Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger (11) warms up before the Big 12 Conference championship NCAA college football game against Oklahoma in Arlington, Texas, on Saturday, Dec. 1, 2018. [NICK WAGNER/AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

Football

Our 11th annual Top 25 countdown: Is Sam the man? No. 9 Texas is counting on it

The Sugar Bowl MVP is now a magazine coverboy and the Big 12's preseason offensive player of the year. The Horns need him to back it all up.

Posted July 19th, 2019

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We’re 41 days away from the 2019 season opener, but it’s never too early to talk college football. We continue with our 11th annual countdown series of our preseason Top 25 as selected by the American-Statesman sports staff. Last year’s eventual CFP semifinalists ranked first, second, eighth and 13th in our 2018 poll.

Our No. 9 team: Texas

The Longhorns’ best-case scenario: The season may likely depend on whether QB Sam Ehlinger plays all 12 games. His hard-charging style was the primary reason why the Longhorns vaulted back into national prominence last year, including a win in the Sugar Bowl. But one awkward tackle and this becomes Casey Thompson’s show. UT’s defense will have plenty of new faces this year, and that unit will need time to gel. Ehlinger must be the team’s undisputed leader.

And their worst-case scenario: Worst case? Obviously, an Ehlinger injury opens the door to a 7-5 or 8-4 type of finish. But what if defensive coordinator Todd Orlando can’t get much production out of Malcolm Roach or Ta’Quon Graham? There is hope with the linebacker unit, but it’s young. Brandon Jones and Caden Sterns must patrol the middle of the field and wreck havoc. Playing three of the final five games on the road looks daunting if the Horns are banged up.

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Last year, Texas was 25th on our preseason poll.

Inside the Longhorns

Coach: Tom Herman (3rd year, 17-10; 39-14 overall, 4 years at Houston and Texas)

2018:  10-4, 7-2 in the Big 12 (beat Georgia in the Sugar Bowl). It was the most wins and the highest final ranking (No. 9) for the Longhorns since the 2009 season.

Returning starters: 5 offense, 3 defense

Shoes to fill: RB Tre Watson (led team in rushing); WR Lil’Jordan Humphrey (1,176 yards, 9 TDs); LG Patrick Vahe (4-year starter, now with the Ravens); LT Calvin Anderson (New York Jets); ILB Gary Johnson (led team in tackles); LB Anthony Wheeler (2nd on team in tackles); DB P.J. Locke III (31 career starts); CB Kris Boyd (first-team all-conference); DE Charles Omenihu (9.5 sacks, Big 12 defensive lineman of the year)

Spring cleaning: QB Cam Rising transferred out (Utah), leaving Thompson as Ehlinger’s de facto backup. But the bigger news was the arrival and then transfer of receiver Bru McCoy. He went back to USC after going through spring drills. The coaching stafff remains intact, a key sign of stability, and Herman also received a two-year contract extension. A $175-million stadium renovation has begun, and Texas’ long-term arrow appears to be pointed up.

Texas wide receiver Collin Johnson (9) celebrates his touchdown reception during an NCAA college football game against Kansas in Lawrence, Kansas, on Friday, Nov. 23, 2018. [NICK WAGNER/AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

Returning leaders

PASSING: Sam Ehlinger (led team), 275-425-3,292 yards, 25 TDs, 5 INTs

RUSHING: Keaontay Ingram (2nd), 142-708-3; QB Sam Ehlinger (3rd), 164-482-16

RECEIVING: Collin Johnson (2nd), 68-985-7; Devin Duvernay (3rd), 41-546-4

TACKLES: S Brandon Jones (4th), 70; S Caden Sterns (6th), 62

SACKS: DB B.J. Foster (T-4th), 2.5

INTERCEPTIONS: S Caden Sterns (1st), 4

Returning All-Big 12 (6)

Offense: C Zach Shackelford (2nd team), OT Samuel Cosmi (hon. mention), QB Sam Ehlinger (hon. mention)

Defense: S Caden Sterns (defensive freshman of the year), S Brandon Jones (hon. mention)

Special teams: K Cameron Dicker (2nd)

Texas place kicker Cameron Dicker (17) celebrates after kicking the game-winning field goal during an NCAA college football game against Oklahoma at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, Texas, on Saturday, Oct. 6, 2018. Texas defeated Oklahoma 48-45 to improve to 5-1. [NICK WAGNER/AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

FYI

Knowing how to close: Despite some crazy fourth quarters last season, Herman continually stressed that Texas needed to finish. UT wound up going 7-3 in one-possession games. Seven wins ended with Texas in the victory formation, taking a knee to run out the clock. That’s a huge difference from anything that’s happened previously this decade.

