Big 12 Conference 2023 college football preview

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Big 12 Conference 2023 preview

Oddsmakers and the Big 12 media poll agree on Texas as the preseason favorite to win the conference, but it’s unlikely to be that simple. Often underachievers, the Longhorns have not won the league since 2009. Will coach Steve Sarkisian, who’s 13-12 after a shaky two seasons in Austin, end the embarrassing dry spell? Sarkisian is not the best coach in the conference, and third-year sophomore Quinn Ewers is probably not the top quarterback in the conference, yet Texas has the most talented team on paper. This is the Longhorns’ last chance because Texas and Oklahoma are leaving the Big 12 for the SEC after this season.

 

The new-look Big 12 has 14 teams, so it’s bigger — with additions BYU, Cincinnati, Houston and UCF — and could briefly be better than ever. Oklahoma, which won six straight conference titles from 2015 to 2020, and Texas often shape the national perception of this league. However, Kansas State is the conference’s defending champion, and TCU reached last season’s national championship game. The gap between the Big 12 and SEC was obvious in the bowl season when the Horned Frogs were crushed 65-7 by Georgia and the Wildcats were manhandled by Alabama. The preseason media poll ranks Kansas State second, Oklahoma third, Texas Tech fourth and TCU fifth. The Wildcats have arguably the conference’s best coach in Chris Klieman, and the Sooners have the top-rated quarterback, Dillon Gabriel.

DraftKings lists Texas at 22-1 odds to win the national championship. The Longhorns are +105 favorites in the Big 12, followed by Oklahoma (+340), Kansas State (+500), Texas Tech (12-1), TCU (16-1) and Baylor (18-1). Texas can make an early statement, for better or worse, in its heavyweight fight at Alabama on September 9. The Longhorns should have won last season’s battle in Austin, but that was a familiar frustration for a program that has allowed too many opportunities to slip away.

 

Baylor Bears 

After a 12-2 finish and Sugar Bowl win in coach Dave Aranda’s second season, some picked Baylor to win the Big 12 in 2022. The Bears were 6-3 before dropping their final four games to Kansas State, TCU, Texas and Air Force. The 29-28 loss to the Horned Frogs in Waco was a big disappointment, but it showed Baylor’s potential. Aranda has the quarterback in place for a bounce-back year.

Offense

He’s not hyped as one of the league’s elite quarterbacks, but junior Blake Shapen has that ability. Shapen passed for 18 touchdowns last year and will get better. Dominic Richardson, a transfer from Oklahoma State, could be the top running back. Richard Reese, the leading returning rusher with 972 yards and 14 touchdowns, also will get carries in a backfield loaded with talent. While the tight ends and wideouts are experienced, the line is inexperienced and may go through growing pains. Still, the offense should stay around last year’s 32.2 points per game because Shapen is more of a passing threat, and the ground attack will be potent.

Defense

Aranda, a former defensive coordinator at LSU and Wisconsin, can be counted on to develop a strong defense. He’s got a few of the conference’s best to build around in senior end Gabe Hall and linebackers Matt Jones and Mike Smith. Only five starters are returning, but Aranda will get the job done.

Outlook

Baylor is picked sixth in the league’s preseason media poll and has a chance to crack the top four with some close-game luck, unlike a year ago when it was more bad luck. Texas State and Long Island are a couple of cupcake home opponents. The Bears should be live ‘dogs in September home games against Utah and Texas. If Aranda is 3-3 through six games, he’ll be OK with that coming out of the bye because the schedule softens a lot in the second half of the season. Aside from a November 11 game at Kansas State, Baylor will have a good shot to win five of six down the stretch and at least push the win total of 7, so lean Over. In a league full of good quarterbacks, the Bears will need Shapen to step up and win some of the close ones.

