Double Coverage

Photo Credit: Brooke Crim | Daily Texan Staff

Dear bowl season, 

Oh, how Texas has missed you.

It’s been a long 35 months since the Longhorns were invited back to the party. Texas fans watched two whole bowl seasons from the couch and the worst part is they don’t even have a positive memory from the last bowl appearance. That 31-7 beatdown Arkansas handed them in the 2014 Texas Bowl still haunts them every now and then. 

The rest of the country simply forgot about Texas, even you. But that’s okay, no hard feelings. In fact, it’s not your fault. These past two years are all on Texas. Sorry I didn’t check in to give you an update on the program. 

I meant to write sooner but with work and class, it’s hard to keep up with everything. I hope you understand. But, Texas has good news: the Longhorns will be participating in the 2017 bowl season. However, they’ve changed their look from the last time you saw them. 

No, Charlie Strong didn’t grow his hair out. Texas and Charlie actually broke up last year. They just couldn’t make another 5–7 season work out. He got a good gig in South Florida and is in the middle of a 9–1 record, though. I’m happy for him. 

Texas found this new guy from the University of Houston, Tom Herman. He didn’t throw fairy dust on the team and magically bring Texas back overnight. Texas is just 6–5. It’s not pretty but hey, it’s better than 5–7. It’s improvement. That’s really all Longhorn fans wanted when he arrived in Austin. 

He chews an absurd amount of gum and confuses the Longhorn faithful with his decision-making when it comes to 20-yard field goals, but instead of complaining, let’s celebrate Thanksgiving by counting Texas’ blessings. In fact, here’s a list to catch you up: 

1. Texas did not lose to Kansas    

This might be confusing at first glance, but I have a confession to make. Last year Texas was one win away from earning bowl eligibility. With a 5–5 record and a game against Kansas remaining on the schedule, Texas appeared to be in perfect position to earn its sixth win. Well, Texas lost — in overtime. Internet trolls and endless memes on Twitter have made Texas fans’ life a living hell for the past 365 days.

But that nightmare is over. Although the 42-27 score was much closer than it should have been, Texas fans will take any victory over Kansas at this point, both on the gridiron and the hardwood. Now, you can happily look up the conference standings and see that Kansas has rightfully returned to its winless conference record. 

2. Texas finally found a quarterback with swagger 

Before we praise this guy, let’s make one thing clear: he’s not perfect. He fumbled in double overtime erasing any hope Texas had at upsetting then-No. 4 USC on the road. He threw a game-ending interception in overtime against then-No. 10 Oklahoma State, too. 

Now that that’s out of the way, the dude can ball. He’s not perfect. He’s a true freshman. At this point, everybody has accepted Sam Ehlinger and all he encompasses, for the time being.

He will make mistakes, but he’ll also run over an entire defense single-handedly. He brings a confidence that quite frankly, we haven’t seen since that guy named Vince Young went to school here.

3. Texas’ defense is back, folks

We told you about Tom Herman, but he brought with him a guy named Todd Orlando. There’s no hiding it, the Longhorn defense was bad — historically bad. Then, Orlando arrived. Whether you believe in miracles or not is beside the point. The defensive coordinator completely transformed a unit that would’ve given up 40-plus points to a middle school.

Now the offense struggles at times, but beggars can’t be choosers. Time and time again, the Longhorn defense has stepped up. In its performances against USC in Los Angeles and Oklahoma State at home, this defense gave Texas a chance to pull off two huge wins. It goes without saying — Texas needs to do all it can to keep Todd Orlando in Austin. 

But things haven’t been perfect, either. Texas ended up losing those two games against Oklahoma State and USC. Longhorn fans also watched Maryland walk all over that same defense I just mentioned.

At this point, Texas fans are just glad they’re invited back to the party. They know they won’t be expected to bring anything fancy to the gathering. If they aren’t aware, let’s make that clear. The Longhorns’ role this bowl season will not be significant to the majority of the country.

