Wasserman: Why Texas football should make the College Football Playoff this year

Eight members of The Athletic’s national college football staff released predictions Friday for the College Football Playoff and eventual national champion. I was the only one to pick Texas to make it to the Playoff.

Hello darkness, my old friend.

It may seem like a tired “Texas is back” bit. The reality is Texas traditionally has been the most overrated program in college football in preseason polls. The Longhorns regularly work their way into the top 15 of those polls, only to go out and lose three or more games and become an utter disappointment. Sometimes, even, Texas loses to Kansas.

Here is the step-by-step annual cycle for Texas:

1. Big-time recruiting class

2. “Texas is back”

3. Offseason hype

4. Lofty preseason ranking

5. Disappointing/embarrassing season

6. Back to Step 1, and away we go again.

Quinn Ewers threw for 2,177 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2022. (Kirby Lee / USA Today)

I understand that I’m somewhere between Step 3 and 4. Watching all of my other colleagues — whom I respect immensely — look past Texas makes me feel like Ralph Wiggum on the school bus. I’m in danger. And truthfully speaking, I am bracing myself for Texas to do what Texas does, which, in turn, will make me look like a fool.

But nothing happens for the first time until it happens. And when you look at this particular Texas team, the analysis has to go past, “Well the Longhorns always let you down.” What happened in the past doesn’t always mean that’s what’s going to happen forever. This isn’t simply a recruiting column or a judgment call based on stars, either. In the past, I’ve blindly bought into Texas because it simply is one of the five most talented teams in college football. I’ll be the first to admit recruiting at a high level doesn’t guarantee having a good football team. I’ve made my mistakes, and I’m lovingly willing to own up to them.

There is a difference between blindly looking at a team’s talent level and deeply overlooking how the roster is constructed. This roster is solid.

This year? There are far too many things working in the Longhorns’ favor to ignore they have an advantageous path to the final four. Let’s break them down.

Offensive and defensive lines are the best they’ve been in a while: All five of Texas’ offensive line starters return. It returns one of the best offensive tackle duos in the country in Kelvin Banks and Christian Jones. Some draft analysts view Banks listed as a future top-10 pick. Quarterback Quinn Ewers’ development is still up in the air, but the Longhorns took their lumps developing their offensive line last season to build up to this year. A more advanced Ewers and good skill paired with elite-level protection? That’s dangerous.

The Longhorns don’t have a Georgia defensive line, but they return a ton of production from last year that could be very disruptive. They have three upperclassmen holding down major roles in Byron Murphy II, T’Vondre Sweat and Barryn Sorrell, and they have a ton of depth. That’s how teams win games in the ultra-competitive Big 12. That’s the big difference this year.

The emergence of Ewers: For some reason, there seems to be this notion that Ewers isn’t very good. Maybe it is because he left high school early and transferred out of Ohio State after spending one fall in Columbus. And yes, there were some moments last year that wouldn’t have won a ton of beauty contests.

But there is a path for Ewers to play himself into being one of the top-five quarterbacks in college football this year. Quarterbacks tend to make huge jumps between their freshman and sophomore seasons, and while Ewers technically has been in school for two years, I view this as his second season.

Steve Sarkisian was able to convince Arch Manning to go to Texas because of how he develops quarterbacks, and we can’t wrap our minds around Ewers taking a monster step forward this year? Ewers is an ultra-talented prospect who has been in the weight room all summer working on his craft. I fully expect him to be legit this year.

Are Oklahoma and Alabama down? Texas will be favored in all of its games except maybe one. That one is its road game against Alabama in the nonconference, a game, funny enough, I believe it is going to win. Alabama is the most talented team in college football, but there are some question marks at quarterback and about who is going to step up at receiver. The other big game is Oklahoma, and we all know there are question marks about Brent Venables’ defense going into Year 2 of his regime,

This isn’t an easy schedule by any stretch of the imagination, but Texas’ two marquee matchups are against traditional powers that we don’t think are going to be peak versions of themselves. Texas even could drop the Alabama game — or maybe another one — and still finish the year as a one-loss Big 12 champion in its final year in that conference. Let’s be honest: No other team in the Big 12 should be able to beat the Longhorns this year, and I say that knowing full well what TCU has done against the Longhorns in the past and how good we expect Texas Tech to be this year.

Skill positions are very good: All you have to do is look at Texas’ offensive two-deep, and you’ll see the firepower that could amount to 40 points per game.

Yes, the Longhorns lost running back Bijan Robinson to the NFL, but Ewers is going to be throwing to Xavier Worthy, AD Mitchell and Jordan Whittington. We know what Worthy brings to the table, and one college football staffer made a comparison to The Athletic that asserted Mitchell has traits similar to DeAndre Hopkins. Add in that JT Sanders is one of the best tight ends in the country, and there are a lot of options.

There may be questions at running back, but five-star freshman CJ Baxter is one of the many talented players in that position. Baxter, Jonathon Brooks and Jaydon Blue were all blue-chip prospects who could emerge as stars this year. Sarkisian likes to say that every year he has called plays he has had a 1,000-yard rusher. The Longhorns are going to score in bunches.



CFP expert picks: Our writers’ 2023 national championship predictions

Before you scroll to the comments, let me beat you to it. The responses are predictable. I know Sarkisian never has won 10 games in a season in his career, and a decade of coaching is a pretty long track record. I also understand that what makes Texas so infuriating for its fans is its habit of dropping games to inferior opponents. There are fair questions about toughness and whether that roster can withstand everyone’s best shot, especially in a year when the entire conference (outside of Oklahoma) wants to get Texas for abandoning the Big 12.

But if you took this roster and the circumstances and assigned those to another team, you’d have plenty of reason to believe this is a Playoff team.



Is Steve Sarkisian’s Texas ready for its closeup?

This is Sarkisian’s best team yet, talent-wise. Having a great college team, however, is about more than just talent. There is no question Sarkisian has to be better than he has been. The culture of the Texas program has to be more solid than it has ever been. As Don Draper says, “That’s what the money is for.” Sarkisian is paid way too much money to fall short on his end. If this turns out to be just another disappointing Texas team that is the butt of everyone’s jokes, I will lose all faith in Sarkisian’s ability to run that program.

With the SEC hanging just around the corner, it feels like now or never for Sarkisian and Texas to shut people up.

(Top photo of Steve Sarkisian: Tim Warner / Getty Images)

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