Pick: Over 7

 

Central Florida Knights 

Gus Malzahn was chased out after eight years at Auburn, where he did a good job yet found it impossible to survive in Nick Saban’s shadow at Alabama. In two years as UCF coach, Malzahn has a record of 18-9 with a pair of nine-win finishes. He has 15 starters returning, including a quarterback with SEC experience, so moving to the Big 12 will not be intimidating to Malzahn. But the Knights do draw a much tougher schedule.

Offense

John Rhys Plumlee, who started occasionally in three years at Mississippi, passed for 14 touchdowns in his first year as a starter in the AAC. Plumlee, who missed some time while injured, also was effective as a runner with 862 yards and 11 touchdowns. The Knights also bring back 5-foot-8 running back RJ Harvey, who had 796 yards and five touchdowns, and top receiver Javon Baker. The depth and size of the offensive line are up to the Big 12’s high standards. Malzahn always produces high-scoring offenses and will do so again.

Defense

Georgia transfer linebacker Rian Davis has been added to a unit with seven returning starters. A veteran line led by Ricky Barber and Tre’Mon Morris-Brash will be a strength. The defense allowed 23.6 points per game last year, but it will face better offenses on this schedule.

Outlook

The bad news for the Knights is they play Boise State, Kansas State, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas Tech on the road. UCF also visits Cincinnati, but the Knights are the best team of the four newcomers to the conference. The good news for UCF is it hosts Kent State, Villanova, Baylor, West Virginia, Oklahoma State and Houston and should win four or five of its six home games. 

More good news: Texas and TCU are not on the schedule. There appears to be no obvious edge in betting this win total, which is set at 6.5, so the lean is Under due to that side being priced +145 at DraftKings. With a rigorous road schedule, the Knights’ ceiling is probably 7-5, and their most likely result is 6-6. Malzahn is usually a bet-on coach, but his team is taking a big step up in class to a power conference, so it’s tough to be too optimistic.

Pick: Under 6.5

 

Brigham Young Cougars

BYU could get buyer’s remorse about joining a power conference, especially a brutally tough one. The Cougars went a combined 29-9 from 2020 to 2022, but their strength of schedule is seriously cranked up this year with one SEC opponent and nine in the Big 12. The good news for coach Kalani Sitake is he has 15 starters returning and two cupcake opponents on the schedule in early September.

Offense 

Kedon Slovis, who had success early in his career at USC before transferring to Pittsburgh, makes his third campus stop in Provo. Slovis posted pedestrian numbers last year for the Panthers and is not guaranteed to win the starting quarterback job, but he’s the favorite going to camp. Slovis passed for 30 touchdowns as a USC freshman in 2019, yet his numbers have declined each year. His competitors are junior college transfer Jake Retzlaff and Boise State transfer Cade Fennegan. 

The Cougars must replace Jaren Hall, who passed for 31 touchdowns last season before becoming a fifth-round pick by the Minnesota Vikings. BYU returns eight starters and has its typical big, physical offensive line. Running back Aidan Robbins transferred from UNLV, where he rushed for 1,011 yards, and should make a major impact. The pass-catching group looks solid with wideouts Kody Epps and Keanu Hill and 6-6 tight end Isaac Rex. While the offensive numbers are likely to decline against a tougher schedule, BYU could be dangerous if the QB position is in good hands.

Defense 

Stopping the run was a problem a year ago, and that was never more evident than in a 52-35 home loss to Arkansas. Junior end Tyler Batty is the top returner on a line that adds Boise State transfers Jackson Cravens and Isaiah Bagnah. The unit returns seven starters and appears improved, but the move up to the Big 12 means there are better opposing offenses on the schedule.

Outlook

The Cougars can handle a power conference, which they proved by going 5-0 against Pac-12 opponents in 2021. BYU also beat Baylor in double overtime last season. Sitake is not a strong game-management coach and could get exposed further in the Big 12. The schedule is softer in the first half when BYU will be favored at home against Sam Houston, Southern Utah and Cincinnati. If the Cougars are favorites in only one of their final seven games, it’s tough to find six wins, so this call is a lean Under the total.