Ready to run: Keaontay Ingram was expected to have a major role last year as a freshman. But he was simply too light. He has added 15 pounds of “armor,” as Herman calls it, and the former Carthage star should be a major contributor in 2019. Ingram and freshman Jordan Whittington are likely to be UT’s top running tandem. Whittington was a high school All-American who enrolled early to go through spring drills.

Secondary reloading: Brandon Jones and Caden Sterns have become close friends, and both are anxious to play the two safety positions. The cornerback spot is still uncertain after losing starters Kris Boyd and Davante Davis. Junior Josh Thompson, sophomores Jalen Green, D’Shawn Jamison and DeMarvion Overshown all earned praise at various moments throughout the spring. Expect to see different combinations throughout August as coaches experiment.

2018 national stat rankings

Scoring: 46th (31.1 ppg)

Total offense: 57th (411.3 ypg)

Passing: 34th (258.2 ypg)

Rushing: 90th (153.1 ypg)

Red zone offense: 82nd

Time of possession: 22nd (32:28)

Scoring defense: 57th (25.9 ppg)

Total defense: 67th (392.8 ypg)

Pass defense: 110th (261.4 ypg)

Rush defense: 28th (131.4 ypg)

Red zone defense: T-17th

Turnover margin: 19th

The schedule

DATEOPPONENTLAST YR'S RESULT (IF PLAYED)
Aug. 31Louisiana Tech
Sept. 7LSU
Sept. 14at Rice
Sept. 21Oklahoma State*L, 38-35
Oct. 5at West Virginia*L, 42-41
Oct. 12Oklahoma* (Dallas)W, 48-45
Oct. 19Kansas*W, 24-17
Oct. 26at TCU*W, 31-16
Nov. 9Kansas State*W, 19-14
Nov. 16at Iowa State*W, 24-10
Nov. 23at Baylor*W, 23-17
Nov. 29Texas Tech*W, 41-34
* Big 12 game (Texas fell 39-27 to Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game)

The key game? Sept. 7, LSU. This looks like one of the best non-conference games of the entire college football season. LSU QB Joe Burrow returns from a terrific junior year. The winner will likely draw early CFP consideration.

The last 5 years

YearW-L/Conf.RankBowl
20146-7 / 5-4— / —Texas Bowl, L
20155-7 / 4-5— / —No bowl
20165-7 / 3-6— / —No bowl
20177-6 / 5-423rd / —Texas Bowl, W
201810-4 / 7-223rd / 9thSugar Bowl, W
Total33-31 / 24-213 bowl games (2-1)
Note: Ranks are that year’s preseason/final ranking.

Our Top 25 — so far

No. 25: Stanford will need its experienced defense to lead the way early

No. 24: Can Nebraska carry its end-of-2018 momentum into 2019?

No. 23: Was 2018 a one-time thing, or is Syracuse back as a program?

No. 22: A run to last year’s Big Ten title game has Northwestern wanting more

No. 21: Mike Leach hopes Clemson’s quarterback loss is Washington State’s gain

No. 20: With no proven quarterback, Wisconsin will ride the legs of Jonathan Taylor

No. 19: With Jarret Stidham in the NFL, Auburn must choose a freshman quarterback

No. 18: Army might end up throwing a real wrench into the CFP’s plans this year

No. 17: Iowa State hopes to keep its recent rise moving full steam ahead

No. 16: Central Florida is trying to overcome a pair of serious quarterback injuries

No. 15: Utah casts its eyes on winning the Pac-12 title this year

No. 14: Penn State’s baromoter? Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State (again)

No. 13: Defense may determine Washington’s chances at another Pac-12 title

No. 12: Texas A&M must navigate a scheduled peppered with heavyweights

No. 11: Is Jim Harbaugh’s coaching seat at Michigan getting hotter?

No. 10: If Feleipe Franks continues his rise, Florida can make some noise in the SEC

No. 9: Texas

Our Top 25, by conferences

5 schools:

Big Ten — No. 11 Michigan, No. 14 Penn State, No. 20 Wisconsin, No. 22 Northwestern, No. 24 Nebraska

4 schools:

Pac-12 — No. 13 Washington, No. 15 Utah, No. 21 Washington State, No. 25 Stanford

3 schools:

SEC — No. 10 Florida, No. 12 Texas A&M, No. 19 Auburn

2 schools:

Big 12 — No. 9 Texas, No. 17 Iowa State

1 school:

AAC — No. 16 Central Florida

Independents — No. 18 Army

ACC — No. 23 Syracuse

Coming tomorrow: Our No. 8 team

Want a hint?

This school’s head coach was an offensive tackle at Miami in the late 1980s/early 1990s, where he played for Jimmy Johnson and Dennis Erickson and won two national championships with the Hurricanes.

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