BEVO BEAT Football

The Whys of Texas: If everyone had stayed, would the Longhorns be in this year’s CFP?

Don't expect any underclassmen or seniors to skip this year's bowl game against No. 5 Georgia

Posted December 5th, 2018

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First, a confession. There is no doubt in my mind that had all those underclassmen last season stayed at Texas one more year, the Longhorns would be in the College Football Playoff this month, not just the Sugar Bowl.

We’ll never know, though.

Texas won nine games this season and reached the Big 12 championship game — and was a two-point conversion stop away from winning 10.

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Now add left tackle Connor Williams, linebacker Malik Jefferson, safety DeShon Elliott, cornerback Holton Hill and even punter Michael Dickson back into the mix. How good would that Texas have been? I’m sure coaches could’ve even found a role for Chris Warren III.

Makes you wonder, doesn’t it? Was following tougher rules and eating soggy pancakes really all that bad?

Texas defensive back P.J. Locke III (11) celebrates a stop with Texas defensive back Caden Sterns (7) during the Big 12 Conference championship NCAA college football game against Oklahoma in Arlington, Texas, on Saturday, Dec. 1, 2018. [NICK WAGNER/AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

Now, had Williams stayed, the Horns probably don’t get graduate transfer Calvin Anderson. Had Elliott stayed, freshman Caden Sterns probably doesn’t get extensive playing time and win Big 12 defensive freshman of the year honors.

Dickson was the only one of those six underclassmen last season who played in the Texas Bowl. The Punter became the game’s MVP, for heaven’s sake. OK, so maybe the Ray Guy Award winner was truly NFL-ready. The others? Oh well.

That brings us back to the Sugar Bowl against No. 5 Georgia. We haven’t heard anything yet, but I will be shocked — jaw-on-the-floor and stupefied beyond belief — if any underclassmen or seniors skip the bowl game to “protect” their NFL draft status.

“I’m not missing the bowl game,” junior receiver Lil’Jordan Humphrey said in mid-November.

Maybe Humphrey jumps into the draft, maybe not. But miss the Sugar Bowl? Forget it. He was also one of three players suspended for the bowl game last season.

Let’s be honest here, too. The Texas Bowl is not the Sugar Bowl. Playing for a seventh win is far, far different than playing for a 10th win in New Year’s Six bowl. No offense, Texas. Bowl. You’re a swell event, but UT fans don’t want to go back there for a long while.

So I’m expecting a full-throttle effort from UT’s top seniors with NFL ambitions. That includes a slew of defensive players. And I’d expect a top effort from UT’s two junior receivers — Humphrey and Collin Johnson.

Everyone should be all in for this game, a far cry from last year. Funny how winning changes everything.

On to this week’s mailbag in the wake of Oklahoma’s 39-27 win over Texas in the Big 12 title game:

Q. It was evident we had not played at this level in a long time. Programs not used to playing in championship games do things out of character. Too many penalties is the best example. This game was part of the learning process. Next year we win this game and more. There is no need to hang our heads. We are a program on the upswing and have a bright future for the first time in many years. Hang on because the next 2 years are going to be a lot fun!!

— Sandy Z. via Facebook

That was my overriding thought driving back to Austin as well. Texas was facing a program that had won three consecutive Big 12 titles. The Longhorns were a program that just recently had three straight losing seasons. You do not go from 5-7 to Big 12 champions in one or two years. It’s a building process.

There’s no question that coach Tom Herman and his staff are on the right track. As explained above, this could have easily been a 10-win season. Think about that. It’s impossible for Texas fans to hang their heads about the OU loss considering how mediocre this decade has been and where this program is headed now.

Texas defensive back Josh Thompson (29) runs into Oklahoma wide receiver CeeDee Lamb (2) for a penalty during the Big 12 Conference championship NCAA college football game in Arlington, Texas, on Saturday, Dec. 1, 2018. [NICK WAGNER/AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

Q. Texas has improved much this year and should be a contender next year. The main reason for losing to Oklahoma was penalties. You can’t have as many pass interference penalties as they did and win a game. They also got screwed on a face mask penalty by Oklahoma that the refs missed.

