They say one loss doesn’t define a season, but it can sure alter one.
Right when the Longhorns thought things were figured out in a road win over West Virginia, they blew a lead late in the fourth quarter less than a week later and lost to Texas Tech, finishing the regular season 6–6.
But that’s all deep in the past now as far as head coach Tom Herman is concerned. The Longhorns have a date with Missouri in the Texas Bowl on Dec. 27 in Houston to prepare for.
“We’re a resilient group,” Herman said on a bowl conference call Sunday evening. “I think the sting is gone already. We’re looking forward to this.”
The good news for Texas right now: the Longhorns are going bowling for the first time in three years, returning to the same bowl as their last appearance in 2014. Playing in the postseason also gets Texas a few extra weeks of practice — something it hasn’t experienced the past two years.
“That is critical,” Herman said. “This is a team that has not had that kind of development and for the last two winters has basically gone home for four weeks, five weeks. That development is critical in terms of staying with your competition that are going to bowl games.”
But then there’s the bad news for Texas.
It began last Monday with the announcements of junior running back Chris Warren III deciding to transfer from the program and junior left tackle Connor Williams declaring for the NFL Draft, opting to also skip the bowl game.
It continued on Thursday with junior safety and Thorpe Award finalist DeShon Elliott announcing his decision to declare for the draft and skip the bowl game. Junior cornerback Holton Hill, who was suspended for the rest of the season following the TCU game for a violation of team rules, announced on Monday that he was declaring for the draft, too.
Many people suspect that junior linebacker Malik Jefferson will be next in line to jump ship for the draft. Junior cornerback Kris Boyd could also leave early.
But as of right now, Herman said he doesn’t know what Jefferson and any others will decide. A lot will depend on the draft grades players receive from NFL scouts. Herman said players could know their draft grades this week.
“I think the rest of them are waiting to get their grades back and make some informed decisions based on some of the NFL stuff,” Herman said.
The loss of Elliott and Hill, and the potential exits of more defensive players, is unfortunate timing for Herman. The Longhorns will square off in the Texas Bowl with a Missouri offense that is ranked in the top-10 in the country in both scoring and total offense.
After a 1–5 start to the year, Missouri (7–5, 4–4 SEC) rides into bowl season on the heels of a six-game winning streak.
“They’re playing some of the best football in the country right now,” Herman said. “They’re playing really, really well offensively.”
It’s difficult to label a bowl game like the Texas Bowl, insignificant in the College Football Playoff picture, a must-win game. But the Longhorns, who sit at 6–6, can avoid a fourth consecutive losing season with a win.
A loss to Missouri and Herman would finish his first season at Texas with the same record that former head coach Charlie Strong finished with in his first year in 2014.
Asked on Sunday how critical it is for Texas to finish this season with a winning record, Herman said it’s important but not a huge difference-maker.
“I don’t think one number difference on either side is really gonna make or break anything in our program,” Herman said. “We’re gonna stay the course, and we’re gonna continue to develop our players. We’re gonna try like heck to win the thing and prepare as such.”
Herman said on Sunday that he expects junior nickelback P.J. Locke III and sophomore linebacker Jeffrey McCulloch will be back for the bowl game. Locke hasn’t played since the Baylor game on Oct. 28, in which he suffered an ankle injury. McCulloch injured his ankle against TCU on Nov. 4 and hasn’t played since.
Herman also said he’s “hoping” that junior left guard Patrick Vahe will be able to return from injury as well. Vahe sprained his MCL during the West Virginia game on Nov. 18.
Junior offensive lineman Elijah Rodriguez, who suffered an ankle injury in preseason camp and hasn’t played this season, was cleared for the Texas Tech game and could work his way back into the starting rotation for the bowl game, Herman said.
Texas will be down to just graduate transfer Kendall Moore at the tight end position for the bowl game. Freshman Cade Brewer had surgery for his torn ACL, and Warren, who was Texas’ makeshift tight end the past couple games, is transferring. Herman also doesn’t want to burn redshirts on freshman Reese Leitao and senior Andrew Beck, who fractured his foot in preseason camp and has missed the entire season.
As far as the quarterback situation goes, Herman said on Sunday that he hasn’t addressed who the starter will be for the bowl game. Freshman Sam Ehlinger and sophomore Shane Buechele have “rotated reps with the ones and twos evenly” in Texas’ two practices so far, Herman said.