Tick, tock, tick, tock. The wait is excruciating.
“I’m just excited to go out and, you know, kind of hit somebody else,” Texas receiver Collin Johnson said this week.
The Longhorns trudged through the long offseason, made it through a hot summer and battled through preseason practice. Come Saturday night, 10th-ranked Texas finally gets back into Royal-Memorial Stadium for the season opener against Louisiana Tech.
“You go against somebody for 21 days,” defensive coordinator Todd Orlando said, “it’s gonna get a little chippy, you know what I’m saying?”
The stadium is undergoing a $175-million renovation that will be completed for the 2021 season. By all appearances, this is a totally renovated team, too.
Insert your Maryland jokes here. After all, the Horns lost both ends of a home-and-home series against the Terrapins in the opener the last two years. If anything, it cemented a long-held belief within the coaching industry that powerhouse teams should open with perceived easier games.
Make no mistake, Skip Holtz’s Bulldogs are no cupcakes and absolutely no pushovers. This will not be easy for the Horns in the slightest, regardless of their 20.5-point favored status. After going 4-8 in 2013, Holtz’s teams are 42-25 the last five seasons.
Yet it’s factually correct to say Louisiana Tech is a non-Power Five school, a team from Conference USA. Louisiana Tech officials will gladly take the $1.1 million check UT is cutting to come to Austin.
“I’ve seen a lot written about Texas being back and a consensus top-10 team, so we know what type of opponent we’re playing right from the get-go,” Holtz said. “I think it’s good for college football when Texas is winning.”
The 2019 lineup marks a return to the Mack Brown school of scheduling:
The former Texas coach routinely opened with so-called “paycheck games” against New Mexico State, North Texas or Louisiana-Lafayette. These games help fund those schools’ athletic budgets.
Texas’ second game usually was a glamorous, high-profile matchup — think UCLA, Stanford, Arkansas or Ohio State. Next week, Texas hosts No. 6 LSU in the national spotlight. Provided both teams win their openers, ESPN’s “College GameDay” is likely to be in Austin, according to a source familiar with the selection process.
Then, for game three, Texas would usually play another non-Power Five team before Big 12 play began. Tom Herman, who enters his third season with a 17-10 record at UT, embraces this model. Texas is the only program in the nation to play 11 Power Five opponents during its 12-game regular-season schedule from 2015-18.
The Big 12 requires its member schools to play at least one Power Five opponent in non-conference play in addition to nine league games. Other conferences, like the SEC, require only eight league games and allow plenty of cupcakes. This year, No. 2 Alabama has New Mexico State and the Western Carolina Catamounts on the schedule. No. 3 Georgia gets the Murray State Racers and No. 6 LSU plays Northwestern State.
And it’s not just the SEC. Among other top-10 teams’ schedules, defending national champion Clemson plays the Charlotte 49ers and the Wofford Terriers, No. 7 Michigan opens with Middle Tennessee and eighth-ranked Florida plays the Tennessee-Martin Skyhawks and Towson.
“Everybody wants to talk about expanding the playoffs, this, that and the other,” Herman said. “Some form of unified scheduling model across all conferences is something I think we need to tackle much sooner than worrying about the playoffs.”
Herman believes the Big 12 offers a far tougher road to the College Football Playoff than the national media gives it credit for. The Big 12’s conference title game is essentially a 10th league game. “You’re comparing apples to oranges when you talk about schedule, toll on these kids’ bodies, all of that stuff,” he added.
As of now, Texas will open futures schedules against South Florida (2020), Louisiana-Lafayette (2021), Rice (2023) and Colorado State (2024). But those schedules also will include big names, like LSU (2020), Arkansas (2021), Alabama (2022 and 2023), Michigan (2024) and Ohio State (2025 and 2026).
Winning is a lot harder when you start the year 0-1. So what exactly happened the last two years against the Terps? The players themselves aren’t totally sure.
Inside the program, some believe the 2017 loss happened because players were “tight” and wanted to win for Herman. But after three straight losing seasons, you could make an argument the Longhorns didn’t know how to win. Then last season at FedEx Field, the Horns had momentum before a long rain delay served as an equalizer. Three fourth-quarter turnovers sealed their fate.
“Whenever a team plays not to lose is different than when a team plays to win,” center Zach Shackelford said. “And I think we’ve seen the difference between the two with this team and all teams.”
Quarterback Sam Ehlinger said confidence is not something you can track on paper, but “it’s definitely an emotion that can really, really help a team.”
Texas, in short, lacked confidence. That only came in time with wins over No. 7 Oklahoma, a trip to the Big 12 title game and a win over No. 5 Georgia in the Sugar Bowl. A strong majority of those players are returning this season.
“We didn’t have one of those top-10 wins, where it was like, OK, we can compete with the big dogs,” Ehlinger said. “And so I think confidence has a lot to do with Week 1, understanding where you’re at as a team and knowing that you can compete at a high level.”
Ehlinger’s presence should give every Texas fan, athlete and administrator confidence. The Westlake product has become the program’s driving force. He’ll likely have to do a lot against Louisiana Tech considering the running backs are so badly beaten up.
Keaontay Ingram (knee) and Jordan Whittington (sports hernia) both have health issues that could nag them all season. Daniel Young (ankle) and Kirk Johnson (shoulder) are both sidelined throughout September. Late this month, coaches moved third-string quarterback Roschon Johnson to running back just for depth purposes.
Asked if all these injuries will change his philosophical approach, offensive coordinator Tim Beck said, “No.”
Pressed on the matter, he elaborated. “No.”
Ehlinger, receivers Collin Johnson and Devin Duvernay and a healthy offensive line should pack plenty of firepower. Perhaps Herman and Beck open with a home-run ball just to get that big-play monkey off their back. UT was the only Power Five school in the nation last season without an offensive play of 50 yards or more.
Defensively, it’s showtime for Orlando’s defensive backs, a feisty group led by Brandon Jones and Caden Sterns. He’s promised a lightning-fast unit, the quickest he’s fielded in three years at UT.
“Hey, listen, on game day, when bad stuff happens, let it go. We’re with you,” Orlando said he told the players. “You’ve earned the right to be on this field. So don’t think about the negative part of this. Be completely positive.”
Herman sure hopes it’s a positive day. The school is opening its new Hall of Fame, unveiling an expanded Bevo Boulevard that stretches around the stadium’s north end and Jack Ingram will do a pre-game concert. Now’s not the time for another Maryland.
“Starting 1-0 would be nice,” Herman said. “That’s always the goal.”
Contact Brian Davis at 512-445-3957. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.