As much spotlight as prolific offenses get in college football now, it’s worth remembering that the teams with the country’s two best defenses last season squared off in the 2011 National Title game.
Despite facing each other during the regular season in an agonizingly sloppy, touchdown-free slugfest in Tuscaloosa last November, LSU and Alabama played each other two months later in the BCS National Championship. The Tigers couldn’t get the ball across midfield until the fourth quarter as the Crimson Tide rolled to another title.
With their strong three-headed rushing attack and a stout defense, it’s not hard to see why many think the Longhorns can easily plug in Alabama’s formula for success and end up in a BCS bowl this year. But it’s not that simple.
Tailback Trent Richardson, a Heisman finalist, and a defense that held opponents to nearly 80 fewer yards per game than anyone in the country didn’t make up for a below average quarterback. They complemented a quarterback that was an effective passer and kept the ball from landing in the defense’s hand long enough to score.
David Ash, who was named the Longhorns starting quarterback last week, was picked off eight times (while throwing four touchdowns) in 174 pass attempts last year, or about once every 22 throws. On the other hand, Crimson Tide quarterback A.J. McCarron threw just five interceptions out of 328 passes. After getting picked off twice in Alabama’s season-opening win against Kent State, McCarron threw just three interceptions in his next 305 attempts.
McCarron, who tossed 16 touchdowns last season, was intercepted three times less often than Ash and, at one point, went 152 passes without getting picked off. Ash, who was sacked three more times than McCarron last year, went 123 throws without throwing a touchdown in 2011.
“If there wasn’t something there, he’d try to force it and it’d be a turnover,” head coach Mack Brown said. “We had a great defense and we were running the ball better. If we took care of the ball like we did in the Holiday Bowl, we had a chance to win every game. When we won the turnover ratio, we won the game.”
With another year under his belt, Ash is sure to be less turnover-prone this season. But he’ll have to drastically improve for Texas’ offense to resemble Alabama’s at all.
As for the other components of a dominant Crimson Tide team, the Longhorns have everything covered. They might not have a Trent Richardson that’s going to top 1,600 yards and 20 touchdowns but between Malcolm Brown, Joe Bergeron, and Johnathan Gray, they should have one of the nation’s top running games.
And not only is the Texas defense possibly better than the unit that led the Big 12 in passing, rushing and total defense last year, but the leadership is stronger than ever despite having only two senior starters. According to one of them, safety Kenny Vaccaro, a self-proclaimed Thorpe Award candidate, the Longhorns defense hasn’t had the kind of leadership it has now since linebacker Sergio Kindle and defensive tackle Lamarr Houston were on the Forty Acres three years ago.
“My freshman year, with Sergio and Lamarr, I was scared… I thought if I didn’t make every tackle on kickoff, that they were going to rip my head off. So that’s what I did,” Vaccaro said. “We all need to be on the same page. I told everyone that if you’re not going to go 100 percent, then just go home. Because if football isn’t important to you like it is to me, I don’t want to be associated with a group of guys that don’t care about the game as much as I do.”
While some are tempering their expectations for Texas quarterbacks, most still hope for a 10-win season and a possible BCS bowl berth. But, even with a deep group of tailbacks and one of the country’s best defenses, the Longhorns are going to need more out of their quarterback than they got last year.