2011 Missouri Football Preview: Texas

LINCOLN NE - OCTOBER 16: Quarterback Garrett Gilbert #7 of the Texas Longhorns passes the ball downfield during first half action of their game at Memorial Stadium on October 16 2010 in Lincoln Nebraska. Texas Defeated Nebraska 20-13. (Photo by Eric Francis/Getty Images)

2011 Missouri Football Preview
Analysis: Dave Matter | Michael Atchison
Opponents: Miami (Ohio) | Arizona State | Western Illinois | Oklahoma | Kansas State | Iowa State | Oklahoma State | Texas A&M | Baylor
Unit Walkthroughs: Quarterback (Bonus) | Running Backs | Wide Receivers (Bonus) | Tight Ends | Offensive Line | Defensive Ends (Bonus) | Defensive Tackles | Linebackers

For years, Mack Brown has been known as the quintessential "CEO" coach. He found himself talented people, delegated, and stood back as the wins accumulated. In that way, he is perfect for a program like Texas, which has the built-in combination of history and money with which few programs can compete. And, clearly, CEO Brown has brought home the results in recent years. Texas made two national title appearances in five seasons and missed out on a third by decimal points. 

In 2011, however, Brown will have the unique experience of running a company with a brand new, and much younger, set of top executives. Some of his long-time assistants were put out to pasture, while others left for better jobs. Some made horizontal-at-best moves. Gone are offensive coordinator Greg Davis ("resigned," loosely speaking) and defensive coordinator Will Muschamp (hired away to be Florida head coach), along with five other assistants – offensive line coach Mac McWhorter (retired), receivers coach Bobby Kennedy (left for Colorado), defensive tackles coach Mike Tolleson (retired), and strength-and-conditioning head Mad Dog Madden (slight change of responsibilities).

In their stead? Youth. Precocious, exuberant, new-blood-in-all-its-glory youth. Holdover Major Applewhite (age 32) and Boise State import Bryan Harsin (age 34) are the new offensive co-coordinators. Mississippi State’s Manny Diaz (age 36) is the new defensive coordinator. Coaching alone was not the entire problem with this past season’s Texas squad, but clearly Mack Brown felt he needed a jolt of energy with this new staff and it appears he got it.

A year ago, Missouri was able to dispatch of the rather large Oklahoma gorilla that had taken residency on Gary Pinkel’s back, but its burnt orange brother remains. And, under the old scheduling system, Missouri could never catch a break. Here are the records of the 12 versions of Oklahoma and Texas that Missouri has played under Gary Pinkel: 11-2, 12-2, 12-2, 11-1, 13-0, 11-3, 11-3, 11-3, 12-1, 12-2, 13-1 and 12-2. Meanwhile, they missed out on playing some lesser teams like Texas' 2006-07 squads (teams that still only lost three games but were demonstrably worse), the 2005 and 2009 Oklahoma teams that went 8-5, and of course, last year's 5-7 Texas squad. Missouri got the best of the better of the two teams in 2010. To finally get a win against Texas, Pinkel will get the lesser of two teams (according to pundits) in Columbia.

OFFENSE

Texas' overall offensive stats were jarringly bad, in 2010, but what may have been even more jarring was the complete and total lack of big-play potential. If this were purely a bad-play-calling, bad-coordinator issue, Texas might have expected to often be bailed out by big plays or success on passing downs. But the big plays never bailed them out. If not for Kansas, Texas would have had the worst opponent-adjusted points per play rankings in the Big 12, and that is both inexcusable and baffling.

Was it youth? Bad things frequently happen with a first-time starter at quarterback. Plus, by the end of the season, Texas was starting a true freshman at left guard and had plenty of true and redshirt freshmen scattered throughout the depth chart. But at the same time, there was a decent amount of experience, too. The tackles were both three-year lettermen, the running backs were experienced, and receivers like James Kirkendoll and Malcolm Williams had seemingly been around forever. So if it wasn't experience, was it talent? Did Texas – the school of the "We take who we want" recruiting philosophy and annual Rivals Top 5 appearances – just not have the horses? We will see soon enough, as a lot of name-brand contributors return for Harsin and Applewhite.

