Golden: Louisiana, Arkansas hardly make for a cakewalk to a 2-0 start in Sark's first year
Louisiana went 10-1 last season
- The Ragin Cajuns return 20 starters from last season's 10-1 squad.
- Sarkisian has started a season at 2-0 in four of his six seasons as a head coach.
These first two games? Massive.
This season, Texas will go into its conference slate without the benefit of working its way into a nice groove due to the fact that there's one tough opponent and a traditional angry rival sitting atop the schedule, starting with Saturday's season opener against Louisiana.
Before we can even talk about Oklahoma, the Horns will be tested early. If they show up a step slow for the opener against No. 23 Louisiana or get ambushed in an Arkansas trap game in Fayetteville next week, an 0-2 start isn’t out of the question.
I'm really sorry to ruin your preseason buzz, but these are the real questions Steve Sarkisian and his staff are addressing as they prepare for Texas’ fourth opener under a different coach in eight seasons.
Texas is supposed to win these first two, but "supposed to" doesn’t always translate in the sports world.
It won't be a cakewalk.
Texas' offensive elephant in the room was quickly addressed in last Thursday's media availability with Sarkisian, who said that no, he hadn't named a starting quarterback yet. But reports flowed in from multiple media outlets Saturday saying redshirt freshman Hudson Card had won over veteran Casey Thompson.
Don't be shocked if both Card and Thompson play against the Ragin' Cajuns, especially if the starter struggles. It was a close competition and we don't know what will happen in real game action. If Thompson is indeed the backup, he has the maturity to understand his number could be called at any minute. He had better be ready.
So the road to 1-0 has started. Last week Texas simulated a normal game week, which included a mock game on Saturday and the beginning of the game plan against Louisiana.
This isn't a Week 1 banger on the level of a Georgia or Clemson, but Saturday's Top-25 matchup carries big intrigue because Texas is in a transitional phase while Billy Napier’s Ragin' Cajuns are coming off of a 10-1 season that began with a 31-14 statement win at Iowa State. The Cyclones, of course, went on to beat Texas and ended up playing for the Big 12 title.
After the first Top-25 finish in school history, the Cajuns return 20 starters, including all five offensive linemen and terrific lefty quarterback Levi Lewis, who is 24-4 under center with 54 career touchdowns passes and only 14 interceptions.
The Horns opened up weeks ago as 16-point favorites, but that number was down to eight points as of Sunday. So, 2-0 isn’t a given, and shoot, with the talent coming in here, 1-0 will be a tough turn as well.
History tells us that even the great Mack Brown was slow out of the gate early in his UT tenure. His teams started each of his first three years at 1-1 before the program found its stroke to go 2-0 in 10 of his final 13 seasons, including a national championship team in 2005, a 12-1 team in 2008 that really was his second best at Texas, and the national runner-up team of 2009.
Mack's replacement, Charlie Strong, charted a 2-0 start only once — in his final season, when he finished 5-7 and suffered a program-rocking overtime loss at Kansas.
Tom Herman believed he had figured some things out before his debut game in 2017, but his Longhorns — coming off an offseason of soggy hamburgers fed to poor performers, sledgehammers delivered to unsuspecting locker room walls and an infamous pee chart that did more to P.O. the fanbase than clear up the team and program — lost consecutive openers to Maryland amid his three straight 1-1 starts.
Four of Sark's six teams that he has coached started out 2-0, including his final one at Washington in 2013 and his two USC teams in 2014 and 2015, though his Year 2 with the Trojans ended with his firing after five games.
This, however, is a new challenge. No longer Nick Saban’s understudy, Sarkisian is the face of this franchise and with that title — along with the $34.2 million he’s banking over the next six seasons — comes more responsibility and an infinite amount of scrutiny.
“I have done this for about six, seven years prior, so (I have) a pretty good understanding of what it feels like, but every game always presents new things,” Sarkisian said. “That's football in general. We make decisions every 25 to 40 seconds and we’ve got to keep making them."
He sounds like a coach who understands that wins won’t arrive on his doorstep with the ease of a brown box from the friendly UPS man.
So a word of advice for Sark and his 2021 Longhorns: Show up for the Ragin' Cajuns. Send an early message that you have no interest in becoming the latest Big 12 team to get run out of its own gym by a Sun Belter. Avoid suffering a similar fate as the silly milk crate folks who are breaking bones and tearing ligaments only to find out there is little room for their Facebook foolishness in our ultra-packed emergency rooms.
If anything, he would love to duplicate one Herman feat. Last season was only the second time in five years that Texas started out 2-0. Between 2013 and 2019, the Horns went 8-6 through the first two games. He definitely doesn’t want to pull a John Mackovic, who is the last UT coach to open 0-2 (1992).
The oddsmakers believe the current crew will come out of this first one with a win, which will make the Longhorns sure favorites at Fayetteville. The Hoggies started last season 3-3 before hitting the skids by giving up 50-plus points in three of their last four games, all losses, of course.
In the salad days, openers were usually a dress rehearsal for tougher matchups down the road. Louisiana represents a rather large gut check in Sarkisian’s opening act.
This is no dress rehearsal.
23-Louisiana at 21-Texas, 3:30 p.m., Fox, 104.9
On deck: Louisiana
21-Texas vs. 23-Louisiana, 3:30 p.m. Saturday, Royal-Memorial Stadium, Fox, 104.9
Last year, the Ragin' Cajuns upset Iowa State in Ames to open the season, and Saturday is one of a few of chances Louisiana has this year to prove 2020 was no fluke — the Longhorns on Saturday, plus Liberty, which finished last season ranked 17th, and Sun Belt rival Appalachian State. Fifteen all-conference players are back, including QB Levi Lewis, four offensive linemen and eight defensive players.
For Texas: QB Hudson Card (making his first start); RB Bijan Robinson (718 yards, 4 TDs last year); WR Joshua Moore (30-472-9 TDs led team); DT Keondre Coburn (hon. mention All-Big 12), LB DeMarvion Overshown (60 tackles, 2 INTs); CB D'Shawn Jamison (hon. mention All-Big 12 as a returner)
For Louisiana: QB Levi Lewis (2,274 yards, 19 TDs, 7 INTs); RB Chris Smith (350 yards); WR Kyren Lacy (28-364-4 TDs led team); DL Zi'Yon Hill (4 sacks); LB Ferrod Gardner (74 tackles, 7 sacks); S Bralen Trahan (4 INTs)
Stats vs. stats
How Texas (7-3) and Louisiana (10-1) ranked nationally last year statistically:
Scoring: Texas 7th, Louisiana 29th
Points allowed: Texas 61st, Louisiana 31st
Offense: Texas 19th, Louisiana 43rd
Defense: Texas 64th, Louisiana 33rd
Passing: Texas 27th, Louisiana 83rd
Stopping the pass: Texas 108th, Louisiana 6th
Rushing: Texas 37th, Louisiana 21st
Stopping the run: Texas 38th, Louisiana 88th