Pick: Under 5.5

 

Cincinnati Bearcats 

It’s a new era at Cincinnati, and new will not mean improved in this case. Scott Satterfield was hired from Louisville to replace Luke Fickell, who coached the Bearcats to a 31-5 record the past three years. Fickell left for Wisconsin prior to Cincinnati’s 24-7 loss to Louisville in the Fenway Bowl. Satterfield did a respectable job as Cardinals coach, but few fans there were sad to see him go.

Offense

Desmond Ridder and Ben Bryant were highly successful quarterbacks for the Bearcats. The new starter will be Emory Jones, who won six games at Florida in 2021 but went 1-6 at Arizona State last year before transferring. Jones has posted solid passing numbers yet is more of a running threat. Cincinnati returns only three offensive starters after losing its leading rusher and every wide receiver who contributed last year. Corey Kiner, a former LSU transfer, will be the starting running back in Satterfield’s ground-based attack. Unless Jones turns into an electrifying playmaker in a new system, this should be one of the Big 12’s worst offenses.

Defense

It’s not all bad news for the Bearcats, who expect their defensive line to be among the league’s best. Jowon Briggs and Dontay Corleone anchor the front, which is the strength of the team. Six starters come back, but linebacker Ivan Pace will be difficult to replace after the All-American led the team with 137 tackles and 10 sacks. A defense that allowed only 16.9 points per game in 2021 and 20.6 points per game last year will continue to slip without Fickell and the NFL-caliber talent he recruited to Cincinnati.

Outlook

While the move up to the Big 12 obviously means a much more challenging schedule, the Bearcats do miss Texas, Kansas State and TCU this season. A case can be made for Cincinnati winning six games as it has Eastern Kentucky, Miami (OH), Iowa State, Central Florida and Kansas on the home schedule. On the road portion, Houston and West Virginia are two of the weakest teams in the conference, and BYU is far from unbeatable. 

However, the reality is the Bearcats are rebuilding, and Satterfield is walking into an unenviable situation following Fickell and with only nine starters returning. Satterfield was highly regarded when he left Appalachian State, though he was exposed to a degree at Louisville. He’s fortunate to draw a manageable schedule but is likely headed for a losing season. Under 5.5 is the bet.

Pick: Under 5.5

 

Houston Cougars 

The Cougars and coach Dana Holgorsen have had a good two-year run, going a combined 20-7 with bowl victories over Auburn and Louisiana. Holgorsen will be playing to a different tune this season, however. Veteran quarterback Clayton Tune must be replaced, and only 12 starters return for a Houston team that is unlikely to return to a bowl game.

Offense

Donovan Smith transferred to Houston after two years of riding a quarterback carousel at Texas Tech. The 6-5, 240-pound Smith was productive for the Red Raiders. In fact, Smith completed 36-of-58 passes for 350 yards and two touchdowns — and also rushed for 31 yards and a touchdown — in a 33-30 double-overtime victory over the Cougars in Lubbock last year. 

Smith steps in for Tune, who finished the season by passing for 4,074 yards and 40 touchdowns while leading the team in rushing with 544 yards. Tune was a fifth-round pick by the Cardinals. Also lost to the NFL was leading receiver Tank Dell, who had 109 catches and 17 touchdowns before getting drafted in the third round by the Texans. West Virginia transfer Tony Mathis is the top running back, sophomore wideout Matthew Golden shows promise, and the starting line is made up of all seniors and juniors. The offense will decline from 36 points per game, but it should be fine and will compete in the Big 12.

Defense

Junior end Nelson Ceaser is among seven returning starters for a defense that allowed 32.2 points per game and could be a problem. The move from the AAC means the Cougars will face better offenses this season, although Oklahoma is not on the schedule, so that’s a plus.