Garrett Gilbert is the incumbent at quarterback, but his seat atop the depth chart above Connor Wood, Case McCoy and surging true freshman David Ash is unseasonably warm. The triggerman of choice will have a whole stable of running backs of different sizes – big Cody Johnson, fast Fozzy Whittaker and D.J. Monroe – returning, along with Big 12 Preseason Newcomer of the Year Malcolm Brown. One continues to think there's a breakthrough back in that bunch, but that has not been the case recently. Texas fans have a lot of hopes pinned on Brown's shoulders. While a host of experienced backs return, the receiving corps is thin and green. Kirkendoll (graduated), Williams (quit football), John Chiles (graduated) and Marquise Goodwin (redshirting due to track obligations) will all be absent this fall, leaving sophomore Mike Davis and a host of one-time blue-chippers to fight it out for playing time. Don't be surprised if another Shipley -- Jordan's brother Jaxon -- sees quite a bit of the field this fall.

Stacy Searels could be the single most important of all of Texas' new coaches. He takes over as the head of an offensive line that has underachieved for years. If Searels can unlock the potential that Mac McWhorter could not, that alone could result in significant offensive improvement. But what constitutes "significant" improvement? Offenses as bad as Texas' from 2010 don't bounce back with any major magnitude in just one off-season, but if the Longhorns can just return to "decent" in 2011 and get a few more bounces along the way, the defense should be more than capable of winning games.

DEFENSE

First things first: Texas' defense was not really the primary problem in 2010. Texas fans got frustrated with the defense at times, but the primary source of frustration was the simple fact that fans had long since given up on a stagnant offense. That said, the defense did have some holes. The front seven was solid when it came to the pass rush, and once they leveraged a team into passing downs, they teed off as well as ever. But they were vulnerable on standard downs, particularly against the run.

For 2011, not only must the Longhorns learn the techniques of a new defensive coordinator, but they must do so with a potentially thin front four. The ceiling is ridiculously high, but the depth could be a problem. Sophomores Jackson Jeffcoat and Reggie Wilson should step in for departing starters Eddie Jones and Sam Acho at end, but if they struggle, there aren't a lot of options outside of true freshman Cedric Reed. Tackles Kheeston Randall and Calvin Howell return alongside tweener Alex Okafor.

In baseball, they say defense matters most up the middle of the field. If the same could be said in football, new defensive coordinator Manny Diaz will like what he has to work with in 2011. Along with a couple of potentially solid tackles, middle linebacker Emmanuel Acho and safeties Blake Gideon, Christian Scott and Kenny Vaccaro are back as well. Corner is a position of interest in 2011, as the Longhorns attempt to replace Curtis Brown and Aaron Williams, but as Missouri hopes to prove with its own roster, a great front seven can work wonders for new cornerbacks. 

Diaz has a lot of both recent experience and relative success against the spread. Like Kansas’ defense does in basketball, Texas will attempt to force offenses into certain choices for them and leverage them into calling certain plays toward certain areas of the field. Diaz's defenses at Mississippi State were outstanding on standard downs and adept at leveraging teams into less-comfortable passing downs. In other words, his defense in Starkville was good in all the ways Texas struggled last season.

SERIES SPOTLIGHT: OCTOBER 18, 1997 (Mizzou 37, Texas 29)

In what was supposed to be Missouri's breakthrough season after over a decade of anonymity, it appeared for a while as if the Tigers were blowing it. They were upset by Kansas in the second game of the season, and a blowout loss to Kansas State left Mizzou at 3-3 in mid-October. They would need to win three of their remaining five games to finish bowl eligible, and the remaining schedule was intimidating. The next four games would come against two preseason Top 15 teams (Texas and Colorado), a current Top 15 team (Oklahoma State) and the best team in the country (Nebraska).

