The Steve Sarkisian era in Austin opens with challenging non-conference games against Louisiana and Arkansas
It's a new era of Texas football. Four-year starting quarterback Sam Ehlinger is off to pursue a career in the NFL, as are left tackle Samuel Cosmi, edge rusher Joseph Ossai and other talented players from the team Tom Herman coached to a 7-3 record, including a 55-23 victory over Colorado in the Alamo Bowl. In all, Texas must replace six starters and several others with significant experience (some of whom, like running back Keaontay Ingram, leading tackler Juwan Mitchell and defensive back Jalen Green, entered the transfer portal).
Nevertheless, there's plenty of optimism about the players that remain, and the new coaching staff hired to guide them. Running back Bijan Robinson flashed superstar potential as a true freshman and receiver Joshua Moore had a breakout sophomore campaign. DeMarvion Overshown played more snaps than any Texas defender last season returns as the most productive member of the unit. New head coach Steve Sarkisian arrived in Austin from Alabama following one of the most impressive two-year stints ever for an offensive coordinator, and defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski is one of the most respected in the profession.
Of course, Texas fans know change can be difficult. After three straight top-10 recruiting classes under Herman, the Longhorns slipped outside the top 15 in the most recent cycle. Sarkisian is an excellent play-caller but has a modest 46-35 as a head coach at Washington and USC and hasn't run his own program since 2015. The quarterback competition will stretch into the fall.
With so many moving pieces, Texas is one of the most difficult teams to project entering the 2021 season. At first glance, every game is winnable. Many are also losable. Here we explore what's in store for the new-look Longhorns this fall.
Bye: Week 8
Week 1 – Sept. 4 vs. Louisiana (Austin, Texas)
The Ragin' Cajuns knocked off Iowa State in the season opener last season and posted a 10-1 record as co-champions of the Sun Belt. Louisiana was able to hold on to head coach Billy Napier despite a 28-11 record with the program since taking over in 2018. Napier and his staff must replace two NFL-quality running backs, but plenty of talent returns, including Levi Lewis, an experienced quarterback capable of giving Texas fits and most of the starters from a defense that ranked No. 13 in FBS in yards per play (4.92) and No. 4 in yards per pass attempt (5.8) allowed. In short, this isn't a guaranteed Texas victory.
Week 2 – Sept. 11 at Arkansas (Fayetteville, Ark.)
Arkansas struggled down the stretch in 2020, but the Razorbacks looked like one of the most improved teams in college football throughout most of the season. Head coach Sam Pittman inherited some talented players from the previous coaching staff, including wide receiver Treylon Burks, safety Jalon Catalon and linebackers Bumper Pool and Grant Morgan, all of whom quickly emerged as All-SEC standouts. Line play was an issue but Pittman, among the most respected offensive line coaches in the game when he was hired by the Hogs, should help the Razorbacks improve in Year 2. Can new quarterback KJ Jefferson build upon Feleipe Franks' good work? If so, Arkansas could be a bowl team in 2021. A win over their former Southwest Conference rivals would be a big step in that direction.
Week 3 – Sept. 18 vs. Rice (Austin, Texas)
Prepare yourself for quite a few John F. Kennedy references (including this one). Texas and Rice have played 96 times to date, though the Longhorns have won every meeting since 1994 and 44 of 46 since 1960. Though the two programs are mismatched in terms of talent, the Owls have improved steadily since Mike Bloomgren took over in 2018. Rice was 2-3 last year, including a shutout win over a ranked Marshall squad, and appears poised to make some noise in Conference USA's West Division.
Week 4 – Sept. 25 vs. Texas Tech (Austin, Texas)
The Longhorns open Big 12 play with annual thorn-in-the-side Texas Tech. The Red Raiders led by 15 points with a little more than three minutes on the clock last season, but Texas stormed back to win 63-56 in overtime. Though Texas has won three in a row and 10 of the last 12 in the series, it was the fifth time in the last six years the game had been decided by a single possession. Projected new Tech quarterback Tyler Shough, who transferred after leading Oregon to the Pac-12 title as a starter last season, could be the missing piece in an offense that has slid under head coach Matt Wells.
