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July 31, 2008

Texas in the middle of the pack?

Longshot Longhorns? Are you kidding? The school with an athletic budget of $125 million, a brand new north end zone, maybe the best high school recruits in the country and a quarterback with a name straight out of Lonesome Dove is an underdog in 2008?

That's like calling the IRS, gas pumps and Scarlett Johansson underdogs. But that's what it says right there in Phil Steele's 2008 preseason Top 40: Texas at No. 15. Athlon puts UT at No. 16. Fox Sports Net has Texas at No. 21. Dave Campbell's Texas Football has the Longhorns finishing third in the South behind OU and Texas Tech. Basically, the pundits who always seem to overvalue Longhorn stock are telling you it's a hold - at best.

Three years removed from their straight-to-DVD breakthrough - "Live The Dream" - the Longhorns have become an afterthought nationally. Middle of the pack. When it comes to the Top 25, they are closer to 25 than the top.

"We don't care what people are saying about us," Mack Brown said last week at Big 12 media days.

Don't buy it. In the room next to Brown, senior defensive end Brian Orakpo was talking about how the low projections are providing "fuel" and "motivation."

"We're out to prove the critics wrong," Orakpo said.

But how?

Middle linebacker Rashad Bobino is the only starter left from the team that beat USC for No. 1. And many would argue his backup Jared Norton is more physically talented.

(P Trevor Gerland, OL Chris Hall, LB Rod Muckelroy, S Ishie Oduegwu, OG Charlie Tanner, OT Adam Ulatoski and, of course, Colt McCoy were redshirt freshmen on that 2005 team.)

The two seasons since have looked good on paper at 10-3 but have also tasted like paper. In 2006, Texas beat OU and let a Big 12 title and possibly much more disappear with upset losses to Kansas State and Texas A&M. Last year, Texas let a possible BCS berth disappear (stop me if you've heard this before) with upset losses to Kansas State and Texas A&M.

So what makes anyone think the Longhorns will be better off this year? There are nine bowl teams from 2007 on the schedule, including new North additions Colorado, Missouri and Kansas.

Oklahoma has too much offense, too much defensive line and too much Bob Stoops not to be the overwhelming favorite in the South. Missouri comes to Austin with Southlake Carroll's Chase Daniel saying things like, "Texas thought I was too short to play for them, but that's OK." Will the chip on Daniel's shoulder fit in Royal-Memorial Stadium? Kansas' Todd Reesing of Lake Travis called UT's visit to Lawrence a game "I've had circled since I got here."

"Every year there are 330 kids signing scholarships in Texas and we can only sign 25," Brown said. "So that leaves 300 who are mad at me and Chase Daniel is one of them. Todd Reesing is another."

But this is right where teams like Texas should love to be. Hungry, mad, focused. Six times in 10 years under Brown, Texas has finished below its preseason, Associated Press ranking, including the last two.

The three times Texas has finished above its AP preseason ranking were 1998, 2004 and 2005. Those teams had either Ricky Williams or Vince Young. (In 2001, UT was picked No. 5 and finished No. 5.) This team is hoping for anything close to Williams or Young to emerge.

But if 2008 has taught us anything, it's nothing is what it seems in sports. The New York Giants, Boston Celtics, Kansas Jayhawks and Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon proved that. Even Rocco Mediate showed in a losing effort that heart and neverending belief can shake foundations.

So does this year's Texas team have the swagger, leadership and chemistry to pull off something special? Here are the questions I want answered before I will change my mind from expecting another three-loss (or worse) season:

*Is Mack Brown still a demanding grouch? Or does he think Will Muschamp is enough of a grouch for the whole team?

*Will Texas be able to run the ball? Or will the Longhorns be floundering without an identity on offense like the first eight-and-three-quarter-games of last season?

*Will McCoy be the "baby-faced-assassin" (his dad's nickname for him) circa 2006 or running for his life and throwing to the other team circa 2007?

*Is John Chiles focused and happy? Or has Sherrod Harris and his never-ending positive attitude made up ground on the No. 2 quarterback position?

The unknowns for Brown in his 11th year at Texas are many: protection from the offensive line, running back, a deep threat at receiver, a playmaker at tight end. Is that enough? That's just one side of the ball.

On defense, Brown and Muschamp need a pass rush and playmaking at linebacker. A secondary with almost no big-game experience at safety has to learn on the job in a year when the Big 12 is expected to shatter records on offense.

Texas always has talent. Now it's up to Brown and his staff to get players to believe that something powerful can happen on the rare occasion that - is this possible under Mack Brown? - the Longhorns are viewed as a longshot.



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