AUSTIN, Texas – There's a buzz surrounding the Texas Longhorns that hasn't been felt the last few years.
At least that's the case in Austin. Starting Saturday night, the Longhorns will see if they can persuade the rest of college football to take notice of what coach Mack Brown thinks could be the team that returns Texas to prominence.
A game against an overmatched opponent such as New Mexico State, a program that hasn't been to a bowl game in 53 years, likely won't do it — but it's a start.
"I have worked as hard as I can possibly work for three years to get this team to where it will get back into the mix and I'm excited about seeing if we are," Brown said this week. "I think we are."
The last three seasons certainly were a struggle by Texas standards.
The Longhorns crashed to 5-7 after playing for the 2009 national championship. Winning seasons of 8-5 and 9-4 the last two years merely disguised the 9-9 record in the Big 12 over that span. Texas hasn't been close to challenging for the league title and the Longhorns believe that with 19 returning starters, they're ready to return to the top.
"We need to come out and make a strong statement. But not just this game, it's got to be every game for us," senior cornerback Carrington Byndom said.
Here are five things to watch when the Longhorns open the season Saturday night against New Mexico State:
THE TEXAS OFFENSE: Brown has promised a breathless, up-tempo offense under new play-caller Major Applewhite with a goal of snapping the ball every 15 seconds. That puts a premium on physical fitness not just on opposing defenses in the 100-degree Texas heat, but with the Longhorns as well. Quarterback David Ash is the clear No. 1 now, which means no more looking over his shoulder at Case McCoy. That should give him some comfort if the up-tempo offense doesn't pile up the points right away.
TEXAS WIDE RECEIVER/RUNNING BACK DAJE JOHNSON: Johnson showed flashes of brilliance last season but rarely touched the ball. Expect him to be featured this year. Johnson is among the fastest players in the Big 12 and said this week he thinks he can be as good as Tavon Martin was for West Virginia last season. "I would like that," Brown said. "He's got great speed so he can make those space plays in his league that Austin made against all of us last year."
NEW MEXICO STATE QUARTERBACK ANDREW MCDONALD: The junior college transfer gets his first start on the road, in front of about 100,000 and has to do it without his best target, wide receiver Austin Franklin, who was declared academically ineligible this season. Franklin was the best player for the Aggies in last season's 1-11 campaign. McDonald threw just three passes last season and got the starting job midway through training camp.
TEXAS KICKER ANTHONY FERA: Texas didn't get what they were expecting from the Penn State transfer last season and a solid performance in the season opener would go a long way to earning Brown's confidence. Fera was one of the top kickers and punters in the Big Ten in 2011 before transferring but showed up at Texas with a gimpy groin. He was just 2-4 on field goals last season with a crucial miss in a loss to West Virginia.
TEXAS DEFENSIVE END JACKSON JEFFCOAT: Jeffcoat is one of the best pass rushers in the country when he's healthy. The problem is he's often hurt. He missed the last seven games of 2012 after tearing a pectoral muscle. But when healthy, he dominates, posting at least one sack in 10 of his last 13 games.
AP college football site: http://collegefootball.ap.org