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Texas Believes It's Time To Return To The Top
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By Wendell Barnhouse | wendell@big12sports.com
Big12Sports.com Correspondent

There are believers and non-believers when it comes to this season's Texas team. Phil Steele, who publishes a comprehensive preseason football magazine, ranks the Longhorns as No. 4 in the country. The media has UT ranked No. 4 … in the Big 12 Conference.

In 2009 Texas went undefeated and lost to Alabama in the national championship game. Since then, the Longhorns have been trying to reinvent themselves. Three seasons of hitting the reset button produced a 22-16 record.

"In looking back, it (the title game) probably affected me more than I realized it did,'' Texas coach Mack Brown said. "I pushed all the wrong buttons the next year. I let it linger …

"I am more confident this will be the best team we've had in three years. Now we've gotta shut up and do it. … I like fixing things. I don't like messing them up, and obviously I was involved in messing it up for whatever reason."

"We've had to reinvent ourselves, just like any other company,'' offensive coordinator, and former Texas quarterback Major Applewhite told USA Today. "When you have success for a while, there's a certain way you do things, people catch up. And you've got to reinvent yourself, be innovative and start to figure your niche again."

The last two seasons the Longhorns' two-deep roster has been dominated by freshmen and sophomores. This season, UT has grown up. While not a senior-dominated team, the Longhorns have more players with experience. No team has more starters returning than Texas, which has 19.

One of those is junior quarterback David Ash. From 2004 through 2009 with Vince Young and Colt McCoy, Texas had QBs that produced a total of 58 victories and a national championship. Both Young and McCoy made huge strides from their sophomore to junior seasons.

"We think David's ready to do that," Brown said. "We're a faster team. We're an older team.  We should be a mature offense. Two years ago our offense wasn't very good. Last year at times they were really good. But we want to be more balanced."

Texas also wants to play at a faster pace. Last season, the Longhorns were next to last in the Big 12 in offensive plays per game. Applewhite is taking over as the play caller and in the offseason UT has worked on playing at a faster pace and calling plays without using a huddle.

"First, we think that David is ready to go up tempo now," Brown said. "He's in command. He's very confident. He knows what we want. The biggest thing is that he's had two great years to learn. Some things really positive, some things not as good … all of those situations have prepared him. When he speaks, they listen because he is the guy."

Fundamentals
Coach: Mack Brown 150-43 in 16 seasons at Texas.
2012: 9-4 overall, 5-4 in Big 12, tied for 3rd.
Bowl: Defeated Oregon State, 31-27, in the Alamo Bowl.
Returning starters: 10 on offense, 9 on defense.
Key players:  Junior QB David Ash, senior WR Mike Davis, junior WR Jaxon Shipley, junior RB Joe Bergeron, junior RB Malcolm Brown, sophomore RB Johnathan Gray, senior OL Trey Hopkins, senior DE Jackson Jeffcoat, junior DB Quandre Diggs, junior LB Jordan Hicks, junior LB Steve Edmond, senior DB Carrington Byndom.

Three Key Questions
1. Is David Ash a championship-level quarterback?
Going into his junior season, Ash has won the starting job after sharing it his first two seasons at UT. He likes the change in running an offense that operates at a higher tempo and he appears to be confident coming off a strong showing in the Alamo Bowl. If he makes the sophomore-to-junior improvement that has been the case with several top Big 12 QBs, the Longhorns will have an offensive MVP.

2. Will the defense improve?
Tackling was a huge problem last season and in the four losses Texas was gashed, allowing an average of 43 points and 449 yards per game. The secondary needs to replace Kenny Vaccaro but should still be outstanding. The front seven needs to improve, particularly when it comes to making plays behind the line of scrimmage.

3. Can the kicking game be a positive force?
When the Longhorns were winning 10 or more games per season, they excelled winning close games thanks to accurate kickers. In 2012 the Texas finished tied for last in the Conference, connecting on just 58 percent of its field goal tries (11 of 19). Punter Alex King finished second in the Big 12 last season but has exhausted his eligibility.

Information, Please
In 25 years of coaching, Mack Brown has had just seven junior-college transfers. Offensive tackle Desmond Harrison, whose eligibility was confirmed by the NCAA this week, is the seventh. A 6-foot-8, 315-pound junior, Harrison could provide a huge boost to the offensive line. … UT's offensive linemen have combined for 131 starts. … When junior running back Malcolm Brown has been healthy and productive, that's been a good sign for Texas the last two years. The Longhorns are 5-1 in games in which Brown has rushed for at least 80 yards. … In their last 20 games decided by three or fewer points, the Longhorns have 18 victories.

Numbers To Note
No team has more returning starters than the 19 Texas has. … Junior running back Joe Bergeron led Big 12 running backs in rushing touchdowns with 16. … In the Longhorns' nine victories, junior quarterback David Ash averaged one interception for every 42 pass attempts. … Texas averaged 4.5 yards per rushing attempt last season; that ranked eighth in the Big 12. (Oklahoma State led the Big 12, averaging 5.3 yards per attempt.) … Coach Mack Brown needs 27 victories to surpass Darrell Royal (219) as UT's leader in coaching wins.

Schedule
Aug. 31 New Mexico State
Sept. 7 at BYU
Sept. 14 Ole Miss
Sept. 21 Kansas State*
Oct. 3 at Iowa State*
Oct. 12 Oklahoma* (at Cotton Bowl, Dallas)
Oct. 26 at TCU*
Nov. 2 Kansas*
Nov. 9 at West Virginia*
Nov. 16 Oklahoma State*
Nov. 28 Texas Tech*
Dec. 7 at Baylor*
* - Conference game.
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