— Joseph L. via Facebook

Kris Boyd had three penalties in the first quarter while battling OU’s Marquise Brown. The facemask call was legitimate and wiped out an interception in the end zone. But I thought that pass interference call later in the first quarter was comical. Breckyn Hager had a facemask penalty that moved the ball to the Texas 6-yard line. Johnson’s offensive pass interference call was legit as he pushed the OU defender in the back. That was critical.

Officials missed an obvious false start by OU’s right tackle on fourth-and-1 at  the Texas 32. The next play was a 28-yard touchdown pass to CeeDee Lamb.

Texas had 13 penalties, the highest total in two seasons under Herman, for 128 yards. It was the highest total since 16 flags were thrown against Texas in the 2015 Oklahoma State game. OU was flagged five times for 60 yards.

Q. I agree with Coach (Kirby) Smart that Georgia should have been in the championship mix rather than Oklahoma. Here’s my conspiracy theory for you. When the Alabama QB got hurt, it probably ruined his chance for the Heisman, so in order to get Kyler Murray more press for his run at the award, consequently, OU got the nod. I think that also translates into the UT/OU game with the questionable officiating. It would have looked bad for OU’s Heisman candidate getting beat by an 9-3 team. Like I said, a theory. I’m not complaining about any of this. It just seems plausible to me.

— John G. via Facebook

First off, Kyler Murray doesn’t need the officials’ help in winning the Heisman. I think he just might do that on his own. I’m not allowed yet to say who I voted for, but let’s just say that I voted for the guy who brought the most value to his team. Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa is an awesome quarterback, no question. But the Crimson Tide probably would’ve been undefeated with Jalen Hurts at the controls, too.

Texas linebacker Anthony Wheeler (45) lays out for Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray (1) during the Big 12 Conference championship NCAA college football game in Arlington, Texas, on Saturday, Dec. 1, 2018. [NICK WAGNER/AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

Georgia fans can certainly be upset their team was left out of the CFP. But if you truly thought the Bulldogs were going to be included in the final four teams after losing to the Tide, then you have no idea how the CFP works. Saturday night, I thought it was a foregone conclusion that OU would be in. How some ESPN commentators allowed themselves to get so worked up about it was ridiculous.

There’s just no way the CFP selection committee was going to allow a two-loss conference runner-up into the final four over a one-loss conference champion. No way.

Q. Great bowl, tough draw! Take the points!! HOOK ‘EM INDEED!!!

— Jim H. via Facebook

You can bet the boys in the desert were furious that Sam Ehlinger threw that late interception to Tre Norwood with 51 seconds left. I really thought the Horns would score on their final drive and then we’d see an onside kick. Texas was a 7 1/2- or 8-point underdog to OU, depending on your oddsmaker of choice. The Horns lost by 12.

Now, I’ve seen one early line that has Texas a 10-point underdog to Georgia. Same as the OU game, I’d take that all day long. The Horns generally play close, tight games.

Of course, I went 14-1 in the final week of our Statesman picks and still finished last (11 games back; I was 133-77 for the season). So what do I know?

Georgia head coach Kirby Smart takes the field with the team before the first half of the Southeastern Conference championship NCAA college football game between Georgia and Alabama, Saturday, Dec. 1, 2018, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Amis)

Q. Big Bad SEC and all that “defense” they play, against one of those “Video Game Offenses” of the Big 12 they always trash. Let’s see what happens. Hook ‘Em!!

— Kenny C. via Facebook

In my mind, this is Herman’s biggest challenge the next few weeks with the players. He’s got to poke holes in the perception that Georgia is some kind of superior team because it resides in the SEC. Yes, the Bulldogs played a fantastic game against the Tide. But the Horns play up to their level of competition, too.

In non-conference play, Georgia beat Austin Peay, Middle Tennessee State and Massachusetts.  Compare that to Texas’ slate of Maryland, Tulsa and USC.

