AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — With each day that goes by, the 2009 national championship game fades a bit more at Texas.
That 2005 national title? That's on the verge of ancient history considering two senior classes have come and gone since Vince Young wore burnt orange. Toss in a 22-16 record over the last three seasons and the once-mighty program seems on the verge of long-term mediocrity if Longhorns can't challenge for the Big 12 title this year.
But it's clear that Texas — from coach Mack Brown to the offensive line — enters the 2013 season with a quiet confidence that the Longhorns are being overlooked as not just Big 12 contenders, but perhaps national ones as well.
"I'm more confident this team will be the best one we've had in the last two years or three years," Brown said.
Texas returns 19 starters from last season's 9-4 squad, making it the most experienced team in the Big 12, and is coming off a bowl win over Oregon State that was arguably quarterback David Ash's best game of the season.
Here are five things to watch at Texas this season:
1. THE QUARTERBACK: David Ash has two seasons and 18 starts under his belt and Texas fans are still waiting to see what he can deliver week to week. He's shown he can win in tough road environments like Stillwater, Okla., and crater in the cauldron of the Cotton Bowl. Thrust into the job as a true freshman in 2011, Brown was frustrated in 2012 when Ash took a big step backward every time he seemed ready to break out. The Longhorns are hoping his superb effort to rally Texas to a win in the Alamo Bowl carried through the offseason, despite a couple of bad interceptions in the spring game. Brown has declared Ash his go-to quarterback, with Case McCoy the backup.
2. THE DEFENSE: The lasting image of the 2012 version of the Texas defense was an Oklahoma fullback hurdling through the secondary, jumping over one defensive back while another bounced helplessly off his midsection. It was easily the most embarrassing play of an embarrassing game that led many to speculate that coordinator Manny Diaz wouldn't return in 2013. Diaz is back and his defense did get better toward the end of the season. The Longhorns return nine starters on defense, including senior end Jackson Jeffcoat, a potentially dominating pass rusher whose career has been dogged by injuries. Despite all that experience, Texas lost its best two players from 2012 in safety Kenny Vaccaro and end Alex Okafor, who are now both in the NFL. Last season's struggles earned Texas a reputation as a soft defense. They will be tested early against BYU, Ole Miss and Kansas State by the end of September.
3. THE COACH: To look and listen to Brown is to see and hear a coach who hasn't felt this good in four years. He's dropped 25 pounds and took the unusual step of opening up six practices to the media and three to the public. The message: After two years of rebuilding behind closed doors, let me show you what I've got. Yet some things still seem unsettled. After Texas lost to Alabama in the BCS championship game after the 2009 season, Brown was determined to remake Texas from a passing offense to a power running game. After that failed with 5-7 finish in 2010, Brown pushed out longtime assistant Greg Davis for a new offensive coordinator, promising Bryan Harsin would rev things up. Now Harsin is the head coach at Arkansas State and Brown wants Major Applewhite to push the offense in an up-tempo, snap-every-few-seconds attack. While some speculate Brown could be in trouble if he's not competitive in the Big 12 in his 16th season, it likely would take a losing season to force a change.
4. SHOW ME, DON'T TELL ME: Brown can talk about his best team in years and fans can dream of chasing titles again in a league that looks as wide open as ever. But Texas won't make believers of anyone until they can beat Kansas State, not get blown out by Oklahoma and win in Waco against a Baylor team that has shredded Texas with its speed the last three years.
5. OFF THE FIELD: Texas fans may want to pay attention to the Austin federal courts in September. That's the earliest former women's track coach Bev Kearney can file a federal race and sex discrimination lawsuit over her forced resignation last January. How would this relate to football? It was Kearney's attorneys who shook out the embarrassing revelation in February that Applewhite had an inappropriate relationship with a student on a bowl trip after the 2008 season. Kearney's attorneys have threatened a lawsuit and point to the Applewhite instance as a major piece of evidence. A lawsuit would lead to another public airing of a humiliating episode for Applewhite.
Predicted finish in Big 12: Second.
AP college football site: http://collegefootball.ap.org