June 23, 2016
Athletic directors will swear up and down that there aren’t “magic numbers” when it comes to a head coach on the hot seat.
The people in power will argue there isn’t a minimum amount of wins a coach needs to keep his job past the upcoming season. Texas AD Mike Perrin even said as much in March, according to Chuck Carlton of the Dallas Morning News:
But according to a recent column from Kirk Bohls of the Austin American-Statesman, Texas head coach Charlie Strong might have such a number on his head for 2016.
“One highly influential Longhorns power broker can count, and on Wednesday [he] said Strong needs at least eight wins to show progress from an 11-14 record,” Bohls wrote Wednesday evening.
Bohls wrote that getting to eight could be a tough challenge for Strong in Year 3. All but one of Texas’ 12 opponents returns their starting quarterbacks—a luxury the Longhorns might not have this fall—and the schedule is among the toughest in the country.
Bleacher Report’s Brian Pedersen ranked Texas’ schedule as the 17th-hardest in the FBS for 2016. Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports gave the Longhorns’ nonconference slate a ranking of 10th-toughest. The S&P+ metrics from Bill Connelly of SB Nation project 6.7 wins for Texas in 2016.
So should eight wins be a fair benchmark for Strong to keep his job past 2016?
First, let’s break down Texas’ 2016 schedule compared to its 2015 slate of opponents:
In order to get to eight wins, Texas would have to first repeat its three victories over opponents projected to start outside the Top 25: UTEP, Kansas State and Kansas. While UTEP and Kansas should be easy victories, Texas hasn’t beaten Kansas State in Manhattan since 2002.
Then the Longhorns would need to flip most of their losses to teams that most likely won’t be ranked to start 2016: California, Iowa State, West Virginia and Texas Tech. All four of these teams bring on their own unique challenges.
California is trying to reload its offense with Texas Tech transfer quarterback Davis Webb III and former Texas A&M offensive coordinator Jake Spavital.
Texas should be favored in home games against Iowa State and West Virginia, as the Cyclones will be adjusting to a new head coach and the Mountaineers only return four starters from their defense. But both teams had Texas’ number in 2015 by beating the Longhorns by a combined score of 62-20. Those won’t necessarily be easy flips.
Texas Tech will need to be a good road win for Texas after losing a close one at home to the Red Raiders late last season. Quarterback Patrick Mahomes will undoubtedly be in late-season form, and TTU will be fired up to get two in a row over Texas for the first time since 1997 and 1998.
That leaves five games against projected preseason Top 25 teams for Texas in 2016: Notre Dame, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, Baylor and TCU. Last year, those were two surprising upset wins, one frustratingly close loss and two blowout defeats.
The two surprising upsets are going to be tough to duplicate. Oklahoma returns most of its starters from its Big 12 title-winning team and will be out for revenge. And for all the uncertainty surrounding Baylor, the Bears will most likely have star quarterback Seth Russell this time around instead of a converted wide receiver running a prehistoric-looking offense.
The close loss would be one Texas should feel good about turning around in 2016 after losing to Oklahoma State last fall on a special teams gaffe. But even though the Longhorns match up well with a Cowboys team that has a stellar passing attack but a struggling running game and rebuilding defense, that game will be a challenging Big 12 opener on the road.
Texas will get chances at revenge for its lopsided losses to Notre Dame and TCU at home this season. The Fighting Irish look like potential national title contenders. The Horned Frogs will be strong on defense and have the pieces to keep rolling on offense, such as KaVontae Turpin, who scored four touchdowns against Texas in 2015:
The simplest path to eight wins for Strong in 2016 is to defeat all seven unranked opponents and get an upset victory against one of the five ranked foes. If the Longhorns take a loss on the road to a team like Cal, Kansas State or Texas Tech or drop a home game to a WVU, they’ll have to replace it with another upset.
Considering Texas pulled off two eye-opening upsets last season with a team that finished below .500, reaching that number with a more experienced squad in 2016 is definitely within reason.
But what will be more important for Texas in 2016 than hitting a magic number of victories is continuing to show signs of progress.
No one should reasonably expect the Longhorns to challenge for a championship this season. The recruits from Strong’s first full cycle at Texas will only be sophomores. The Longhorns will be adjusting to a new offensive system under new coordinator Sterlin Gilbert and will have some growing pains.
If Texas takes care of business against its projected unranked opponents in 2016 but gets routed by a combination of, say, Notre Dame, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma and TCU, would that season be looked upon fondly?
On the other hand, let’s say Texas makes a bowl after winning less than eight regular-season games.
But say the Longhorns show progress on offense with true freshman Shane Buechele at quarterback, a dynamic one-two rushing punch of D’Onta Foreman and Chris Warren III, an improved offensive line and a receiving corps led by young stars such as John Burt and recent Baylor flip Devin Duvernay. All of those players would be expected back in 2017.
In this scenario, Texas also looks stronger on what was a bad run-stopping unit in 2015 and continues to develop exciting defensive playmakers. The Longhorns improve all across the board under Strong, grab some more big recruiting victories and avoid any blowout losses like the ones from last year.
Even with less than eight regular-season victories in a brutal schedule, wouldn’t those be enough signs of progress in Austin? Letting Buechele take over as the starting quarterback and building the young offense around his talents should buy Strong some more time, and the defense would be loaded with his own recruits in 2017.
Returning to the postseason should always be the bare minimum for a school like Texas, and the talent is there for the Longhorns to challenge for a huge season in 2016. After all, Texas was a couple of special teams blunders away from being 7-5 last year.
However, the upcoming transition on offense and the schedule ahead might be too daunting for any “eight wins or else” demands.
Staying patient in the high-stakes world of power-conference college football is extremely difficult, especially at a blue blood like Texas that is desperate to win now. Strong understands that pressure.
“This is a critical year for us,” Strong said in March, per Bill Frisbie of Inside Texas. “There’s a standard here, and we need to meet that standard. It’s time for us to move forward now.”
Moving forward for Strong and Texas would be a winning season without the embarrassing routs of 2015—a campaign that would pave the way for a potentially huge 2017 with a talented team built mostly on experienced Strong recruits.
Hitting the reset button on all that Strong has done just because he didn’t hit some magic number would do nothing but continue Texas’ vanishing act on college football’s biggest stage.
Recruiting rankings are courtesy of 247Sports.
Justin Ferguson is a National College Football Analyst at Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JFergusonBR.
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