused on that."
Strong also went game by game through the remainder of the Longhorns' schedule. Yes, Oklahoma would have a similar talent level. No one else would. "Let's go get it," Strong recalled telling the players. "Let's not sit back and watch it fade in front of us." The honest appraisal of the talent level is a double-edged sword, though. While it should give the Longhorns confidence that every opponent after Oklahoma has inferior talent, what does it mean if Texas loses to any of those opponents?
The fact that Texas does play Oklahoma might be the only thing distracting from the speculation about Strong's job status. Monday, Buechele joked about growing up an Oklahoma fan in a family of Oklahoma fans. He said his sisters might wear white Saturday, but the rest of the family would grudgingly wear burnt orange. Later, he referred to the game as "OU-Texas." That may employ alphabetical order, but that is not the preferred order in Austin. "Did I say OU-Texas?" Buechele said, laughing.
Hager, meanwhile, explained that last year he didn't touch the gold cowboy hat awarded to the winning team each season. He was on crutches that day, and he vowed not to touch the hat until after he had actually played for the winning team. Hager, as Texas fans probably noticed Saturday, burns hot. After the Longhorns lost at Oklahoma State, Hager left the field instead of standing with his teammates while the band played "Texas Fight." Monday, he apologized. His father, former Texas linebacker Britt Hager, had gotten angry. Breckyn had been angry at himself. He promised he wouldn't leave the field early again, win or lose. Saturday, he hopes to stand with his teammates for the song and then mug for photos with that gold hat. How much would it mean to Hager to touch that hat? "Everything," he said. "Everything that I've ever worked for in my life."
Hager is convinced his teammates feel the same. "We're going to approach it like any other game, but with a lot more passion and enthusiasm," Hager said. "We know what's at stake here. We want that golden hat more than they do."
But there's a lot more at stake than just a gold hat. The coaching staff's future hangs in the balance. A win against Oklahoma may not save Strong's job, but a blowout loss might produce a final decision—even if that verdict wouldn't be announced until November. Hager understands that, and he wants everyone to understand where the Longhorns stand. "C'mon, guys. You've got to listen to us as players," Hager said. "We're saying he's a great coach. We love him as a coach. Getting a new coach is just going to set the program back. We've got one of the best in the business. We've got to keep him."
Whether that happens is up to Strong, the staff and the players. They are nearly out of opportunities to turn around the Longhorns' fortunes. "Right now, we're at a point where we can go up or down," Hager said. "I'm telling everyone it's time for us to go up." And if the other players don't grasp that, Hager plans to explain it this week. "If they don't understand, I'm going to make them understand," he said. "I'm going to tell them we need to get our s--- … I mean, we need to get our stuff together."