Texas entered its first game of last season expecting to roll over a Sun Belt Conference opponent en route to another double-figure win total.
Though the Longhorns eventually got their 10th victory in the Holiday Bowl, an unexpectedly poor performance in the season opener carried through the first part of the season - a situation this year’s team is determined to avoid.
Hoping to kick their bouts of complacency from last year, the 11th-ranked Longhorns look to make a statement as they open the 2008 season when they host reigning Sun Belt champion Florida Atlantic on Saturday.
Texas went 10-3 last year for its seventh straight season with at least 10 wins. The final record, though, didn’t match the high standards in Austin, where the then-No. 4 Longhorns scraped by Arkansas State 21-13 in the season opener - the beginning of a disturbing trend for coach Mack Brown.
“I didn’t think we were going to lose the game, but we didn’t put it away, and that was what we needed to do,” Brown recalled Monday. “It seemed like that was the personality of that team for five weeks. So we’re trying to make sure that this bunch is consistently good and they do finish.”
In its second game, Texas trailed TCU 10-0 at halftime before a strong second half, and it capped its nonconference schedule by beating Central Florida 35-32 the next week. The Longhorns continued to have problems in Big 12 play, dropping their first two conference games for the first time since 1956.
They went 6-1 the rest of the way, including a 52-34 victory over Arizona State in the Holiday Bowl, but needed big fourth-quarter comebacks to top Nebraska and Oklahoma State by three points apiece and rarely looked like the national championship contenders they expected to be.
Brown hopes this year’s team can avoid similar letdowns.
“Our team motto will be ‘consistently good to be great,’ because we felt like we’ve got to play better each week,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of great games … but when we haven’t played well for whatever reason, we’ve got to figure that out. We’ve got enough depth and we’ve got to have great energy and passion every time that we go out there.”
Texas quarterback Colt McCoy, who had his own struggles in 2007, is on board with Brown’s philosophy. After throwing for 29 touchdowns and seven interceptions as a freshman, McCoy had 22 TDs and 18 picks last year. He could be under even more pressure to perform with the departure of running back Jamaal Charles, a third-round pick in the NFL draft.
“We’ve kind of been talking about it for a long time, since the bowl game until now,” McCoy said. “I feel like we have been consistently good - we have won 10 games the last two years. Twenty games in two years is pretty consistent, and our focus now is to be great. We want to do better than that. We want to be the best we can. It starts on Saturday with Florida Atlantic.”
Defensively, the Longhorns hope to get a boost from new coordinator Will Muschamp, who spent last season with Auburn after stints with the Miami Dolphins and LSU, which he helped lead to the 2003 national championship. Muschamp has already been credited with changing the culture of Texas’ defense, which gave up 150 points over the final four games of 2007.
“Coach Muschamp calls us a blue-collared defense, and we work hard,” linebacker Jared Norton said. “We say that no matter what, if you mess up, at least mess up going 100 miles an hour.”
The defense’s newfound tenacity will be put to the test in the season opener. Florida Atlantic ranked second in the Sun Belt Conference with 31.2 points and 417.1 yards from scrimmage per game en route to the conference title in 2007. The Owls capped their 8-5 season with a 44-27 win over Memphis in the New Orleans Bowl.
The first bowl game for the program has coach Howard Schnellenberger excited about his team’s early test against Texas.
“We have talked about playing a team on even par, with whoever it might be - Texas, Michigan State, Minnesota, Nebraska, South Carolina, Florida,” he said. “We think we have enough experience now and enough talent to go out and play man-to-man, jaw-to-jaw, tooth-to-tooth and have a hell of a contest and win our share.”
Part of Schnellenberger’s confidence stems from having Rusty Smith at quarterback. Smith ranked 12th in the Football Bowl Subdivision with 3,688 passing yards and tied for eighth with 32 touchdowns in 2007.