The Dawgs average 39.2 points per game, and quarterback Jake Fromm has completed 68.4 percent of his passes with 27 touchdowns and five interceptions. Georgia’s running game is superior to UT’s. Running back D’Andre Swift has 1,037 yards and 10 touchdowns, and Elijah Holyfield has 956 yards. The Horns’ run defense ranks 36th nationally.

We’ll get into more breakdowns in the coming weeks, but I’m not convinced Georgia is unbeatable. Not by a long shot.

Q. We’re not ready for this — sorry to be negative — next year maybe would’ve been better. Todd Orlando better get the corners ready. No pass defense spells a blowout here. Plus their defense will really show us how to play on that side of the ball. Hope I’m wrong, but not excited for this at all. 

— Scott C. via Facebook

Georgia does have a solid defense. The Bulldogs rank fourth in the SEC in scoring defense (18.5 points allowed) and third in total defense (311.2 yards allowed). I’m just not convinced the SEC, top to bottom, is as good as the Big 12 top to bottom. Go ahead, SEC fans, and trash my inbox, but it won’t change my thinking. Frankly, I thought Texas A&M should’ve had a better year than what they did in the SEC. When it comes to perception, It Just Means More, I guess. We’ll see this postseason when Texas faces Georgia and OU battles Alabama.

Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger (11) celebrates a touchdown against Oklahoma in the first half of the Big 12 Conference Championship NCAA football game at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, Saturday, Dec. 1, 2018. [Stephen Spillman for Statesman]

Q. Sam Ehlinger is 100 percent better this year than last. If he improves this much again in the offseason it will be interesting. He’s not throwing interceptions and playing smarter now after the injury, learning to slide and protect his throwing shoulder. He’s intelligent and will improve even more next year.

— Bert L. via Facebook

Agreed, 100 percent. I’ve written before about how Ehlinger’s biggest area of improvement this season was his ball placement. Really think about his passing this season. How many times did you come away thinking, “Man, Sam got lucky on that one.” Or, “That DB dropped that one.” Or, “That should’ve been a pick-six.” Not that much.

Ehlinger threw for 3,127 yards during the 13 games so far and has 25 touchdowns with only five interceptions. I’d say Kansas was his only bad game. He just didn’t have it that day. Don’t blame the shoulder injury, either. Ehlinger won’t.

Bottom line: Ehlinger was terrific this season, and his development is a major reason why Texas reached the Big 12 title game. Tip your cap to offensive coordinator Tim Beck, who works with the quarterbacks.

Texas captains defensive lineman Breckyn Hager (44), defensive lineman Chris Nelson (97) and offensive lineman Elijah Rodriguez (72) take the field before the Big 12 Conference Championship NCAA football game at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, Saturday, Dec. 1, 2018. [Stephen Spillman for Statesman]

Finally, I’ve gotten a ton of correspondence about Brett Hager. Most were written in crimson ink. I’m not giving those much air time. But Texas did acknowledge that Hager cut his hand in an “accident” after the game. He posted a photo on Instagram that showed his left hand badly cut. It’s not a big leap to say he probably punched something.

Q. Maybe Hager was trying to cut his golden locks? I’m hoping he will be fine for the Sugar Bowl and raise his draft position. One tackle is not going to get him in the NFL.

— Chris B. via Facebook

Hager had been growing his hair for three years. He vowed to cut it when the Longhorns won the Big 12 title. Well, that didn’t happen. In a second photo posted on Instagram after the game, it looked as if Hager had already cut his hair. Oh well.

If you’re going to say “OU sucks” and then cut a WWE-style promo on Longhorn Network after the Iowa State game, you better be ready to back it up. Hager had just one tackle against the Sooners and was hammered by offensive linemen all game long. He has 31 tackles on the season. Texas defensive coaches are hoping he bounces back against Georgia.

Contact Brian Davis at 512-445-3957. Email bdavis@statesman.com.

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