Despite losing Sam Ehlinger, the Longhorns offense is in good hands with Steve Sarkisian
The Texas Longhorns ended the 2020 college football season on a positive note by beating Colorado 55-23 in the Alamo Bowl. The victory capped a 7-3 season that included a 5-3 record in Big 12 play and a No. 19 final ranking in the AP Top 25. All three losses were close, with the Longhorns falling to TCU and Iowa State by a combined five points and succumbing to Oklahoma in four overtimes.
But close losses are still losses, and blowout wins in second-tier bowls aren't good enough at Texas. Head coach Tom Herman was fired on Jan. 2, and the Longhorns hired Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian to replace him hours later. Despite rumors Herman was on the hot seat, and that Texas had pursued Urban Meyer behind the scenes, news of his firing came as a surprise to many since Herman had survived the regular season and coached the Longhorns to victory in the bowl game. Nevertheless, the pursuit of Meyer became a public spectacle, making it impossible to bring Herman back.
Sarkisian posted a 46-35 combined record as head coach at Washington and USC from 2009-15. After the Trojans fired him for alcohol-related reasons, Sarkisian rebuilt his career with the help of Alabama head coach Nick Saban, who hired Sark as an offensive analyst in 2016 and again as offensive coordinator following a two-year stint in the NFL with the Atlanta Falcons. Simply put, his two recent Alabama offenses were two of the best and most explosive in college football history. Sarkisian also led the Crimson Tide to victory over archrival Auburn as acting head coach when Saban was unavailable due to COVID protocols.
Texas hasn't won a conference championship since 2009, four years after its last national title. Can Sark break the streak? Expectations are likely to be modest by the usual standards entering next season, especially with Oklahoma and Iowa State considered to be early College Football Playoff contenders. But there are still a few reasons for optimism about the Longhorns in 2021.
1. Offense is in good hands
Like Herman, quarterback Sam Ehlinger's Texas career came and went without adding a championship to the trophy case. Ehlinger left as a four-year starter with the second-most passing yards and touchdown passes in school history, and he finished fourth on the program's all-time list in rushing touchdowns. Receivers Brennan Eagles and Tarik Black and offensive tackle Samuel Cosmi also left for the NFL draft, and former starting running back Keaontay Ingram transferred to USC. Overall, Sarkisian inherits an offense that returns 53 percent of its offensive production from last year, according to ESPN's Bill Connelly, which ranks 104th in FBS.
Of course, Sarkisian has rebuilt offenses in the past, both quickly and successfully. In 2020, Alabama returned 55 percent of its offensive production, which ranked 85th in Connelly's early numbers. The Crimson Tide lost four offensive starters taken in the first 15 picks of the 2020 draft: quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, tackle Jedrick Wills Jr., and receivers Henry Ruggs III and Jerry Jeudy. No matter, Mac Jones — a former three-star afterthought signee — emerged as one of the best quarterbacks in the country and became a Heisman Trophy finalist. DeVonta Smith became the first wideout to win the award in three decades, and Najee Harris finished fifth in the voting. The Tide averaged 48.5 points and 541.6 total yards per game, and 7.81 yards per play, all of which ranked among the top three nationally. Alabama also led the nation in a variety of advanced stats, including success rate (53.9 percent) and Expected Points Added per play (0.361), according to cfb-graphs.com, as well as points per drive (4.41), according to Brian Fremeau — all among the best on record.
Casey Thompson completed eight of 10 passes for 170 yards and four touchdowns in relief of an injured Ehlinger against Colorado, giving the sophomore an early audition for the starting quarterback job and potentially a leg up in the competition with freshman Hudson Card. Former five-star freshman running back Bijan Robinson ran for 183 yards, caught two passes for 37 yards, and scored three total touchdowns in the bowl game (his second straight 200-yard, three-score performance), and has the look of a Heisman contender. Joshua Moore caught nine touchdown passes and led the team with 30 receptions and 472 yards, and Jake Smith, Jordan Whittington, Kelvontay Dixon, Al'Vonte Woodard, and Malcolm Epps all have loads of untapped potential.
