Now that Texas has guaranteed a second straight losing season, what happens against No. 7 Baylor in next week’s season finale is largely irrelevant.
There’s no substantive difference between a 4-8 record and 5-7 in the history books.
Texas coach Charlie Strong can now begin thinking about 2016, a make-or-break year in which the season-long narrative will revolve around whether he should lead the Longhorns on a long-term basis.
With a 4-7 record and no bowl game to prepare for, Strong can get a head start on remaking his coaching staff, should he choose, and dive head-long into recruiting before the NCAA-mandated dead period begins on Dec. 14.
It’s clear this program has talented young players. But who should be coaching them up? Offensive assistants Shawn Watson, Joe Wickline and Tommie Robinson are all in the second and final years of their guaranteed contracts. So are defensive assistants Vance Bedford, Brian Jean-Mary and Chris Vaughn.
Brick Haley, Jeff Traylor and current play-caller Jay Norvell all have one guaranteed year remaining on their contracts.
“I just wait until the end of the season to look at that,” Strong said about his coaching staff after Thursday night’s 48-45 loss to Texas Tech. “I haven’t even thought about the staff or anything. I just look at what I have player-wise.”
Would Strong hire someone deeply familiar with the spread passing attack? That’s what Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops did after the 2014 season, hiring Lincoln Riley. That decision, coupled with dynamic play from quarterback Baker Mayfield, now has the Sooners in prime position for the College Football Playoff.
Next season, the Longhorns will have five quarterbacks at someone’s disposal: Jerrod Heard, Tyrone Swoopes, Kai Locksley, Matthew Merrick and, presumably, incoming freshman Shane Buechele. It seems doubtful Strong would bring in a junior-college transfer.
Texas’ poor defensive numbers the last two years are partly due to ineffective quarterback play. The offense either can’t score enough points to be competitive or stay on the field long.
Barring a stifling effort against the Bears, Bedford’s defense will finish the season statistically as the worst in school history. Texas is 343 yards shy of setting a school record for total yards allowed. Baylor averages 644.1 yards per game.
Four of the five worst defenses in school history have all come in the last four years.
On Thursday, the Red Raiders piled up 665 yards, the fifth-highest total allowed in Horns’ history. Think about this: Texas rushed for a season-high 403 yards against Tech, won the turnover battle (4-2), held the Raiders to 4 for 13 on third downs … and still lost.
The Longhorns currently have 12 recruits committed for 2016. Rivals has UT’s class ranked 51st nationally. Strong has never wavered from his belief that anything can happen leading up to national signing day on Feb. 3.
If Strong can put together another talented recruiting class, with athletes who can walk in and play immediately, then the Horns will have something special cooking.
Running back doesn’t appear to be a problem. Chris Warren III set a UT freshman record with his 276-yard performance against the Raiders. Warren, D’Onta Foreman and Kirk Johnson should make for an excellent stable next season. Freshmen linemen Connor Williams and Patrick Vahe should be season-long starters. John Burt, Armanti Foreman and Ryan Newsome give UT steady targets out wide.
Defensively, freshmen can be found all across the secondary. Malik Jefferson and Breckyn Hager are solid linebackers. Poona Ford is developing at defensive tackle, and Paul Boyette and Bryce Cottrell will be back as seniors. Hassan Ridgeway could return despite low-level murmurs that he’d look at the NFL Draft.
Strong endured his share of bad luck this season, no question. The missed extra point against California and the fumbled punt snap against Oklahoma State turned potential wins into losses. Holton Hill’s sure-fire interception against Tech became into a SportsCenter Top 10 play when Jakeem Grant caught the carom and raced 65 yards for a touchdown.
“It’s not bad luck. It’s a lack of execution,” senior center Taylor Doyle said. “Kudos to those teams, kudos to Tech. They came out an played well. But at the end of the day, if we want to win ballgames, if we want to have success, we’re going to have to execute and be consistent.”
Texas needs to make its own luck in 2016. The quicker Strong can get working on next year, the better.
“You look at what we have,” Strong said, “and I think the future is very bright.”