Outlook

The Cougars opened last season with a 37-35 triple-overtime win at Texas-San Antonio, and their home opener is against UTSA. Rice and Sam Houston are the other nonconference opponents. Houston has a manageable Big 12 home schedule against TCU, West Virginia, Texas, Cincinnati and Oklahoma State. Holgorsen’s team might not win a league game on the road and faces Texas Tech, Kansas State, Baylor and UCF. The win total is correctly set at 4.5, so this is only a lean Over, with a 5-7 record appearing realistic. Don’t expect the Cougars to go bowling again.

Pick: Over 4.5

 

Iowa State Cyclones 

Once a hot coaching commodity, Matt Campbell opted to stay at Iowa State to continue building a successful program. Campbell might be regretting it. The Cyclones went 9-3 in 2020, when they lost to Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game and beat Oregon in the Fiesta Bowl. Campbell’s record since is 11-14. Iowa State does bring back 15 starters, but those starters return from a 4-8 team, and Campbell does not have an elite quarterback.

Offense

The Cyclones were at their best when they had future NFL stars Brock Purdy at quarterback and Breece Hall at running back. The offense dipped to 20.2 points per game last year, when Iowa State scored 14 points or fewer in seven games. Hunter Dekkers’ development as a quarterback will define this unit, if the quarterback even sees the field. Dekkers looks like he could be hit with a big suspension for violating the NCAA’s gambling policy. That said, expect to see a lot of Rocco Becht or JJ Kohl this season. The two freshmen were previously battling for the backup job. 

The return of the top two running backs — Jirehl Brock and Cartevious Norton – is obviously a positive, although neither is a star. Leading receiver Xavier Hutchinson, who had 107 catches for 1,171 yards and six touchdowns, will be missed. The biggest positive is an experienced and physical line that ranks in the top half of the Big 12. The offense will be improved, but that’s not saying a lot after last year’s misery.

Defense

Will McDonald was the leader of the line, but he was the 15th overall pick in the first round by the Jets, and only one starter returns on the defensive front. The top returning player is junior cornerback TJ Tampa, who made the all-Big 12 second team. The defense kept the team in most games and allowed 20.3 points per game, even after surrendering 62 points in an embarrassing loss at TCU to end the year.

Outlook

The first quarter of the schedule — Northern Iowa, Iowa, at Ohio, Oklahoma State — will be the Cyclones’ chance to make hay. That’s what happened last year, when Iowa State started 3-0, but then it lost five straight games and eight of nine. The offense should be improved, though not significantly, and the defense is a mystery. 

The Cyclones will likely be in most games yet lose many of them, especially when they get into a Big 12 schedule that includes Oklahoma, TCU, Baylor, Kansas, Texas and Kansas State. It looks like 6-6 is the best-case scenario for Campbell, and it’s always risky betting on a best-case scenario when the quarterback is mediocre, so this is a lean Under.

Pick: Under 5.5

 

Kansas Jayhawks 

The record shows Kansas had a losing season at 6-7, but the reality is it was a huge success. The Jayhawks went from 2-10 in coach Lance Leipold’s first year to a bowl game for the first time since 2008. Leipold is a rising star, and he’s got 17 starters returning, including 10 on offense. Despite a difficult schedule, Kansas should reach back-to-back bowls.

Offense

Jalon Daniels’ dual-threat playmaking was the primary reason the Jayhawks started 5-0. He went down to injury in the next game, a 38-31 loss to TCU, and the team lost six of seven to finish the regular season. Backup quarterback Jason Bean put up good numbers in Daniels’ absence, and Daniels and Bean both return. 

The top three running backs also come back, including Devin Neal, who rushed for 1,090 yards and nine touchdowns. The top three receivers and four of five linemen return for an offense that scored 35.6 points per game. Even in most of Kansas’ losses, the offense was potent. The Jayhawks fell 52-42 at Oklahoma and 55-53 to Arkansas in the Liberty Bowl, a game Kansas covered as a 2.5-point underdog.