If we’re talking Thanksgiving dishes, the Longhorns will be the cranberries of the dinner. They are poured out of a can and into a bowl where they sit untouched in the middle of the table. Nobody pays too much attention to the dish except for the cranberry lovers. That will essentially be the case for the Longhorns this bowl season. The cranberry lovers are Texas fans, and the cranberries themselves are the Longhorns and a trip to a small, insignificant bowl. But hey, people appreciate things more once they’re gone, so these cranberries mean much more this season. 

Texas fans know they won’t be the main event this bowl season. They know they might not even be the main event in the next couple of seasons, but for now, they are just happy to receive any sort of invitation back to the party. 

Texas is back (to bowl season), folks.

Sincerely,

Your Longhorn football beat writer,

Alex Briseno

Photo Credit: Juan Figueroa | Daily Texan Staff

With one game left in the 2017 regular season, former head coach Charlie Strong’s metaphor from a year ago looks to be increasingly prescient. 

“The cake has been baked,” Strong said following Texas’ season finale in 2016, his last game as the team’s head coach. “The only thing you need to do now is put the icing on it and slice it.”

Strong was referencing Texas’ base of talent upon his departure from the program, one stocked with back-to-back top-10 recruiting classes in 2015 and 2016. And while the players from those classes failed to save Strong’s job, the former Longhorns’ leader believed they would serve the next head coach well. With a 16–21 record over three seasons, time ran out on Strong. But the program was far from broken.

Fast forward one year and the proverbial coat of icing has been applied. Yes, the Longhorns straddled .500 for much of 2017, but after Texas’ 28-14 victory over West Virginia on Saturday, the Longhorns are guaranteed a bowl appearance in head coach Tom Herman’s first season. And with a crop of youngsters starting at numerous positions, the burnt orange’s future appears bright. 

Let’s start on the offensive side of the ball. Texas should brace to lose All-American left tackle Connor Williams to the 2018 NFL draft — Williams projects to be a clear first-round pick — but the rest of the line will return. Add in a full offseason of practice for the likes of freshman right tackle Derek Kerstetter and sophomore Zach Shackelford, and an offensive line that spent much of its 2017 in flux could serve as a stout front for the Longhorns’ stable of offensive weapons.

And what a stable of weapons it will be. Texas projects to return all four of its running backs and its top three wide receivers, highlighted by sophomore Collin Johnson. Junior running back Chris Warren III will look to regain his spot atop the depth chart, while facing stiff competition from the pair of freshmen, Daniel Young and Toneil Carter. 

Then there’s the quarterback. Freshman Sam Ehlinger has made his fair share of rookie mistakes in 2017 — look no further than his pick-six against the Mountaineers on Saturday — but displayed an athleticism and talent unseen on the 40 Acres since the days of Colt McCoy. As Ehlinger refines his passing prowess to compliment his aptitude in the running game, he should eventually rise to the top of the Big 12 quarterback ladder.

Herman will most likely forge ahead in 2018 without the central ingredient of Strong’s cake, linebacker Malik Jefferson. The state’s No. 1 recruit in 2015, Jefferson was the top recruiting success of Strong’s tenure. His three seasons in burnt orange have been uneven, though a strong 2017 has vaulted Jefferson to a first-round
projection in the 2018 draft. 

But even with Jefferson’s potential departure, Herman and defensive coordinator Todd Orlando should have no trouble crafting another top tier defense in 2018. The Longhorns featured plenty of underclassmen defensively, led by sophomore defensive back Brandon Jones and defensive lineman Malcolm Roach. If junior safety and Longhorn interception leader DeShon Elliott returns as well, look out. Another year of cohesion in the secondary will wreak havoc on opposing passers.

This may seem like an overly rosy picture for a team just one game over .500, but don’t be fooled. The future of the Longhorn program is as bright as its been since the Mack Brown era. As Texas’ regular season draws to a close on Friday, keep an eye out for the Longhorns’ young talent. The icing on the cake has been applied. Now it’s time to enjoy the dessert.

