Groundwork for 2018 begins at West Virginia

Michael Shapiro

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.