Defense

The line lost all four starters and is being rebuilt with the help of transfers. All three starting linebackers and the four starters in the secondary return. It’s worth mentioning the Jayhawks’ top defensive player is junior corner Cobee Bryant. How a new-look line develops is important to Kansas’ ability to pressure quarterbacks and stop the run, and the run defense was weak in the second half of last season.

Outlook

The Jayhawks have a great opportunity to open 4-0 with home games against Missouri State, Illinois and BYU and a road game at Nevada. The September 30 trip to Texas calls for a brief history lesson. In 2021, Kansas stunned the Longhorns 57-56 as 31-point road dogs. Last year, the Longhorns got revenge with a 55-14 win in Lawrence. 

Kansas’ toughest remaining league games are at home versus Oklahoma, Texas Tech and Kansas State. Oklahoma State, Iowa State and Cincinnati are beatable opponents away from home. If Daniels stays healthy, the Jayhawks can win seven or eight, so go Over 6 with a push seemingly a worst-case scenario. Leipold, a coach worth betting on, is still building in his third year.

Pick: Over 6

 

Kansas State Wildcats 

After Texas and Oklahoma, Kansas State should be the third-best team in the league. It’s possible the Wildcats climb a little higher for fifth-year coach Chris Klieman. K-State won the Big 12 title game by knocking off TCU before getting outclassed by Alabama in a 45-20 Sugar Bowl loss. Klieman is a much better coach than the Longhorns’ Steve Sarkisian and the Sooners’ Brent Venables, so that counts for something.

Offense

Deuce Vaughn was a dynamite running back who rolled up 1,558 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground. He was a sixth-round draft pick by the Cowboys and would have been drafted higher if not for being 5-5. Florida State transfer Treshaun Ward and sophomore DJ Giddens are good replacements for Vaughn. 

Adrian Martinez and Will Howard split time at quarterback, and only Howard returns, but he was the better of the two passers. K-State scored 38.8 points per game in Howard’s five starts. The line ranks among the nation’s 10 best, with five starters returning and plenty of depth. Klieman wants his offenses to run the ball and be physical, and the Wildcats have the personnel to do that.

Defense

Six starters departed, the most significant being edge rusher Felix Anudike-Uzomah, a first-round pick by the Chiefs. A lot of production was lost, but end Khalid Duke and linebacker Austin Moore, the team’s top tackler, do return to lead a defense that will be fine because Klieman brought in several transfers.

Outlook

September should be a winning month with Southeast Missouri, Troy and UCF on the home schedule. A trip to Missouri in the third week will be a tough test. The Wildcats will be favored in their last four home games (TCU, Houston, Baylor, Iowa State) in Big 12 play, but they go to Texas and Texas Tech. 

The key to this win total is what’s missing from the schedule, and that’s three of the worst teams in the conference in BYU, Cincinnati and West Virginia. Klieman is definitely a coach to believe in, Howard is a winner at quarterback, and the offensive line is elite. However, it’s tough to count on 9-3 and go Over the total with Vaughn departing and the defense losing its top player, Anudike-Uzomah. It would not be a surprise if K-State returns to the league title game, but with a tough road schedule, this call is a lean Under 8.5.

Pick: Under 8.5

 

Oklahoma State Cowboys

The rivalry with Oklahoma will come to an end after this season, and that’s a good thing for coach Mike Gundy, who’s 3-15 against the Sooners. Gundy has criticized Oklahoma for leaving for the SEC, but he should be happy about it. Entering his 19th season in Stillwater, Gundy has made 17 consecutive bowl games. He’s off a seven-win season and facing a relatively soft schedule, but this Cowboy might not have enough horses to go bowling this time.

Offense 

The departure of Spencer Sanders, the starting quarterback for the past two years, will prove costly. The Cowboys were 6-1 last season before Sanders encountered injury issues and went to the sideline. He rarely got back on the field, and Oklahoma State lost five of its final six games. 

