Winners of 12 straight season openers under the direction of head coach Mack Brown, the 15th-ranked Texas Longhorns aim to extend that streak this weekend as they welcome the Wyoming Cowboys to Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium in Austin for a non-conference showdown.
Since running the table in the regular season back in 2009 before losing to Alabama for the national championship, 37-21, the Longhorns have under-achieved by their only lofty standards. Two seasons ago, the program was a mere 5-7 and missed out on the postseason, and in 2011 the squad was also sub par even though it was 8-5 overall and took out California in the Holiday Bowl.
During one stretch last season, Texas bowed in five of eight Big 12 matchups, which is why it finished 4-5 in league play and perhaps expectations have been tempered a bit heading into 2012.
"We are still young but it's a very talented young team," coach Brown says of his roster. "John Bianco (Associate AD/Media Relations Director) told me this morning (Monday) we have 15 freshmen in 18 different positions, because some of them double-up in the kicking game, and 60 percent of our roster is underclassmen. I think we could have four seniors starting which is probably as few as anybody in the country."
As for the Cowboys, led by head coach Dave Christensen who is entering his fourth campaign in Laramie, they kicked off 2011 well enough with three straight wins over the likes of Weber State, Texas State and Bowling Green, but there were a few bumps in the road for the program along the way. Nevertheless, Wyoming did reel off eight wins in 12 tries during the regular season, finishing 5-2 versus the rest of the Mountain West Conference, but then was crushed by Temple in the New Mexico Bowl.
"They just played physically better than us," Christensen said of the Owls at the time. "My hat's off to them. They're a good running team. They're a good football team."
In terms of the all-time series between the programs, Texas has won all three pf the previous matchups, including a 34-7 decision in the most recent meeting back in 2010. Outside of putting up a 13-5 record against Texas-El Paso, the Cowboys don't have a winning record against any school from the Lone Star State.
While he didn't exactly have the best day against Temple in his final appearance in 2011, Wyoming quarterback Brett Smith has nothing to be ashamed of, not even those three interceptions that stung the Cowboys. Smith, the Mountain West Conference Freshman of the Year, has plenty of time to show his ability after setting a new MWC freshman record with 3,332 yards of total offense in 2011. A solid passer who is only going to get better, Smith is capable of carrying the Wyoming offense with his legs as well after rushing for 54.6 ypg.
Set on making Smith even more productive down the field are receivers Chris McNeill and Robert Herron, who are the top two returners at the position who combined for 85 receptions leading to close to 900 yards and 7 touchdowns. In the case of McNeill, he did his damage (team-high 504 yards) in just nine games, so give him a full slate and the sky's the limit.
The defense at the point of attack was a huge concern for the Cowboys last season as the squad ranked sixth in the conference and 115th in the country in run defense (232.0 ypg allowed), and was 108th in tackles for loss (4.38 per game), so hopefully the unit has made some changes in an effort to bolster both of those areas.
Losing both Gabe Knapton and Josh Biezuns who combined for 11.5 sacks and 19.5 TFLs will be tough to replace, but at least senior free safety Luke Ruff brings some stability for the defense from the secondary after he placed second on the team in total tackles with 103 a year ago.
Get the starting nod for the Longhorns at quarterback is David Ash, after having split time with Case McCoy last season. Ash didn't exactly set the world on fire with his play, throw for just 83.0 ypg and half as many TDs (four) as he had INTs (eight), but he does think he and the offense are ready to make improvements right off the bat.
"We don't want to hurt the defense in any way, because we have a great defense," Ash claims. "But at the same time, I think our offense can be as explosive as anybody. I think we can put a lot of points up on the board, and for sure, we are not going to turn the ball over. We are going to keep the ball in our hands and take the shots when they are there, and just play good, solid offense."
All three primary receivers from 2011 are back in Mike Davis (45 receptions, 609 yards, 1 TD), Jaxon Shipley (44,607, 3 TDs) and Marquise Goodwin (33, 421, 2) so certainly the expectations for Ash and the rest of the offense to flourish are there from the very beginning.
As a freshman, Malcolm Brown led the team in rushing with 742 yards and 5 touchdowns, even through he appeared in just 10 games, so again Brown is expected to deliver for the 'Horns.
As good as the offense might be for Texas, the defense is always the top story, particularly one that ranked first in the league and sixth nationally in stopping the run with just 96.2 ypg allowed. Attacking at the line of scrimmage also gave the Longhorns opportunity to register 7.38 TFL per game which was third in the Big 12 and 15th in the country a year ago.
Jackson Jeffcoat, a junior defensive end, should be feared by everyone who lines up to try and push him back. Jeffcoat, a Second-Team All-Big 12 choice following his sophomore campaign during which he led the team in sacks (8) and TFLs (21) is on the preseason watch lists for the Nagurski Trophy, Bednarik Award and Lombardi Award, but is trying to keep his perspective.
"Well, we think we can be good, but you never know until you play that first game you and keep going. I mean, you've got to take it game by game."
Sophomore defensive back Quandre Diggs also set the bar high for himself last season with 4 interceptions and 19 passes defended, so he too will have to rise to the challenge of making the Texas defense even tougher.