The 15th-ranked Texas Longhorns raise the curtain on the 2013 season on Saturday night, as they play host to the New Mexico State Aggies.
New Mexico State is playing this season as an Independent after the Western Athletic Conference was disbanded for football following the 2012 campaign. The Aggies will move to the Sun Belt Conference, a league they previously called home from 2001-04, next year.
NMSU, which has a new head coach in Doug Martin, has struggled to find its footing among its Football Bowl Subdivision brethren, and the team went just 1-11 last season (0-6 WAC). The Aggies haven't won a conference crown of any sort since 1978 (Missouri Valley), and haven't been to a bowl game since 1960 (Sun Bowl) -- the longest bowl drought of any team currently in the FBS.
Mack Brown's Texas squad experienced yet another winning season in 2012, but there are those who feel these simply aren't the same Longhorns who were considered among the nation's elite just a few years earlier.
Texas went 8-4 (5-4 in conference) last season and was relegated to a date with Oregon State in the Alamo Bowl. The Longhorns got past the Beavers, 31-27, but with a record of 22-16 (11-15 Big 12) over the past three years, there are some who think Brown needs to restore the 'Horns to their former glory, or it could be time for a change.
Texas, which has won 14 of its 15 previous season openers under Brown, has won all four prior encounters with New Mexico State, all in Austin, and this is the first meeting between the two since the 'Horns whipped the Aggies in a 66-7 final on Aug. 31, 2003.
With an offensive-minded coach in Martin pulling the strings, expect to see the Aggies address what has been an anemic attack in the past, the team averaging a mere 18.7 points and 335.3 total yards per game in 2012. The run game was especially bad last year (97.6 ypg), although Germi Morrison did average close to five yards per carry in amassing 767 yards. Brandon Betancourt and Xavier Hall could also receive their share of carries as well.
Consistent quarterback play is crucial to a team's success, and after a season in which Andrew Manley completed only 53.9 percent of his throws for 2,764 yards, 18 TDs and 11 interceptions, new starter Andrew McDonald is hoping for better results. A former standout at Santa Ana College, McDonald threw for 4,229 yards and 50 TDs in the two seasons prior to his arrival in Las Cruces.
Austin Franklin was a beast in the passing game for NMSU last year as a sophomore, logging 74 receptions for 1,245 yards and nine TDs on his way to All-WAC First Team accolades.
The New Mexico State defense took it on the chin last season, allowing 39.4 ppg behind typical outputs of 221.4 ypg rushing and 254.8 ypg passing. The Aggies surrendered 27 TDs on the ground and 28 more through the air, so tightening the purse strings is paramount to any success the team achieves this year.
The Aggies are fortunate to have leading tackler Davis Cazares (WAC-best 116 tackles) back for another go-around, as well as Trashaun Nixon (96 tackles, three sacks. As a team, NMSU came up with only nine total turnovers and 11 sacks last season, so creating big plays will be key as well.
Texas returns starters at nearly every position on offense, including the entire line, quarterback, and in the receiving corps, and that suits coach Brown just fine as the team transitions back to a spread formation.
David Ash enters his junior year hoping to improve upon the 2,699 yards, 19 TDs and eight interceptions he accounted for a season ago. Having receivers Jaxon Shipley (59 receptions, 737 yards, six TDs) and Mike Davis (57 recs., 939 yards, seven TDs) back will certainly help.
At the Big 12 media event in late July, Brown remarked about how important it is to have a veteran quarterback on which to rely.
"When you think about the importance of that player at all levels of our game, it is really, really key, and that's why we're so excited to have David with experience, with maturity, with confidence not only in himself but in his team. He's leading the team much better, and they believe in him right now."
The UT run game will feature last year's top gainer in Johnathan Gray, who rumbled his way to 701 yards and three TDs, and the 16 rushing scores produced by Joe Bergeron (127 carries, 567 yards) gave the team a major boost as well. Also figuring in the backfield mix is Malcolm Brown (61 carries, 324 yards, four TDs).
The Longhorns were solid against the pass (212.0 ypg, 36th nationally) last season, but had a difficult time defending the run (192.2 ypg, 88th nationally, 29 rushing TDs allowed -- worst in the Big 12). As a result, the unit allowed more yards (5,244) than any Texas defense in history.
The hope is that having as many as nine guys back with starting experience will help with continuity, but plain and simple ... the guys up front need to do a better job of getting off the ball and clogging holes quickly, while those in the defensive backfield need to lock down their man with greater consistency.
Players to keep an eye on include senior defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat (11 TFL, four sacks), junior linebacker Steve Edmond (103 tackles), junior cornerback Quandre Diggs (club-best four interceptions) and senior corner Carrington Byndom (three picks).