Alan Bowman, a former starter at Texas Tech and little-used reserve at Michigan, is the favorite to win the job. His competition is Garret Rangel and Gunner Gundy, and both backups failed to impress a year ago. If Bowman wins the job, he can count on a veteran line and a good receiving corps, highlighted by Brennan Presley, who led the team with 67 receptions. The Cowboys failed to score more than 20 points in any of the final six games of 2022, including a 48-0 loss at Kansas State. The offense could get ugly again.

Defense

Gundy was a loser in the transfer portal. He brought in some talent but lost star linebacker Mason Cobb to USC and cornerback Jabbar Muhammad to Washington. A defense that allowed 28.9 points per game could get worse, especially if the Oklahoma State offense is as weak as it appears on paper.

Outlook 

This win total is set correctly at 6.5 based on the schedule and Gundy’s track record. The schedule excludes Texas, TCU and Baylor and includes all four Big 12 newcomers — BYU, Cincinnati, Houston and UCF. 

Two years ago, the Cowboys pulled off a big comeback to beat Notre Dame 37-35 in the Fiesta Bowl, but this is no longer a program competing for a conference title because of a dropoff in quarterback play and the diminished talent level. It’s difficult to envision Gundy going 7-5 unless Oklahoma State manages to sweep tricky nonconference games against Arizona State and South Alabama, a pair of teams that could be surprisingly good. While it rarely pays to doubt Gundy, this is a time to do that and stay Under.

Pick: Under 6.5

 

Oklahoma Sooners

In his first year as a head coach, Brent Venables was a bust. The Sooners finished 6-7 for their first losing record since 1998. Venables, a longtime defensive coordinator at Clemson and Oklahoma, appeared in over his head as the leader of a program. But he also was the unlucky victim of several close calls — five losses by seven points or fewer — and now catches a lucky break with a much weaker schedule in his second year.

Offense

Injuries to quarterback Dillon Gabriel were a big factor in Oklahoma’s most embarrassing defeats, 55-24 at TCU and 49-0 to Texas. The left-handed Gabriel was accurate and effective when healthy, completing 62.7% of his passes for 25 touchdowns with six interceptions. He rates as the top returning passer in the conference. 

However, the Sooners will miss leading rusher Eric Gray and top wide receiver Marvin Mims. While there is plenty of skill-position talent on the depth chart, go-to players need to emerge. The line is experienced and should be among the league’s best, and 6-6, 315-pound left tackle Walter Rouse will help the cause after transferring from Stanford. Based on what happened last year when Gabriel was out, keeping the star quarterback healthy is imperative.

Defense

Venables is regarded as a mad genius at designing defenses, but his reputation took a hit as the Sooners were shredded too often in Big 12 play and allowed 29.6 points per game overall. Venables went to the transfer portal to beef up the line and added seniors Jacob Lacey from Notre Dame and Rondell Bothroyd from Wake Forest, among others. With more talent and time to instill his system, Venables will put a stronger defense on the field.

Outlook

What’s missing from Oklahoma’s schedule — Big 12 contenders Kansas State and Baylor — is important when analyzing the win total and projecting this team’s success. It would be a surprise if the Sooners are not 5-0 going into the Texas game on October 7. 

The three road games in the season’s second half (Kansas, Oklahoma State and BYU) are not layups before the home finale against TCU. In reality, a 9-3 regular season would be a disappointment considering the schedule, but it’s fair to expect the Sooners to fall to Texas and Kansas and slip up in one more spot somewhere along the way. Venables has a lot to prove as a head coach, making this win total a lean Under.