The unlikely rebound started with a Homecoming visit from the reeling Longhorns of Texas. The defending Big 12 champions were just 3-2 after a pair of devastating losses to UCLA (66-3) and Oklahoma State (42-16), but they had rallied for a win against Oklahoma in the Red River Rivalry, and they still had ridiculous running back Ricky Williams in the backfield. In what was not the prettiest of games -- Mizzou lost three fumbles, and Texas kicker Phil Dawson botched four kicks (naturally, he blamed the turf afterward; that is nothing if not a common theme with Mizzou visitors in the 1990s) -- the Tigers turned their season around with a 37-29 victory.

Just in case the 3-3 record wasn't enough adversity, the Tigers added a bit more at the start of the game. Brock Olivo lost a fumble on the second play of the game, and Texas capitalized with a 42-yard field goal. Olivo responded with a 19-yard touchdown run, but 19 yards hardly constituted a "big play" in this game. Ricky Williams busted an 80-yard touchdown in the second quarter to tie the game at 10-10. Randy Potter muffed a punt (that would not be the last one of his career), and Brown scored from six yards out, but Dawson missed the point after touchdown. The Tigers responded with a picture-perfect, 10-play, 76-yard drive, the last of which was a one-yard touchdown plunge by Olivo with just five seconds remaining in the half. If Olivo doesn't get in, Mizzou doesn't even salvage a field goal attempt; instead, they led 17-16 at halftime.

An Ernest Blackwell fumble gave Texas an opportunity in the third quarter, but Dawson missed another field goal, and the Tigers headed into the final quarter clinging to their one-point lead. Then, the fireworks began. Blackwell atoned with a 67-yard touchdown run on the first play of the final 15 minutes, and the Tigers led 23-16 after Knickman missed a PAT of his own. (Seriously, place-kicking in Missouri games in the 1990s was like the 1930s everywhere else.) But then came a dagger: Devin West took a handoff around right end, then pulled back and found a wide-open Kent Layman downfield for a 46-yard gain. It set up a one-yard West touchdown and gave the Tigers a 30-16 lead they never relinquished.

Texas loaded up to shut down Missouri's option, but the Tigers burned them with everything else. Olivo and Blackwell found room to run between the tackles, and Corby Jones took advantage of some open passing lanes, completing 12 passes for what was then a career-high 220 yards. Williams finished with 235 rushing yards, but the combination of Olivo, Blackwell, Jones and West (240) surpassed him, and Jones drastically outplayed James Brown (15-for-40, 149 yards) through the air. The goalposts came down, and Mizzou's season took on an upward trajectory. The Tigers won four of their last five regular season games, losing only by Flea Kicker.

FOOTBALL STUDY HALL

The Chief Executive Officer And The Texas Longhorns

So if Texas a) gets at least a small handful of immediate contributions from the incoming, highly-ranked recruiting class (particularly if star running back Malcolm Brown is ready from Day One), b) gets a jolt of energy from a young, hungry group of new assistants, and c) gets a normal number good bounces after a year in which they got none, then there's little reason why they can't be a Top 25 team again in 2011. The pieces are in place for that. But if the new management and the personnel do not immediately click, or, of course, if a lot of their four-star offensive players just simply aren't as good as their Rivals rankings suggest, then it is certainly feasible that improvement will be marginal.

When other talented teams (other Texas teams, for that matter) have a "down season," it means 9-3 and 'only' a Cotton Bowl (or, in other conferences, Outback Bowl or Chick-Fil-A Bowl) bid. Texas' 2010 fall was alarming in its magnitude, no matter what kind of bad coaching and bad breaks were at hand. And no matter how "re-energized" Mack Brown says he is now, there is no guarantee that Texas will simply rebound in 2011 like nothing happened. And because of that, any optimistic projection is full of risk. When you're thinking about the Big 12 this season, you're basically ranking the nine teams not named Texas, then throwing a dart against the wall.

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