Stung by title game loss, Texas returns with new QB Gilbert and lots of unproven talent

start talking about something other than their last game and answering the constant questions of "What if?"

What if Colt McCoy hadn't been hurt on the first drive of the BCS national championship game, a 37-21 loss to Alabama?

What if the Texas coaches had opened up the playbook for Garrett Gilbert a bit earlier instead of having him hand off while waiting to see if McCoy could return?

Texas will never know how to answer those questions. With McCoy out, Alabama raced to a big lead, then snuffed a late Longhorns rally to win the championship and send Texas into a painfully long offseason.

"That game hurt," said Texas senior cornerback Curtis Brown. "Garrett Gilbert came and played his heart out. After the game I didn't have any regrets. It added fuel to the fire for the next year."

So welcome to the 2010 season, where Gilbert is now the starting quarterback. He had four turnovers against Alabama, but his improved play in the second half and good spring workouts gave coach Mack Brown confidence that the Longhorns should be fine at quarterback.

Where McCoy was a relative unknown from a small Texas town when he got his first start in 2006, Gilbert steps into a role he was groomed for from a young age.

The son of career NFL backup Gale Gilbert, Garrett Gilbert was a high school All-American and one of the top recruits in the country when he signed with Texas in 2009. He quickly won the No. 2 spot last season and played in 10 games in mop-up duty.

Stepping into the spotlight of a national championship game that was supposed to be McCoy's triumphant finale was both a jarring experience and a big leap forward, despite the loss.

"When Colt got hurt, we turned to Garrett and I said, 'Garrett, get your helmet,' his eyes were as big as silver dollars," Brown said. "He looked at me like, 'You've got to be kidding.' He got a tremendous amount of respect from the kids in the game."

Gilbert has three seasons to try to keep that loss — all due to a quirky twist of fate and McCoy's pinched nerve — from becoming his legacy.

"I can't wait to get out there and get started and I've kind of got butterflies since football is starting again," Gilbert said.

The Longhorns should start the season ranked high enough to be within striking distance of their second national title since 2005. Texas has won at least 10 games every year since 2001 and went 25-2 over the last two seasons.

Brown said that when he arrived in Austin in late 1997, he thought 10 wins was a good enough. His perspective quickly changed when the fans started complaining.

"I said, 'OK, I'm missing something,'" Brown said. "(Former assistant) Greg Robinson is the one that told me when he came in '04, that you're griping at fans sometimes and all they want is what you want. You're mad when we win 11 and lose two. You're just like the fans. Why don't you admit it and expect to win all the games? ... I feel like we have a chance this year."

The schedule has its usual lineup of midseason traps that can make or break a title run. A Sept. 18 trip to Texas Tech is followed by a home meeting with UCLA. The last time UCLA rolled into Austin in 1997, the Bruins' 66-3 win left little doubt coach John Mackovic would be fired at season's end.

Then comes the real fun.

The annual grudge match with Oklahoma in Dallas on Oct. 2 is followed by a trip to Nebraska.

Texas beat Nebraska 13-12 in the Big 12 championship game last season after officials put precious seconds back on the clock, allowing the Longhorns to kick the winning field goal. The rivalry was primed to become one of the league's best until Nebraska decided in June to leave for the Big Ten starting next season.

Texas has some big holes to fill if it plans to win another league title.

Only four regular starters return on offense. Three multiyear starters on the line must be replaced at a time Texas is trying to revive a bulldozing running game that faltered while McCoy passed the Longhorns to wins. Senior guard Tray Allen will likely miss most of training camp with a foot injury.

At wide receiver, a solid group of talent needs a go-to pass catcher for Gilbert after Jordan Shipley departure for the NFL.

On defense, the secondary ranks among the best in the country. The line is long on talent but lacks experience.

A talented freshman class that ranked among the best in the country will have a chance to play. Linebacker Jordan Hicks and defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat were two of the most highly regarded recruits in the bunch, and defensive coordinator Will Muschamp has not been afraid to play freshmen in key roles.

In 2008, Texas went 12-1 with two freshmen at safety. Earl Thomas was a first-round draft choice in the NFL in April and junior Blake Gideon is now a third-year starter.

"We're going to throw (the freshmen) to the wolves and see what they can do," Muschamp said. "Those credentials aren't going to help them play this year. We're glad they have them, but they're not going to help you play at Texas."

The season opener is Sept. 4 against Rice.