Seven months after the confetti fell on national champion Alabama, a new college football season is nearly here. As part of Sports Illustrated's 2021 preview content, we're rolling out scouting reports for all of SI's preseason top 25 teams, featuring all the names, storylines and big games you need to know. Starting with No. 25 Nevada and running through No. 1 Alabama, we'll be featuring five teams per day from Monday through Friday.
The Big Story: Texas
A new era is beginning in Austin. Tom Herman’s tenure ended after four years in which the only significant achievement was a Sugar Bowl win over Georgia in 2019. Now it’s Steve Sarkisian’s time to try and turn around a program that hasn’t won a conference championship in 11 years. The rebound will have to start at the quarterback position, with either Casey Thompson or Hudson Card waiting in the wings after Sam Ehlinger’s departure. But the Longhorns have question marks on both sides of the ball, not to mention the addition of an entirely new coaching staff. Can Sarkisian start a rebound quicker than his two predecessors? Or is Texas destined for eternal mediocrity?
No player injected hope into the hearts of Texas fans in 2020 quite like running back Bijan Robinson. The 6-foot, 222-pound back out of Tucson finally started receiving consistent carries in the second half of the season and made the most of it. His 8.9 yards per carry, good for third in the country, were punctuated with a 172-yard, three-touchdown performance against Kansas State—in just nine carries. He’s explosive, he’s agile, he’s got breakaway speed. In other words, Robinson gives off shades of great Texas rushers of the past. Maybe more importantly, he’s a complete back that could carry an offense in case of emergency.
Key Question: Who can become a downfield threat?
Texas sorely missed Devin Duvernay and Collin Johnson in 2020. The receiving duo served as both Ehlinger’s security blanket and big play threat for the first three years of his career in Austin. After both were selected in the NFL draft, Ehlinger’s passing numbers took a sharp dip without a top wideout option. Joshua Moore looked the part at times but never made plays consistently, going quiet for various stretches in the season. Former Gatorade National Player of the Year Jake Smith decided to hightail it to USC after two seasons in which he never really found his footing. Maybe Moore will make a leap like Duvernay did, or maybe Jordan Whittington can become explosive (and healthy) in the slot. But more questions remain than answers for the time being.
X-Factor: Defensive depth
As is life in the Wild West of the transfer portal, coaching changes can cause a revolving door of talent, especially with players in reserve roles. Texas lost linebacker Juwan Mitchell (last year’s leading tackler), corner Jalen Green and several other depth pieces defensively, not to mention a host of offensive transfers. In return, LSU linebacker Ray Thornton and Alabama linebacker Ben Davis transferred in, but the linebacker position remains extremely thin. Four of the five leading tacklers from 2020 are gone, most notably third-round pick Joseph Ossai. That’s not to say there isn’t some star talent—DeMarvion Overshown will anchor the linebacker spot, and Keondre Coburn and Alfred Collins provide a nice duo up front. But the Longhorns’ success defensively will key on whether or not they can build a solid rotation around their top stars.
Date to Circle: Nov. 6 at Iowa State
It may seem like the obvious choice—the traditional early October meeting with Oklahoma—is being overlooked. But the Red River Rivalry matchups are always a coin toss, no matter the strength of the two teams involved. The real test of how quickly the Sark rebuild is coming along will come in Ames. The Cyclones kept their Big 12 championship hopes alive last year with a late comeback against the Longhorns in Austin. This year’s rematch will feature an Iowa State team that is just as talented and just as poised to spoil Texas’s conference title chances in lieu of its own. As late in the season as this game is, and with Texas finishing out with a lighter stretch of Kansas, West Virginia and Kansas State, this game could play a massive role in the Big 12 landscape.
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The Bottom Line
It’s never easy for the fans in Austin to temper expectations, but now’s the time to do so. This team has more of the makings of a project than a conference champion, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But can Sarkisian hit the reset button quicker than most expect?
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