Season highs

Attaining bowl eligibility over ranked opponent:

Despite entering Morgantown as underdogs, the Longhorns rolled over then No. 24 West Virginia in 28-14 fashion. Texas accomplished a myriad achievements with this upset victory. Most importantly, Texas will qualify for a bowl game for the first time since the 2014 season. Should the Longhorns beat Texas Tech this Saturday or win the bowl game, this victory over the Mountaineers sets Texas in perfect position to finish with a winning record for the first time since 2013. This road win also signified the first ranked victory of the Tom Herman era, after Herman fell to four other ranked teams by a combined margin of 28 points in his first season at the helm.

Edging out Kansas State in double overtime:

Texas and Kansas State are very similar programs, and this matchup is probably the most evenly-matched one the Big 12 has to offer. Both teams are sporting 6–5 records but always hang with tough competition and field impressive defenses. So, besting head coach Bill Snyder’s Wildcats in Austin was a significant morale booster for Texas at the dawn of conference play. Kansas State led 17-7 early but Texas managed to come back and lead by halftime. The teams traded scores until double overtime occurred, when the Texas defense pushed Kansas State back to the 36-yard line. Unable to recover, the Wildcats ceded a tough-fought, thrilling victory to Texas.

Season lows

Maryland’s offense dominates in Austin:

The Tom Herman era did not jump out to a promising start. In a battle of two 7-loss teams from 2016, the Maryland Terrapins invaded Austin and destroyed Texas’ defense, capturing a 51-41 triumph. Maryland, currently 4–7, accumulated 482 yards of total offense, forced two turnovers and even returned a blocked field goal to the house in an action-packed contest on opening weekend. Looking at the direction of the teams since, it’s shocking how outmatched the Longhorns appeared in this game. At one point, Texas trailed by as much as 27-7, and many fans at Darrell K Royal Stadium displayed their satisfaction when Maryland stalled the Longhorns’ near-comeback and left the venue with a double-digit victory.

Texas throws costly interception vs. Oklahoma State:

No. 10 Oklahoma State entered Austin as touchdown favorites, and the Cowboys looked poised to demolish Texas in the early going. Up 7-0 and in the red zone, Texas forced a key fumble and scored several plays later, thanks to a 90-yard reception by John Burt. After freshman quarterback Sam Ehlinger ran in a touchdown with 13:59 remaining in the second quarter, no more touchdowns would be scored in the defensive skirmish that produced 20 punts. Tied 10-10, Texas opened overtime on defense, and the unit once again held firm and forced Oklahoma State to a field goal. With first down on the 12-yard line, Texas could not score the game-winning touchdown. But on third-and-6, Ehlinger lobbed the ball into the end zone to the Cowboys’ Ramon Richards — surrounded by nobody wearing burnt orange. Handed on a silver platter to Texas, a potential landmark victory was derailed by costly offensive miscues.

Quarterback

Advantage: Texas

Whether or not West Virginia quarterback Will Grier’s injury is the only reason Texas is eligible for a bowl game, the team is ready to close out the season with a homestand against another program at the bottom of the conference. Freshman Sam Ehlinger once again took the reins of the Texas offense, throwing for 136 yards and two touchdowns in the road win. He appears to be the go-to option for the Longhorns moving forward. 

Like most Big 12 offenses, Texas Tech struggled mightily against the conference-best TCU defense. The Red Raiders’ only points came on the opening drive of the game on a field goal, as Texas Tech senior quarterback Nic Shimonek posted season-lows in passing yards and completions.

Running Back

Advantage: Texas

Three Texas running backs averaged at least seven yards per carry as a reinvigorated offensive line created space up and down the field. Texas outgained the Mountaineers, 233-56, on the ground, breathing life into an otherwise underwhelming run game. 

Texas Tech is a solid rushing team. Senior Justin Stockton churned his way to 124 yards against TCU but was unable to find the end zone on a number of carries. Texas’ defense, while not quite as formidable as the Horned Frogs, ought to provide plenty of headaches for the Red Raiders’ running backs. 

Wide Receiver

Advantage: Texas

At least 10 Longhorn receivers earned receptions against West Virginia, marking the fifth straight week and seventh time this season the offense has achieved the feat. Freshman Reggie Hemphill-Mapps led the team with 58 yards on two touches, as the offense showed signs of consistency that have been missing all season.