Pick: Under 9.5

 

TCU Horned Frogs

Sonny Dykes will be his own tough act to follow. In his first season in Fort Worth, Dykes coached the Horned Frogs to the national championship game. Yes, that Monday night title game was a nightmare, a 65-7 loss to Georgia, but TCU beat Michigan in a semifinal and finished 13-2 so it’s better to focus on the positives. Max Duggan, the quarterback who ignited the Cinderella season, is gone, and that’s a negative. The Frogs look like a fringe Top 25 team.

Offense

Chandler Morris, a third-year sophomore with three career starts, is likely to replace Duggan. The Frogs must replace much more than their quarterback. Leading rusher Kendre Miller and leading receiver Quentin Johnston also departed. Only three starters return, but two of those are mammoth tackles Andrew Coker (6-7, 315) and Brandon Coleman (6-6, 325). 

The running back position should be in good shape with Alabama transfer Trey Sanders and returning junior Emani Bailey. Dykes has a sharp offensive mind and his new coordinator, Kendall Briles, was a smart hire from Arkansas. The former OC, Garrett Riley, left for Clemson. TCU is rebuilding on this side of the ball, but the offense will probably be better than most expect, considering the high-profile losses.

Defense

Nose tackle Damonic Williams, middle linebacker Jamoi Hodge and cornerback Josh Newton are among the Big 12’s best defenders and three of seven returning starters. The defense should be better — and it was good last year, when the Frogs held Texas to 10 points. The defense was nowhere near as bad as it appeared in the disaster that was the Georgia game, so erase that from memory and look at the big picture.

Outlook

The ball bounced TCU’s way last year. The Frogs were fortunate to beat Oklahoma State 43-40 and Baylor 29-28 on their way to 12-0. They will not be catching opponents by surprise this year, and there probably will be some close-game regression. The schedule is soft early, likely allowing TCU to be 6-2 or so going into its late October bye. The schedule gets tough late with road games at Texas Tech and Oklahoma and home games versus Texas and Baylor. The win total is set right at 7.5 because it’s most likely a seven- or eight-win team, but lean Under. It’s a lot to ask to lose Duggan, Johnston and Miller and still win eight games.

Pick: Under 7.5

 

Texas Longhorns

The first two years of the Steve Sarkisian era at Texas were forgettable. In 2021, Sarkisian went 5-7, including a loss to Kansas as a 31-point favorite. Last year was an improvement as the Longhorns finished 8-5, yet lost in the Alamo Bowl. This year, Texas hopes to win the Big 12 title for the first time since 2009. In 2024, the Longhorns will move to the SEC, and Sarkisian’s most hyped recruit, quarterback Arch Manning, will get his shot to shine.

Offense

The Manning era in Austin will have to wait. Third-year sophomore Quinn Ewers, who started his career on the sidelines at Ohio State, will try to play his way into the first round of the NFL Draft. Ewers started 10 games last season and put up pedestrian numbers (58% completions, 15 touchdown passes) while missing time with injuries. But Ewers showed promise, especially in an early-season 20-19 loss to Alabama. His backup, Hudson Card, transferred to Purdue to leave the No. 2 spot to Manning. 

While the offense returns 10 starters, the one who was lost — running back Bijan Robinson — was a top-10 draft pick by the Falcons. Robinson rushed for 1,580 yards and 18 TDs. The depth chart in the backfield is loaded and led by freshman CJ Baxter. The receiver group is impressive, with Xavier Worthy returning and Georgia transfer Adonai Mitchell as a key addition. The line returns a combined 101 combined career starts and ranks among the nation’s best. Sarkisian has all the pieces and this offense should top last season’s 34.5 points per game.

Defense

With six starters back, Texas is in a decent spot. But the key to the defense avoiding a decline will be the development of several top recruits and transfers, including corner Ryan Watts from Ohio State. The Longhorns allowed only 21.6 points per game a year ago and whipped Oklahoma 49-0 in the highlight of the Sarkisian era.

Outlook

The Longhorns are the conference favorites, but preseason hype has amounted to hot air for this program for too long. Texas has stayed Und