When the Texas Longhorns report for the beginning of training camp on August 6, Charlie Strong’s second year at the helm of the Longhorns will officially begin. Longhorn fans don’t need, and probably don’t want, to rehash last year’s maiden voyage. Year Two will dawn much like last year’s did, with more questions than answers and a schedule that could make the Horns champs or chumps or somewhere in between.
While the uncertainty of the coming season can be both fun and worrisome, can we find some clues as to what we can expect from the 2015 edition of the Longhorns? To find out, I decided to go look into some Longhorns History and assess how other recent Longhorn coaches fared in Year Two.
Mack Brown: First Year Record 9-3, 6-2 (Second in Big 12 South) Won Cotton Bowl
Not every coach inherits the best player in college football in his first year at a new job. Mack Brown did, and Ricky Williams led the Horns to a season full of memorable moments and big wins and certainly helped Mack endear himself to a fanbase hungry for wins.
The challenge Mack faced in year two was to prove that he could win without Ricky. He started in style, bringing in a loaded recruiting class that included the top offensive player in the country: Chris Simms and the top defensive player in the country: Corey Redding. He landed 19 of the top rated recruits in the state, including several who would play significant roles for the team.
It’s easy to forget now, but Lady Luck seemed to ride with Mack in those early days too. He happened upon a future legend in 1998 when injuries forced Major Applewhite, an unheralded Mackovic holdover, into the starting quarterback job. All he did was establish himself as a rising star.
The season started with a mistake-filled loss to North Carolina State, but the Horns responded by winning their next four, many by blowout. They rose to #15 in the country before a 35-17 loss to #13 Kansas State proved that the Horns were not quite ready to primetime.
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Then the Horns got really hot. They erased an early deficit to beat Oklahoma. Then they upset #3 Nebraska in DRK behind a late Applewhite touchdown pass. They narrowly escaped Iowa State in Ames, handled Oklahoma State and destroyed Texas Tech. They entered their season-ending showdown in College Station ranked 10th and had locked up the Big 12 South and a trip to the Big 12 Championship Game.
However, Applewhite got sick, forcing Simms to start. The Horns offense struggled but held a late lead but the Aggies seemed destined to win the Bonfire Game and they did. After that, the Horns were easily handled by Nebraska in the Big 12 title game and sleepwalked through a disappointing loss to Arkansas in the Cotton Bowl to finish the season 9-5 and ranked #21. Better things were around the corner, but the three game losing streak to end the season left a bitter taste in the mouths of many fans.
Mack Brown upset Nebraska and won the Big 12 South in his second year as coach. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
John Mackovic: First Year Record: 6-5, 4-3 (T-2nd SWC) No Bowl Game
Mackovic’s first Longhorns team barely missed a bowl berth, overcoming a 0-2 start to win six of their next seven games. However, a season ending two game losing streak, including a one point loss to Baylor, kept them at home.
In Year Two, Mackovic had to replace four year starter Peter Gardere at quarterback. Mackovic had scored a major recruiting win in nabbing San Angelo’s Shea Morenz and he carried with him the hopes of making Longhorn football relevant again.
The non-conference schedule was daunting, with the Horns’ first three opponents all ranked, not exactly the best situation to introduce a new quarterback in. The results where predictable. Texas was pounded by Colorado and Louisville and battled Syracuse to a tie to start 0-2-1. After that, the team won their first game by pounding Rice but followed that up with a bad loss to Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl. They beat SMU but spotted Texas Tech a 17-0 lead they couldn’t overcome in a 31-22 loss to Tech in Austin.
Then Texas got hot and blew away Houston, TCU and Baylor to push their record to 5-4-1 and put them on the brink of bowl eligibility. All that stood between them was a Texas A&M team that Texas had only beaten once since 1983. The Aggies were ranked #8 and on their way to a third straight SWC title. However, the Horns responded with a gutty performance against a superior Aggie team. Their upset bid fell short, 18-9, causing the Horns to sit out the postseason for the third straight year with a 5-5-1 record, though their 5-2 conference record is good for a second place tie.
Mackovic’s squads were notorious for being mistake prone and streaky and they were plenty of both in 1993. However, Mackovic, like Strong, was in a rebuilding mode in 93. His team was young and trying to learn how to win. In 94 they would turn the corner and start a three year run that would be an important and often overlooked part of Texas’ return to glory.