Head coach Kliff Kingsbury may have watched his last home game from the Red Raiders sideline. Texas Tech failed to get into the end zone against TCU, and the offense has underperformed all season. A weak performance against Texas may be the final straw. 

Defense

Advantage: Texas

As much as we’ve praised the Texas secondary, and rightly so, it was the front line that shone on Saturday afternoon. The win marked the sixth game this season where Texas has held an opponent to under 100 rushing yards. 

Texas Tech’s defense struggled to make key stops late in the loss to TCU, allowing true freshman quarterback Shawn Robinson to put away the game for his team. After Texas’ offensive showing against West Virginia, the Red Raiders may struggle on both sides of the ball. 

Texas wins if

Nic Shimonek hadn’t had a bad game. 

The Texas Tech senior quarterback had never completed less than 60 percent of his passes, never thrown for less than 200 yards and never let his passer rating dip into double digits. He’d been through rough patches, but always seemed to make it somehow and established himself as one of the Big 12’s best quarterbacks. Then TCU came to town.

The then-No.12 Horned Frogs shutdown the senior quarterback in every facet of the game on Saturday. Shimonek completed a season-low 51.5 percent of his passes for 137 yards, another season low, and failed to score a touchdown. TCU sacked him three times and sophomore cornerback Jeff Gladney picked him off once.

It was far and away Shimonek’s worst performance of the season, which was reflected in his 80.3 passer rating.

Texas has been an equally formidable foe against the pass. Led by junior defensive back Deshon Elliott, they currently rank second in the conference with 11 interceptions. The Longhorns also lead the Big 12 with five pick-sixes.

Shimonek will make adjustments. After a loss to Iowa State, the only other game this year in which Shimonek didn’t throw a touchdown, he rebounded against then-No. 10 Oklahoma by throwing for four.

Texas wins this game if its defense can keep Shimonek contained and avoid another offensive explosion.

Texas loses if

Over the past two weeks, the Longhorn offense has found a spark of energy. Texas is averaging 35 points per game, up from its season average of 29.7.

The uptick in production has largely come from the burnt orange backfield. Head coach Tom Herman has finally decided to ride the hot hand, giving freshman running back Daniel Young 33 carries over the same stretch.

Young has responded surprisingly well to the increase in opportunities. He ran for a career-high 67 yards against Kansas two weeks ago, then broke his personal record again with 85 yards against West Virginia.

Herman is still flip-flopping between quarterbacks, but both sophomore Shane Buechele and freshman Sam Ehlinger have made the most of their chances. The two have each thrown an interception in the past two games, but have overcome them to combine for four touchdowns.

Texas Tech’s defense has been porous all season. The Red Raiders have allowed the third most yards and points in the Big 12. The Jayhawks two spots below them in points allowed, the Mountaineers two spots above. The Longhorns scored 42 and 28 against them, respectively.

Texas loses this game if the points drop off and the offense goes stagnant again.

Nic Shimonek

Quarterback, #16

After Patrick Mahomes II departed from Lubbock to the draft last spring, Texas Tech needed to find the next captain of its signature air raid offense. Although Shimonek’s brief career as the team’s starting quarterback is coming to a close, the senior made the most of his 2017 season.

Shimonek ranks fifth in the FBS in passing yards, totaling 3,451 on the year. He threw a near-perfect game versus Arizona State in Week 3, throwing for 543 yards and six touchdowns in a 52-45 victory. Texas Tech’s offense is very reliant on Shimonek, so the senior must revert to a performance like this in order to achieve bowl eligibility before his graduation.

Keke Coutee

Wide receiver, #2

Coutee serves as Texas Tech’s lightning-fast receiver, consistently burning corners down field and even excelling as a return specialist. The junior wideout currently has picked up 1,074 yards receiving this season and holds 10 touchdowns to his name — nine receiving and one from a kickoff return.