Sarkisian masterfully schemed ways to get the football to DeVonta Smith and Harris, and his ability to coach and develop quarterbacks helped turn Jones into a potential first-round pick. Sark also will call the plays for the Longhorns, though offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Kyle Flood also came to Austin from Tuscaloosa, where he led the Joe Moore Award-winning unit, as did tight ends coach Jeff Banks and quarterbacks coach A.J. Milwee.
2. So is the defense
CFB Winning Edge has developed overall ratings for every FBS head coach and coordinator based on the historical statistical performance of each team. Coming off a season in which he posted the No. 1 offensive team performance rating in history, Sarkisian finished 2020 as the fifth-rated offensive coordinator in the country. New defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski ranked even higher on his side of the football, finishing No. 4 among his peers following a seven-year stint at Washington. Texas and Clemson (whose Tony Elliott and Brent Venables are the No. 1 offensive and defensive coordinators, respectively) are the only two FBS programs with a pair of top-10 play-callers entering 2021 according to CFB Winning Edge, much less top-five. Only two other programs (Big 12 rivals Oklahoma and Iowa State, as luck would have it) placed both play-callers in the top 20 of the national rankings.
Kwiatkowski called the defense for five seasons at Washington, and his units ranked in the top 20 each time. The Huskies ranked in the top five in defensive team performance twice during his tenure in Seattle. Kwiatkowski also was the defensive play-caller at Boise State (2010-13) and FCS Montana State (2000-05).
Like on offense, the Texas defense must replace several key contributors in 2021. Edge rusher Joseph Ossai was a consensus All-American in 2020 and understandably left early for the NFL. He was joined by longtime starting safety Caden Sterns. Defensive lineman Ta'Quan Graham and defensive back Chris Brown were among those who opted not to take advantage of the extra season of eligibility given to every player by the NCAA in 2020. In all, Texas expects to return 69 percent of its defensive productions, which ranks 72nd overall. Thanks to a solid run of recruiting under Herman, a lot of talented players are set to return. Most notably, linebacker DeMarvion Overshown should garner plenty of preseason All-American buzz in 2021. And with Kwiatkowski leading the charge, the defense should be one of the best-coached units in college football.
3. Talent is on the rise
Herman signed the No. 3 recruiting class in both 2018 and '19, according to 247Sports, and he put together a top-10 group in 2020 as well. The Longhorns finished No. 17 in the most recent cycle, and though it's common for a transition class to dip in the recruiting rankings, it also continued an unsettling trend — Oklahoma overtook Texas atop the Big 12 recruiting rankings, both in 2021 and on average over the past five years.
The Horns were also beaten far too often on home soil. Five-star athlete Ja'Tavion Sanders was the No. 2 player in the Lone Star State in the 247Sports Composite, but he was the only top-25 in-state prospect to sign with Texas. Ohio State, LSU, SMU, Cal, Mississippi State, Texas Tech, Tennessee, and Kansas (yes, Kansas) all signed players ranked among the top 25 in the state. Six of the top 20 landed at Texas A&M, while four signed with the Sooners, and four (all of whom ranked among the top 13 Texans last cycle) signed with Alabama. Most disappointing to Texas fans, the Crimson Tide poached No. 1 Tommy Brockermeyer and his brother James, the top-ranked offensive tackle and center prospects in the nation, respectively, and the sons of former Longhorns All-American Blake Brockermeyer and brother of current Texas linebacker Luke Brockermeyer.
Sarkisian and his staff are already hard at work attempting to reclaim the top spot in the league and to dominate the state again. The early results are promising. The Horns have six players committed to the 2022 class, including five-star quarterback Maalik Murphy from California. It's very early in the process, but Texas currently ranks fifth nationally, though the average rating of each commit (95.20) would push the group to third behind only Oklahoma (96.83) and Ohio State (96.00). Each of the other five commits is from Texas, including four that rank among the top 25 prospects in the state. The Longhorns are reportedly on track to land several more elite Texas prospects before the early signing period in December, and Sark's Alabama ties should keep the Horns in the mix for other top players around the country.
A top-five recruiting class is no guarantee of future success (ask Tom Herman), but if the new coaching staff can capitalize on the optimism it has created in Austin already, Texas football fans should be excited about the long-term future of the program as well.
(Screengrab courtesy of texassports.com)