The goal for the 2015 Texas Longhorns is very simple: Show progress. The Texas faithful do not have delusions of a national championship run, or even to be a sleeper to win the Big 12 championship. But the expectation is that this team WILL be better than last year’s 6-7 performance.
Charlie Strong defenses seem to become much better in Year 2, and Texas will have to ride that defense to victories this year, while the offense finds its identity and productivity. This is a make-or-break year for a lot of people around Austin, especially Strong, to prove that all of the changes and controversy were worth it to get back to winning Longhorn football.
Here now are Texas’s 12 regular season games, ranked from easiest to most difficult matchup.
12. Nov. 7 vs. Kansas
This game should have been the season opener to give this young team the opportunity to gel together. Instead, it comes late in the season at a moment that could be a time of desperation. If the Longhorns are not playing well going into this game, making it a must-win situation, then a game that should have been a gimme becomes a pressure-filled experience that could quickly become the death knell for the whole “Strong” experiment.
11. Oct. 31
The good news is that the Cyclones are far more desperate for wins and culture change than the Longhorns are right now. The bad news? The Cyclones are far more desperate for wins and culture change than the Longhorns are right now. This will make for a very tense and supremely competitive environment in Austin on Halloween. Iowa State will lean heavily on Senior QB Sam B. Richardson, who torched Texas last year for 371 yards and four touchdowns, as the Longhorns barely eked out a 48-45 win. Richardson will have revenge on his mind... and so will the Cyclones, who usually play pretty tough in Ames.
10. Sept. 19 vs. California
What ranks this game so low is the fact that there simply are NO guarantees in sports. On paper, the Golden Bears, which return the majority of their starters back from their 2014 5-7 team, seem to be poised to take a huge step forward in the Pac-12 and nationally. Quarterback Jared Goff leads the Cal offense and is positioned for a true breakout season, and the Bears are becoming the trendy pick to upset Stanford and Oregon. The reality, however, may be that this team may be exactly what it has been, a great offensive team that can’t stop ANYBODY on the other side of the ball.
9. Nov. 26 vs. Texas Tech
The problem with Texas Tech is that they are Texas Tech. And the Red Raiders see themselves as the chief rivals to the Longhorns, regardless if Texas sees it the same way or not. And they are always up for this game, no matter where the game is played. So it really doesn’t matter what the Red Raiders' record is, or if their team is playing poorly, or extremely well by late November, Texas Tech WILL be ready. Texas Tech is the little brother ready to beat the big brother every time they play, and Kliff Kingsbury's players will give it everything they have to win.
8. Oct. 24 vs. Kansas State
It is possible that if things come together defensively for Kansas State, that this could be the toughest challenge the Texas offense will face all season. That will depend a lot on whether sophomore LB Elijah Lee takes the next step as a pass rusher from his impressive 2014 freshman campaign (15 solo tackles, 4.5 sacks). Lee could provide the pressure needed for the Wildcats' secondary, which may be one of the best in the country, to continue carrying this defense. If Texas can’t find ways to move the ball on the ground, the Longhorns will have a very long day against Bill Snyder’s sleeper team.
7. Sept. 12 vs. Rice
After losing its first three games last season, Rice won eight out of 10 to close things, including an impressive and dominant Hawaii Bowl victory over Fresno State. The Owls are back, led by senior QB Driphus Jackson, who begins the year on the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm watch list. This Rice team comes in ready to build on last year’s success and get a signature win, and possess the talent to get it. And if Texas is reeling from their opening day game, the Owls will be poised to take advantage of that.
6. Nov. 14 at West Virginia
What do you get when you add the raucous environment Milan Puskar Stadium in Morgantown and a stingy defensive team that boasts one of the nation's best secondaries? The Mountaineers at home are unbelievably tough (see: Baylor, TCU in 2014). Even eventual SEC champion and College Football Playoff participant Alabama got all it could happen in the Crimson Tide's season opener. These were all really good, solid football teams, on both sides of the ball. Good luck with this one Charlie!
5. Sept. 26 vs. Oklahoma State
The Cowboys should return to being the nasty defensive team they have been known to be, especially in their secondary. Oklahoma State was embarrassed at home by Texas last year and will go into Austin with payback on its mind. The Cowboys hope quarterback Mason Rudolph steps into his own as a leader and helps stabilize the Oklahoma State offense. If the Cowboys can get production out of their young running backs, they may be poised for a breakout season. The Longhorns may be playing to get to .500 in this game, so this one could get interesting real fast. Could be a season-defining game for both teams.
4. Sept. 5 at Notre Dame
There are only two outcomes for this game. The first outcome sees the Longhorns catching Brian Kelly’s team off guard and pulling off a major upset in 2015. That would mean that an untested offense was able to come together during the offseason and devise a legitimate strategy to score on what could be one of the better defenses in the country. And it also would mean the announcement that Strong’s defense has indeed arrived. The other outcome is the one most expect — a somewhat dominant performance by the 11th-ranked Fighting Irish over a team that is too young to open the season this way.
3. Oct. 10 vs. Oklahoma (in Dallas)
Most seasons, this game is the signature game for any Texas coach. If you lose against the Sooners, the pressure is on for the rest of the season. The challenge is a little different this year, in that the Longhorns are not expected to win this game. If the Longhorns do win, Strong could keep his job, regardless of what happens the rest of the season. The rivalry still holds major weight with the fans and boosters, and a win would signal enough stability to the fan base to probably buy Strong and his staff an extra year. And if it happens to come after beating the preseason No. 2-ranked team in the country...
2. Oct. 3
The Horned Frogs have gone from Can They Compete in the Big 12 to The New Big 12 Powerhouse. Gary Patterson has developed a monster that dominates on both sides of the ball and a team that is extremely well coached and well prepared. TCU boasts a true Heisman candidate in quarterback Trevone Boykin, who will not sneak up on anyone this year. This team is ready to move on to bigger and better things, like a national championship opportunity. If the Longhorns are able to catch the Horned Frogs looking ahead and somehow steal this game, it would send shock waves throughout college football.
1. Dec. 5 at Baylor
This is the most significant game of the season because Baylor has become the most significant team in the Big 12. TCU (preseason No. 2) is ranked higher, but Baylor (No. 4) has assumed the position as the “circle the calendar game” for Big 12 teams. The Bears are the measuring stick, a circumstance Texas will face many times this season. An upset victory over Baylor could not only secure a bowl invite, it also could mean job security. It’s a matchup nightmare for Texas, as Baylor’s speed and game pace do not play in favor of the Longhorns, but anything is possible. The challenge will be even greater if Art Briles' Bears are fighting for a Playoff spot and NEED an impressive victory over Texas to enhance their standing with the committee. A blowout by the Bears could cost Strong more than just a winning season.
— Written by Lloyd H. Spence Jr., who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Spence has covered both high school and college sports for several years, and has written for several outlets, incuding ESPNLouisville.com and CardinalSports.com. Follow him on Twitter @TalkinNOIZ