Coutee leads the Red Raiders in receptions, yards from scrimmage and touchdowns. In three games this year, the Lufkin, Texas native has gone off for more than 160 receiving yards. The season is winding down and Coutee has never played in a bowl game, so one of these spectacular performances is in high demand for the Red Raiders on Saturday.

Dakota Allen

Outside linebacker, #40

Allen has been one of Texas Tech’s do-it-all players on defense. The junior outside linebacker leads the team with 79 total tackles in 2017, and 4.5 of these hits have come behind the line of scrimmage.

Allen additionally intercepted two passes and recovered one fumble this season, effectively contributing to Texas Tech’s plus-10 turnover differential (top 15 in the nation). Allen’s strong play this season has caused the Red Raiders to improve their defense. The unit has allowed under 30 points in five of its 11 games — a vast improvement from the team that allowed 66 points on three occasions in 2016.

Jah’Shawn Johnson

Free safety, #7

When it comes to hitting, no player in Texas Tech’s secondary does it like Jah’Shawn Johnson. The junior leads all defensive backs on the team in tackles, checking in at 76 this season. He’s excelled in zone coverage this season, batting down five passes this season.

Although the offense struggled against TCU, Johnson helped hold the Horned Frogs to a low-scoring output for the majority of the game. He led the team with 10 stops, marking his second-best performance of the season. The veteran free safety recorded his season-high 11 tackles in 2016 against the Texas Longhorns — who he’ll face in a heated rivalry game this Saturday.

Don’t take the foot off the gas 

The Longhorns clinched bowl eligibility by virtue of their 28-14 win over West Virginia last week, and with that milestone hit, the team may be inclined to relax for the rest of the season. However, the team can still play for a guaranteed winning season, the first since Mack Brown’s last season in 2013.

Texas Tech has everything to play for in the season finale, as they sit on a 5–6 record after a loss to TCU last week. Given that playing Texas always seems to get the best out of the Tech players, any letting up on behalf of Texas would lead to a home loss that would spoil Thanksgiving for the Longhorn faithful.

While becoming bowl eligible for the first time since 2014 is a promising step in the tenure of head coach Tom Herman, a winning season would be favorable for burnt orange fans. This will take a full effort from the Longhorns.

Start Sam Ehlinger

Sophomore quarterback Shane Buechele was not playing poorly when he got pulled from the game versus West Virginia, but the offense needed a spark. Freshman quarterback Sam Ehlinger came into the game and immediately galvanized the offense, throwing for two touchdowns and igniting the rushing attack.

It is important to remember that Ehlinger is still a true freshman, and every game he plays in gives vital experience to the quarterback. While he had several drive-saving plays, he also made several mistakes, including throwing a pick-six while being taken down with West Virginia defenders swarming. It was eerily similar to the game-killing interception he threw versus Oklahoma State.

As he gets more reps, Ehlinger will continue to improve. Therefore, the team must live with his mistakes and allow him to start the next game versus Tech.

Feed the run game

The rushing attack led by Ehlinger and freshman Daniel Young looked competent for what seems like the first time this season, scoring two touchdowns on the ground and accumulating more than 230 yards. Ehlinger’s ability to scramble keeps defenses on their toes, opening lanes for the running backs.

Against a Tech defense that just gave up over 200 yards and one touchdown to TCU, the running offense of the Longhorns has the chance to build momentum on its impressive performance.

If the Longhorns want to win the game versus the Red Raiders and guarantee themselves a winning season, the run attack must remain competent and open up passing lanes for Ehlinger.

Baker Mayfield

Oklahoma quarterback, #6

Both on and off the field, Baker Mayfield’s behavior is questionable; but on the field, there’s no doubting his talent. Mayfield and the Sooners made quick work of the Kansas Jayhawks, passed for 257 yards and three touchdowns in a 41-3 blowout win.

While the Heisman trophy is awarded to the player with the most impressive season numbers, on-field character and attitude is not one of them. The redshirt senior is clearly the heart and soul of the team, but his behavior has diverted the attention from his eye-popping numbers.