David McWilliams: First Year Record 7-5, 5-2 (T-2nd SWC) Won Bluebonnet Bowl
McWilliams was the hire that was supposed to reunite a fractured Texas fan base and pull the team out of its mid-80s daze. He got off to a solid start behind stars like Brett Stafford, Eric Metcalf and Britt Hager. They posted an all-timer of a win at Arkansas and won a bowl game for the first time since the 1982 Cotton Bowl.
High hopes for the 1988 season disappeared quickly. Metcalf, Texas’ best player and a preseason Heisman candidate, was suspended for the season opener. Then Texas promptly got blown out in an ESPN primetime showcase at BYU. The 47-6 loss is a season-shattering defeat for the Longhorns.
Texas won their next three, though they needed a controversial last second touchdown to beat North Texas, then a I-AA school and barely edged Rice. They followed that up with a four game losing streak the featured blow out losses to Oklahoma (38-13) and Houston (66-15). After a tough win against TCU, Texas needed to win their last two to reach bowl eligibility. They failed, dropping games to Baylor and Texas A&M to finish 4-7 and 2-5 in the SWC, their worst conference record since 1956.
The 88 Horns were a feast or famine team that dropped three games by a combined score of 151-34 but lost four more games by a total of only 11 points. They were a couple of lucky bounces away from a solid season, but also a couple of closer than they should have been losses away from a complete disaster.
The hope was that 88 was the rock bottom the Texas program had to reach to start their climb back up. As it turned out, it was just a preview. Bad losses in big games, poor recruiting and McWilliams’ own weaknesses all combined to keep the Horns down. Were it not for a magical 1990, McWilliams would rank among the worst of Longhorn coaches.
Fred Akers: First Year Record 11-1, 8-0 (1st SWC) Lost Cotton Bowl
Like Mack Brown, Akers inherited a future Heisman winner in Earl Campbell and rode him all the way to the brink of a National Championship. A disappointing loss in the Cotton Bowl ended those dreams but set the bar high for the Akers regime.
The Longhorns started 1978 well, winning their first three games by a total of 75-10. However, a five turnover debacle against #1 Oklahoma doomed the Horns to a 31-10 loss. They still had the SWC title and a Cotton Bowl berth to shoot for, though National Championship dreams were gone.
After the OU loss, Texas struggled to get past North Texas before edging #3 Arkansas and handling SMU. A 10-7 loss to Houston stung but a 38-14 loss at Baylor officially ended Cotton Bowl dreams. Texas finished the season strong, beating A&M and blowing out Maryland in the Sun Bowl to finish 9-3 and second in the SWC with a 6-2 record.
Much as it was for McWilliams and Mackovic, Year Two of the Akers era proved to be prophetic. Akers teams won a lot and usually dominated the teams they were supposed to. However, they also developed a habit of beating themselves in big games and losing late. The Sun Bowl victory would be one of only two for Akers in his decade at helm.
Darrell Royal’s second team struggled to a fourth place conference finish. Photo credit from texasexes.org
Chances are good that we will have a much better idea of where Charlie Srong’s Longhorns are headed by the end of this season. For Akers, McWilliams and Mackovic, their second teams exhibited traits that would hound those coaches over their entire tenure at UT. Poor showings in big games and at times sloppy play would haunt the Longhorns over the years. Personnel problems would also loom large in their failures to be “the next Darrell Royal”.
Even as successful as Mack’s second team was, there were hints at what would become habits of his teams, both good (the upset vs Nebraska and comeback versus OU) and the bad (bad losses to KSU, Nebraska and Arkansas). In Year Two, the coach gets to really put his stamp on his program and often the behaviors learned will follow the program throughout.
So what should we as fans be watching for in Year Two of the Stronghorns era? Player development will be key. Mack’s ability to recruit and (for a while) develop talent was a primary reason he succeeded where the others failed. A resolution to the quarterback system will be a big tell.
However, I believe that the biggest thing to watch this year will be how the team competes. Will they consistently beat themselves with turnovers and penalties? Will they crap their pants in big games? Will they allow overmatched opponents to hang around too long?
All of these things will be bad signs. If Texas plays sound, disciplined football, competes hard, wins the games they should and at least battles in the tough ones, there will be reason to feel good heading into year three. Sloppy, mistake filled football and big failures on big stages will be cause for concern.
Or so recent history dictates. Then again, Darrell Royal’s second team actually took a small step backwards before they broke through in year three. What do you think, Longhorn fans?