When the 2010 season began, Mack Brown's team was coming off a national title game loss that had initiated the post-McCoy era 3 quarters too early and had shaken their identity to the core.
New QB Garrett Gilbert had nearly delivered a championship with a gritty but ultimately flawed effort and was coming back as the anointed replacement. He had finished his last 3 seasons with championship games, the first 2 as the triggerman in the wide open Lake Travis spread offense that had left a path of devastation across the Texas high school football landscape, and the latter in Texas' spread offense designed for Colt.
However, after being pounded in the trenches by Alabama, Mack Brown wanted to return to hard-nosed football and offensive balance and the offseason was spent discussing and attempting to implement a power running game such as Texas had featured with Ricky Williams when Mack first arrived. The first test came against the Rice Owls in a "road game" at Reliant Stadium in front of tens of thousands of Longhorn alum, including yours truly.
The new offense began to hammer the ball down the field with a mix of under-center Power and Zone runs that would form the backbone of the new offensive identity. Then they reached the goal line and Rice came out of their 2-deep defensive shell and brought in their goal line defense. Four stuffed runs later and the Texas running game was DOA for the 2010 season.
Sometimes you can tell a lot from the first game of the year.
When 2010 Texas could not impose their will on a C-USA doormat playing Cover-2 it was hard to believe the new offensive identity would find much success against Oklahoma or Nebraska. The Longhorns tried to emphasize the Gilbert-led passing game as a stopgap but the switch to power football was more than a philosophical change, it was a necessity. The graduation of players like McCoy, Shipley, and Quan Cosby had left Texas without the horses to run a spread offense that would scare anyone.
Rice's spread-option offense and "bend don't break" defense had been a measure of basic competency. Could the Longhorns athletes deployed in a basic gameplan overwhelm an inferior foe with execution and talent? Barely.
This year's opening test, the Wyoming Cowboys, offer a similar but upgraded examination of Texas' level of play. A team with a winning record in Big 12 play this year should stomp these Cowboys and send them back to Laramie in a box.
Wyoming is coached by Dave Christensen, who was the offensive coordinator at Missouri from 2001 to 2008 and installed the no-huddle spread led by Chase Daniel that buffeted the Big 12 North from 2005-2008 before he left for the head coaching position in Laramie. They feature an offense similar to what Texas will see this year from other "spread to run" opponents such as TCU, BU, or ISU minus some of the more athletic skill players and Big 12 quality line play.
Quarterback Brett Smith makes the machine go and was their leading rusher last year with 710 yards while also throwing for 2600 more with a 20-11 TD-INT ratio as a true freshman. If Wyoming is willing to risk their best player before their conference season starts against a vicious Texas defense then they can test Manny Diaz's unit with all of the diverse means of attack afforded by spread football.
Operating their Zone and option running game and making off-schedule plays with his feet and arm, Smith can test the discipline of a defense that lost its 1st, 2nd, and 4th leading tacklers and brings in a lot of inexperience at linebacker.
Part of the usual Diaz gameplan for dual-threat QB's often involves heavy usage of his Fire Zone blitzes with linebackers instructed to hesitate and lurk in passing lanes before attacking the edges in order to force the QB to stay in the pocket and find an open receiver amidst the chaos of the blitz. If he dances out of the pocket to find running room or receivers those backers are positioned to converge on him.
This gameplan thwarted Denard Robinson and Cam Newton while Diaz was at Miss. St., and absolutely silenced the Kansas St. offense last year with Texas. Against the less athletic and somewhat inexperienced Wyoming OL it could easily result in a shutout but Diaz may prefer to play less aggressive defense and give his younger players a chance to practice their run fits in their basic fronts and stunts.
Against the Texas secondary littered with future NFL players the Wyoming passing game shouldn't manage anything significant without giving Texas fans some cause for alarm.
The Wyoming defense has a background much like the Rice Owl unit Texas faced in 2010, which attempted to keep everything in front of them and make the Longhorns earn their way down the field, but they've changed course and hired a new coordinator with a more aggressive mentality.
They have a strong nose-tackle, a lot of speed at linebacker, and a veteran tandem of safeties. Overall they lack the size and athleticism to match Texas' improving run blocking and powerful runners, but they do have the schemes and speed to implement a lighter version of the pressures OU and other foes used last year to great effect. Texas fans should also be curious to see if healing center Dom Espinosa has better luck against powerful nose tackles, last year he struggled to handle powerful defenders lined up across his face due to a nagging shoulder injury.
After an offseason of practicing against strategies that crippled them last year, the Texas offense should be capable of punishing a lesser team for an aggressive strategy against the running game with explosive plays in the passing game.
Overall Wyoming presents a quality opponent that will attack with some of the same strategies the Longhorns will need to overcome against superior foes later in the year. If Texas is unable to put the game away before halftime or manage at least a 20 point margin of victory, this could be a disappointing season. Otherwise, it's one of a few simple checks before all systems go.