To close out the regular season, the Sooners will host West Virginia as a tuneup for the Big 12 title game. Expect some fireworks from Mayfield, and maybe some Kyler Murray peppered in as well.

Bryce Love

Stanford running back, #20

Run, Bryce, run. The junior back continues to dazzle, turning in his ninth 100-yard-plus outing in 10 games. Love rushed for 101 yards on 14 carries in a 17-14 win over California.

For one of the first times this year, Love found himself bottled up in a close game. With the Cardinal holding a slim 10-6 lead in the fourth quarter, Love carried the ball 57 yards to the house to ice the game. His big-play ability met his clutch gene, combining for the lethal knockout blow.

The Cardinal will close out the season in a highly anticipated matchup against No. 8 Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish come into this game with College Football Playoff aspirations, so look for the Cardinal to try and spoil the party.

Lamar Jackson

Louisville quarterback, #8

Jackson may not have been in the news lately, but that’s because he’s been just as good — not better —than last year. The junior threw for 270 yards, rushed for another 111, and tallied four total touchdowns in a 56-10 beatdown of Syracuse.

Jackson, being the current Heisman winner, has been held to a high standard all season long, and has been able to shine despite the losses Louisville has accrued. Compared to last year, Jackson is about on pace with this year, and has a strong case to make a second trip to New York.

Although out of the ACC championship race, Jackson and the Cardinals will have a chance to finish off the season strong with a visit to Kentucky. The Wildcats have had a strong season thus far, and should prove a pretty even matchup; Jackson will have a chance to tip the scales one last time this season.

Jonathan Taylor

Wisconsin running back, #23

2017 has been friendly to running backs, and for Jonathan Taylor it’s been no different. The freshman back paced Wisconsin with 132 rushing yards, guiding the Badgers to a 24-10 over Michigan.

While Taylor is not the first freshman to be in the Heisman conversation, his rushing total on the season — right at 1657 yards — is the highest among any freshman running back in the country. His ability to create big plays has also been a huge factor in Wisconsin’s undefeated record: five of his 12 touchdowns have been scored from beyond the opponent’s 20 yard line.

The Badgers close out the season at Minnesota this weekend, but their eyes are focused on the week after that trip up north. Ohio State and the Big 10 championship game await them, serving as the de-facto College Football Playoff quarterfinal.

Photo Credit: Juan Figueroa | Daily Texan Staff

Tom Herman was brought to Texas to win. It is as simple as that at the end of the day.

After three years of frustration under former head coach Charlie Strong, Herman was sought after by burnt orange brass to be the man to bring the Longhorns back to the promised land.

But 10 games into Herman’s tenure, the promised land still feels like some long-lost acreage out in the middle of nowhere. Texas is 5–5 and needs one win in its last two games to reach a bowl for the first time since Strong’s first season in 2014.

The goal now is simple. A bowl berth, and win, in Herman’s first season on the 40 Acres would qualify as significant improvement, considering how things have gone in recent years.

Texas’ next two games are by no means cake-walks, though. Saturday’s matchup against 7–3 West Virginia in Morgantown, led by star quarterback Will Grier, is a tall task for a team that has been in offensive turmoil for the better part of the past month. The weather is expected to be unkind, too. The Longhorns will host Texas Tech next Friday in what could be the deciding game for whether or not Texas makes a bowl.

It’ll feel like another long offseason if this team can’t get to the postseason. Any form of progress is all Texas fans can ask for right now. The Longhorns have knocked on the door all season long but haven’t been able to break through with a marquee victory.

“We got to win one that we’re not supposed to,” Herman said. “I think right now, save for the very first game, we’ve won the ones that we’re supposed to and we haven’t (won) the ones that people said we weren’t supposed to. I think that’s got to be the next step.

“Are we learning how to win? Certainly. But the biggest next step is we got to win one of these road games against a top 25 team that most people would think we don’t have a chance of doing.”

And Saturday presents another one of those chances.

Granted, West Virginia isn’t technically a top-25 team in the College Football Playoff rankings, but the Mountaineers do check in at No. 24 in the AP poll.

