Yahoo Sports' 2018 Top 25: No. 21 Texas

Texas football head coach Tom Herman speaks during NCAA college football Big 12 media days in Frisco, Texas, Tuesday, July 17, 2018. (AP Photo/Cooper Neill)

Welcome to Yahoo Sports’ 2018 college football preseason top 25. A poll that’s guaranteed to be wrong like every other preseason poll out there. Every day in August we’re going to reveal a new team in our top 25 culminating with the reveal of our No. 1 team on Aug. 25. And yes, it’s a team from the SEC.

Previously: No. 25 South Carolina, No. 24 Utah, No. 23 West Virginia, No. 22 Central Florida

No. 21 Texas

2017 record: 7-6
Returning starters: 7 offense, 7 defense

Is this the year Texas lives up to its preseason ranking?

Are we falling victim to the aura of Texas? The Longhorns have not finished a season ranked in the AP top 25 since 2012 when Mack Brown’s 9-4 team finished No. 19 in the final poll. That team started the season ranked No. 15.

You have to go all the way back to 2009 — when Brown’s team lost to Alabama in the BCS Championship Game — to find a season where Texas finished equal to or better than its preseason ranking.

Granted, that team started and finished the season at No. 2, but Texas has a recent history of failing to live up to preseason expectations. Since that 2009 season, the Longhorns have started four seasons ranked in the AP top 25.

2010: Preseason No. 5, finished season unranked (5-7)
2012: Preseason No. 15, finished season at No. 19 (9-4)
2013: Preseason No. 15, finished season unranked (8-5)
2017: Preseason No. 23, finished season unranked (7-6)

There’s reason to be optimistic about this Texas team in 2018. At least that’s what we’re telling ourselves. This year is going to be different. Right?

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The run game has to make strides

If this year is going to be different the running game has to improve. Immensely. Texas struggled to establish any type of ground game in 2017. Quarterback Sam Ehlinger led the team in rushing with 114 carries for 381 yards. That’s 3.3 yards per carry. Leading running back Kyle Porter had 83 carries for 261 yards. That’s 3.1 yards a carry.

Keaontay Ingram could be a big boost to the run game. The four-star running back was the No. 7 back in the class of 2018. But perhaps most importantly, the offensive line should be better simply on the account of health. Texas’ OL was decimated by injuries during 2017. Rice graduate transfer Calvin Anderson also arrives to play left tackle.

The quarterback battle between Sam Ehlinger and Shane Buechele is the biggest offensive story surrounding the Longhorns but they both showed enough in 2017 to think Texas’ passing game will be perfectly adequate no matter who wins the job. And that passing game could go from adequate to good if defenses are forced to pay attention to the run.

“That’s a very deep room,” Tom Herman said of his running back group at Big 12 media days. “It’s just has not been a room that has had a ton of talent separating itself, but we have spent countless hours developing them and I think the addition of [offensive line coach] Herb Hand with our offensive line and the improvement they made this spring, especially the starting five should pay dividends. But you’re right, we’re not going to be as good as we hope to be if we can’t run the ball.”

Can the defense sustain its improvement?

The arrival of coach Tom Herman and defensive coordinator Todd Orlando helped Texas’ defense make a leap in 2017. The Longhorns returned almost the entire defensive starting lineup from 2016 to 2017 and gave up 10 points fewer a game (21) and allowed 82 yards fewer per game (366). The run defense was a big strength. Texas allowed three yards per carry, an incredible bounceback after Week 1.

Maryland rushed for 263 yards in an opening-week upset of the Longhorns a year ago. After the Maryland game Texas gave up fewer than 100 yards rushing seven times the rest of the season.

Edge Malik Jefferson is off to the NFL but Texas returns four starters along the defensive front as well as defensive end Breckyn Hager. You may know him as the guy who won’t cut his hair until Texas wins a Big 12 championship. 

Hager and DL Charles Omenihu tied for the team lead with four sacks in 2017. They’ll be counted on to increase that pass rush production now that Jefferson is gone. While Texas’ defense got better in a lot of areas in 2017, the pass rush took a step back. The 31 sacks Texas had last season was the team’s fewest since 2012.

Texas wide receiver Lil’Jordan Humphrey (84) leaps out of the grasp of Texas Longhorns defensive back Brandon Jones (19) during the team’s Orange-White intrasquad spring college football game, Saturday, April 21, 2018, in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Impact player

Lil’Jordan Humphrey, WR: Humphrey was Texas’ second-leading receiver in 2017. He had 37 catches for 431 yards.. With the five players ranked Nos. 3-7 on Texas’ receiving list not on the team in 2018, Humphrey will need to boost his production in 2018.

Humphrey and Collin Johnson — who led the team in catches and receiving yards — combined for just three touchdowns. That number also has to go up and should if they get more targets. A team can’t survive with its top two receiving targets catching just three of 18 touchdown passes.

Game to watch: Sept. 29 at Kansas State

We’re going to have a really good idea about Texas when September concludes. The Longhorns face Maryland, Tulsa, USC, TCU and Kansas State in the first month of the season.

The middle three games are at home. We could have easily picked either the USC or TCU games in this section. But Kansas State is the choice because of the way Bill Snyder has regularly beaten Texas.

The Longhorns won in 2017 — a double-overtime game in Austin — for their third win in five games over Kansas State. But K-State had won five-straight games before that stretch. A Texas win in 2018 would be the first time the Longhorns record consecutive wins against Kansas State since games in 1927 and 1942.

Texas could enter the Kansas State game at 2-2. Would that be a disappointing start? Of course. But it wouldn’t necessarily be a surprising one. TCU should be one of the top contenders for the Big 12 title. USC lost a lot to the NFL draft but still has a ton of talent.

Best-case scenario

Texas gets through the first month of the season at 4-1 before playing Oklahoma on Oct. 6. That would set up an incredibly intriguing Red River Shootout that could play a significant role in determining who heads to the Big 12 Championship Game. If Texas is 5-1 in the first half of the season then the Big 12 title game is well within reach.

Worst-case scenario

Texas loses to USC, TCU and Kansas State and enters that OU game at 2-3. A loss there drops Texas to 2-4 and 5-1 is necessary over the second half of the season for an above-.500 season.

Prediction

Texas has a clunker or two but also pulls an upset somewhere in the Big 12. A 9-3 season isn’t out of the question and should be considered a success in Austin.

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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.

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