There are surprise teams every college football season, on both the good and the bad end of things. The 2016 season seemed particularly heavy on the bad end, with a number of highly-touted teams in the preseason — or teams that were coming off strong ‘15 campaigns — falling flat on their faces and missing out on bowl games.
We’ll be taking a look at some of those heavyweights who took a big dip in 2016, dissecting what went wrong and spotting reasons for optimism heading into 2017. Texas got off to a great start, but hit the skids shortly after and wound up 5-7 and in sixth place in the Big 12, costing Charlie Strong his job. The Longhorns were the winners of the Tom Herman sweepstakes, but does that mean immediate success this fall?
2015 recap: 5-7 (4-5 Big 12)
2016 preseason: Unranked
2016 recap: 5-7 (3-6 Big 12)
What Went Wrong
Because everything is bigger in Texas, everything also is messier in Texas. Sure, things looked so promising in that season-opening double-overtime win over Notre Dame, but the Irish turned out to be a 4-8 team. The minute third-year head coach Charlie Strong ran into trouble in 2016 — and that took all of three weeks, when the Longhorns started a three-game losing streak — the vultures were out, with public whispers about the coach’s job security growing louder by the week.
Running back D’Onta Foreman’s monster season served as a nice distraction on offense. But the Horns surrendered 45 or more points in each game of that aforementioned losing streak, and they ended up finishing with the nation’s No. 94 defense, which explains why coordinator Vance Bedford was demoted midseason. This, of course, came one year after the in-season demotion of offensive coordinator Shawn Watson.
Strong fired seven assistants in three years. The Horns lost 11 games by 18 or more points under him. The tipping point, though, came in a Nov. 19 loss at Kansas, which snapped the Jayhawks’ 19-game Big 12 losing streak. The season, and frankly, the Strong tenure, was a mess, which is a shame considering how graceful Strong handled the pressure cooker that is Austin, and how good his track record had been before arriving to town.
He is now off to USF, which could be a Group of 5 power, while Texas looks to turn the corner under Tom Herman, who comes over from Houston.
How It Can Be Fixed
Just how coveted was Herman after his 12-1, Peach Bowl-winning 2015 season with the Cougars? Let’s just say that even if Strong showed some progress in 2016, it was likely going to be hard for Texas brass to resist making a run at Herman this year, regardless of Houston’s 9-3 record.
His history coaching in the state is an enormous plus for recruiting, as his is magnetic personality. His work with quarterbacks speaks for itself, and among many shortcomings, that might be where Texas has struggled the most in recent years. It will be interesting to see how Shane Buechele develops as a sophomore, assuming Herman sticks with him as the starter. (Herman has said he’s not expecting to add another QB).
Herman has been selective with recruiting so far, noting how difficult transition classes can be. Still, the freshmen on this past season’s team made up the nation’s No. 7 class (per Rivals), and there is certainly a ton of talent on this roster to compete right away, especially in the middling Big 12, as the Horns return virtually their entire starting defense.
Strong said upon his hiring at USF that he baked the cake at Texas, and that it’s Herman’s job to now put icing on it. Just how true that statement is remains to be seen, but perception-wise, it will only add pressure on Herman from a fan base that has (rightfully) grown weary in recent years.
Whether Herman can completely turn things around in Year 1 is a big question, but he certainly looks like the guy to eventually get it done in the long-term. And if Herman can’t succeed at this job after his track record, well, Texas may be even more dysfunctional than anyone has given it credit for.
— Written by Matt Fortuna, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and spent six seasons covering college football for ESPN.com. Fortuna’s work has been honored by the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and U.S. Basketball Writers Association (USBWA) seven times. Follow him on Twitter @Matt_Fortuna and like his Facebook page.
(Tom Herman photo courtesy of www.texassports.com)