What’s more, the clock is ticking on this senior class — a group that has had to endure one of the worst stretches in program history. The Longhorns want more than anything to send this group out with something to hang their hat on.

“Ah, man it’s huge,” senior nickelback Antwuan Davis said. “These young guys genuinely love the seniors and will play for these seniors. You know, and that’s something I really appreciate. Not many times we find young guys who would do such a thing. So Naashon (Hughes), me and some of the other seniors really appreciate that.”

Two games remain for this senior class, and there could be a third. But that third game is no guarantee. Senior wide receiver Lorenzo Joe recognizes that the hourglass is draining on his career.

“It’s flown by fast. I honestly can’t believe it,” Joe said. “I was talking to the other seniors and they also feel like we just got here yesterday. I’ve enjoyed my whole career, and it’s been fun. I’m just trying to finish on a high note.”

Photo Credit: Juan Figueroa | Daily Texan Staff

As Texas prepares for the penultimate contest of its 2017 regular season on Saturday, it’s become increasingly evident that the Longhorns won’t reach the heights they envisioned in the preseason. Sitting at 5–5 with two conference matchups remaining, Texas is out of contention for an appearance in the Big 12 title game, as well as its first eight-win season since the Mack Brown era. 

“Where we’re at is not where we had hoped to be,” head coach Tom Herman said on Monday. “There is nobody associated with the University of Texas that affects more than us.”

It’s a testament to how far the Longhorns program has fallen over the past half decade that a seven-win regular season would be seen as a notable success. Texas hasn’t won a bowl game since 2012 and is currently in the midst of its fourth-consecutive .500-or-worse season. Two wins over middling conference opponents shouldn’t be particularly notable for a storied program, but on the 40 Acres, it could be cause for jubilation.

The Longhorns will get another chance to creep over .500 this week with an early kickoff at West Virginia. The Mountaineers enter the matchup at No. 24 in the AP Poll, making them the fifth top-25 team Texas has faced this year. And escaping Morgantown, West Virginia with a victory is no easy task. West Virginia is 17–4 at home over the past three seasons. 

Saturday’s battle in Morgantown will provide Herman and company with a fifth opportunity to steal a win as underdogs. And aside from a Week 10 defeat at the hands of TCU, Texas has competed with each of its other three ranked opponents. The Longhorns’ best effort of the season came at then-No. 4 USC — ending in a 27-24 overtime defeat — and Texas held Oklahoma State to just 13 points on Oct. 21. Add in a hard-fought five-point loss to Oklahoma in the Red River Showdown, and the Longhorns’ résumé looks stronger than a 5–5 record would indicate.

“I think we are headed in a very, very healthy, good direction,” Herman said. “We’re playing with a tremendous amount of effort, tremendous amount of intensity, physicality and we have proven that when you can do those things ... you’ve got a chance to win.” 

And that’s not just hot air from Herman. Yes, there are offensive deficiencies galore, most glaringly a plodding running game along with an injured, inexperienced and ineffective offensive line. Despite those issues, the 2017 Longhorns look to be a superior squad than their previous Charlie Strong-era iterations. 

The Longhorns’ perceived improvement has been most notable on the defensive end. After ranking No. 80 in the nation in points allowed in 2016, the Longhorns have shot up nearly 50 spots this season, coming in at No. 32, allowing just over 21.9 points per game. Texas has been staunch against the run, highlighted by the sideline-to-sideline speed of its linebackers, and turnover-forcing prowess in the secondary. This isn’t the same Longhorn team that existed during the Strong era. Texas is prepared to compete with the nation’s top teams, even with its holes on the offensive side of the ball. 

But to truly turn the page and begin a new era of Texas football, the Longhorns must close the season on a high note, and build toward a winning season in Herman’s first year. Pair a 7–5 regular season with what now stands as the nation’s No. 2 2018 recruiting class, and the Longhorns will be in contention for their first conference title game since 2009 a year from now. But a loss on Saturday and a sputtering finish could very well derail Herman’s progress and keep the Longhorns stuck in the middle of the Big 12 for years to come.