"Vince Young once caught a fish this big." (Photo courtesy: Dallasnews.com)
On paper, Texas should have one of the best teams in the country this year.
Take the paper in the pages of Phil Steele's annual preview, for instance. The guru of college football abbreviations is projecting the Longhorns to finish as the No. 4 team in the country this season.
And imagine the paper that statistical savant Bill Connelly must have chewed through in computing the numbers that led to this bullish forecast.
What about the paper tickets Las Vegas is printing that show UT as a favorite in every single game it plays this year?
Look at the trends, and all that paper makes sense. The Longhorns still have a roster that, from a pure talent standpoint, is the envy of probably 95 percent of coaches across the nation. It's a seasoned group, too – Texas returns 19 of 22 starters from a year ago. The quarterback is heading for his third year as the starter. The schedule even breaks really well for the 'Horns.
It sets up as the kind of year that elite programs dream of.
On the other hand…
Imagine showing up to a party and the hosts have ordered enough Papa John's to feed the entire Louisville football team. All the stimuli are there. It's pizza. There's tons of garlic dipping sauce on the side. It legitimately looks delicious – there's probably even a pie with bacon on it in there somewhere.
Unfortunately, this isn't your first visit to Papa's house. You might hold out hope that this time will be different, but you know you're in store for an entirely non-descript experience. You might be full when you're done, but you might as well have filled up on Saltines.
For the past two years, that has been Texas football, wrapped up in a trapezoidal cardboard box.
UT has been winning games – 17 in the last two years, to be exact. But try to think of a time during that period when the Longhorns have offered just a glimpse of a potentially great team. Consider that four of UT's nine victories last season came by a touchdown or less, including a nail-biter over a horrendous Kansas team and a 56-50 win over Baylor in which Lache Seastrunk carried the ball just seven times.
Ultimately, it's hard to shake the feeling that the 'Horns are at a schematic disadvantage far too often for a coaching staff that is rewarded so handsomely.
In 2011 UT's salty D still played with the fire and precision instilled in it by former coordinator Will Muschamp. Those qualities seemingly disappeared last year, coinciding with the departure of a handful of Coach Boom's players to graduation. Texas fell from 6th in the nation in Defensive F/+ in '11 to 40th in the process.
Coordinator Manny Diaz's 2012 defense dealt with the double whammy of being both fundamentally and tactically unsound. It was a young group, so things almost have to get better in that regard. Last season's overall performance, however, didn't give off the impression that Diaz will get the unit back to playing like one of the nation's best.
On the other side of the ball, the situation is essentially reversed. With some stability at quarterback and an extra year in offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin's system, Texas improved from 80th in Offensive F/+ in '11 to 18th in '12.
Following the offseason departure of Harsin, however, Mack Brown has again decided to fiddle with the attack. Just when the O showed signs of coming into its own, new coordinator Major Applewhite has been instructed to up the tempo. Given the recent success of fast-paced, no-huddle offenses at places like Oregon and Texas A&M, the move fits with Brown's history of management by emulation. It could work, but it's the same mentality that put the Longhorns in an offensive quagmire to begin with.
The bottom line is that while all the sabremetrics suggest the Longhors are in for a big year, the eye test indicates the program has little forward momentum. Maybe Texas gets back to being Texas this year, but recent history makes it hard to back UT as the Big 12 favorite, let alone a contender for the national championship.