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Texas Football 2016 Off-Season Team Preview: Crucial Third Year for Strong

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Charlie Strong enters a crucial third year in Austin and welcomes Notre Dame to campus to begin the 2016 season.

Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

Last year's opener against Texas couldn't have been scripted better for Notre Dame. Besides the season-ending knee injury to running back Tarean Folston everything went in favor of the Irish. Zaire and the passing game were explosive, freshman running back Josh Adams scored on his first career carry, and the VanGorder defense looked like it was going to march through all 12 games with severe punishment for all offenses placed in front of it.

This fall the Irish travel down to Austin looking for a repeat performance.

Offense Preview Click Here

Defense Preview Click Here

2015 Record: 5-7

F/+ Rank: 68

S&P Rank: 72

FEI Rank: 69

Wins: Rice, No. 5 Oklahoma, Kansas State, Kansas, No. 13 Baylor

Losses: No. 11 Notre Dame, California, No. 20 Oklahoma State, No. 7 TCU, Iowa State, West Virginia, Texas Tech

*****

Any cursory look at Texas must begin with the amount of roster attrition experienced in recent years. Charlie Strong has been the head coach at Texas for just over 27 months and according to the latest estimates back in March the Horns have lost 29 scholarship players from their roster.

Now, not all losses are created equally. Seven players had to medically retire, including quarterback David Ash who could have provided a lot more stability and production at this position in Strong's early tenure. Yet, 6 players have transferred to non-Power 5 programs and all 10 dismissals have not ended up at any FBS programs so it's not like Texas lost a bunch of burgeoning talent.

Still, it's a significant hit to the depth of the roster and is a big reason why the Horns are still working with so many underclassmen in starting and/or significant roles on both sides of the ball.

Not to be overshadowed, and perhaps equally if not more important, is the amount of coaching turnover Texas has been going through under Strong. By my count he's made 17 changes since taking over and will head into 2016 with 5 brand new assistants and 2 others coming into their second year.

The player losses and general malaise left behind from the Mack Brown era are a huge aspect to why Strong's supporters in Texas are willing to give him a lot of patience after two consecutive poor seasons. I won't argue that point but the coaching shuffling is concerning and a sign that things have not and maybe will not click for Strong at Texas.

Speaking of turnover another huge data point sticking out to me is Texas' turnover differential from a year ago. If you read the offense and defense previews you may have noticed that for as inefficient and unproductive as the Horns' offense was they really limited turnovers. Plus, the defense took their fair share away from opponents, too.

Texas was +11 in turnover differential and still lost 7 games. That's really hard to pull off and not in a good way.

Of course, Irish fans have been down this road before. Anytime turnovers become a problem a large minority of folks like to speak about the lack of attention paid to the issue in practice. Heck, it's how the Art Briles Fundamentals jokes originated on our site. By the way, Baylor went from a +13 margin in 2014 to an even margin last season. Did Briles forget to preach fundamentals or was it more due to moving from Bryce Petty (10 interceptions in 2 years of starting) to a bunch of injuries at the quarterback position?

The point being, Texas is unlikely to repeat a +11 turnover margin this fall. They appear to be walking a thin line with poor quarterback play that resulted in very few interceptions last year. With more exposure and larger sample size I don't know how much that can be replicated again.

Low Moment

Remember when Notre Dame lost to Syracuse in 2008? Just picture that game except losing 24-0. So it happened for Texas last year being defeated by 3-9 Iowa State.

The Cyclones, by the way, were coming off the firing of OC Mark Mangino and were starting  sophomore quarterback Joel Lanning for the first time. All that led to was out-gaining Texas by 222 yards and pitching a shutout.

The rest of the stats aren't pretty for the Horns: 11 first downs, 2 for 13 on third down, only 119 yards through 3 quarters, just 204 total yards at the finish, and unable to cross the Iowa State 47-yard line until the final drive.

All 13 other losses suffered by Texas under Charlie Strong have come against teams that at least finished over .500 so you could say that even with a few blowouts there weren't any truly horrid losses. This was an outlier that brought out a bunch of sharpened axes on the second-year head coach.

High Moment

Look at how happy Charlie Strong is with that golden hat on!

In that moment he was perhaps the happiest human being who ever lived.

Yes, the Horns upset the Sooners last year in epic fashion by controlling the game from start to finish and racking up 313 rushing yards. Maybe even more impressive was holding Oklahoma to just 278 total yards, their lowest amount in the regular season by a wide margin.

This was such a stunning upset especially since Texas was coming off a 50-7 embarrassment on the road at TCU. No matter what happens with Strong in Austin he'll always have this pretty cool moment to remember from an otherwise tough year.

2016 Schedule

Home: Notre Dame, UTEP, Iowa State, Baylor, West Virginia, TCU

Away: California, Oklahoma State, Kansas State, Texas Tech, Kansas

Neutral: Oklahoma

S&P Projection: 34

That S&P projection is forecasting a huge upturn for Texas football in 2016--nearly 40 spots from where they finished in the rankings last year! Most of the early pre-season predictions do not have Texas in the Top 25 but some places have elaborated on the next batch of teams and you'll occasionally see the Horns mentioned as a team hovering in the 30 to 40 range.

My gut instinct is to say Texas won't be that good. But a 4-2 record at home is very doable and it's possible they are favored in all but one of their road games, especially with Cal likely taking a downturn after the departure of Jared Goff.

A 9-3/8-4 type of season could definitely happen. That wouldn't turn many heads nationally but it would be much needed progress for Charlie Strong.

Predicted Kickoff Spread: Notre Dame (-6.5)

I haven't discussed this game being moved to Sunday night yet. On the one hand it makes perfect sense because this opening Saturday is so loaded: Oklahoma vs. Houston, Arizona vs. BYU, Alabama vs. USC, Clemson vs. Auburn, Georgia vs. North Carolina, LSU vs. Wisconsin, Missouri vs. West Virginia, and UCLA vs. Texas A&M.

For the college football fan in me thank goodness we can rest easy on Saturday with that wide selection of awesomeness.

Still, it's going to be a long, long wait on Sunday until kickoff in Austin. I don't really like moving the game from a psychological standpoint. As so often happens with Notre Dame we're more than willing to add additional hype and attention to games that don't really need them. This all favors Texas. This shouldn't be a highlight game of Notre Dame's season and I would have been plenty happy getting a win amid all the madness on Saturday and moving on with our schedule.

Now, we'll get a little more scrutiny, a little more pressure, and a little more fired up crowd. That's worth another 1.5 to 2 points for Texas in my opinion.