Week 5 – Oct. 2 at TCU (Fort Worth, Texas)
Other Big 12 teams usually get the headlines, but TCU is always dangerous. The Horned Frogs knocked off Texas 33-31 in Austin last season, and 37-27 in Fort Worth in 2019 (and have won six of the last seven in the series), so there aren't many players on the Longhorns roster who have experienced a victory over Gary Patterson's squad. Patterson and his teams are known for defense, but with quarterback Max Duggan, receiver Quentin Johnston and a deep stable of running backs, the Horned Frogs expect to field their best offense in a half-decade, so breaking the streak won't be easy.
Week 6 – Oct. 9 vs. Oklahoma (Dallas)
The first five games on the schedule will be challenging, but it's possible the Longhorns will be favored in each. If the Longhorns take care of business, the showdown with Oklahoma could be a matchup of undefeated top-10 teams. The Sooners have beaten Texas three straight times, including the 53-45 overtime thriller last season, and in five of the last six meetings. But Lincoln Riley's 2021 roster might be his best yet, having climbed to the top of the Big 12 recruiting rankings and also adding high-profile transfers to fill some of the holes left by NFL draft departures. If the Oklahoma defense continues to improve, and the offense keeps rolling along, the Sooners could emerge as national championship contenders.
Week 7 – Oct. 16 vs. Oklahoma State (Austin, Texas)
Like Texas, Oklahoma State is one of the most difficult teams to project entering the 2021 season. The Cowboys lost a lot of star-power to the NFL, especially on offense, but the defense was the strength last year's 8-3 campaign. Seven starters return from a unit that ranked in the top 25 nationally in yards per play (5.35) and points per drive allowed (1.63), according to Brian Fremeau of BCFToys.com, as well as Success Rate (35.5 percent) and Expected Points Added per play (-.087), according to Parker Fleming at CFB-graphs.com. Plus, Mike Gundy and his coaching staff have multi-year starting quarterback Spencer Sanders to build around on offense. Despite modest expectations nationally, the Pokes could make a run to the Big 12 Championship Game.
Week 9 – Oct. 30 at Baylor (Waco, Texas)
Baylor took an expected step back in Dave Aranda's first season as head coach, struggling to a 2-7 record one year after making it to the Big 12 title game and Sugar Bowl. The offense was a big issue, but solid defense kept the Bears competitive most of the season, losing only once by more than 13 points. With nine starters back on defense and a revamped offense under new coordinator Jeff Grimes, who was the architect of BYU's excellent unit last season, 2021 could be a bounce-back season in Waco.
Week 10 – Nov. 6 at Iowa State (Ames, Iowa)
Most fans and analysts agree that Oklahoma should be the preseason favorite to win the Big 12, but there is an interesting discussion as to which team is best positioned to take on the Sooners in the Big 12 Championship Game. Iowa State returns one of the most experienced teams in the country, including 10 players who have received first- or second-team All-Big 12 recognition from last year's nine-win squad, giving the Cyclones a great argument. Expectations have never been higher in Ames, where the Longhorns must travel to keep their own championship hopes alive.
Week 11 – Nov. 13 vs. Kansas (Austin, Texas)
Texas has had more trouble with Kansas than some other Big 12 rivals over the last decade (including the embarrassing loss in 2016 and close calls in 2018 and 2019), but the 2021 Jayhawks are arguably the worst Power 5 team in the country, and among the worst FBS teams overall. If there's a 50-point win on the Longhorns schedule, this is the likeliest spot.
Week 12 – Nov. 20 at West Virginia (Morgantown, W. Va.)
The record didn't change much, but West Virginia took a noticeable step forward in Neal Brown's second season as head coach, improving from 5-7 in 2019 to 6-4, including a bowl win over Army. Brown welcomes back starting quarterback Jarret Doege, 1,010-yard running back Leddie Brown and more than 80 percent of the team's receiving production returning on offense, in addition to six starters from one of the best defenses in the country, making WVU a Top 25 hopeful. The trip to Morgantown (all 1,400 miles of it) won't be easy.
Week 13 – Nov. 27 vs. Kansas State (Austin, Texas)
K-State may have finished the 2020 season on a five-game losing streak to fall to 4-6, but there is optimism in Manhattan ahead of the 2021 campaign. Quarterback Skylar Thompson missed most of last year due to injury but returns as a "super senior" with 30 career starts under his belt. Running back Deuce Vaughn led the team in rushing and receiving as a true freshman and the two will work with a veteran group of receivers and offensive linemen. If the defense can overcome the loss of six starters, the Wildcats are capable of getting back to a bowl game.
(Top photo courtesy of @TexasFootball)