If you were to look solely at the standings, Texas didn't appear to make a big jump from 2016 to 2017. The Longhorns went 5-7 in Charlie Strong's final season and 7-6 -- a 6-6 regular season with a bowl win -- in Tom Herman's first. Dig one level below the surface, though, and you can see definitive change. The '16 'Horns sported a plus-5 scoring margin. The '17 team was a plus-107, a difference of a little more than a touchdown per game. That's not the immediate, massive leap some forecasted, but it was definitive, undeniable progress.
But Herman said the biggest leap was evident not on the stat sheet, but on the film.
"We played a lot harder," he said in an interview on the Republic of Football podcast. "One of the biggest compliments I get from the 2017 season, from coaches and press people, is, 'Wow, you've got Texas playing really hard.' As a coach, that's about as good a compliment as you can get, that your guys play hard and physical. Now, we've got to play better. We've got to coach better. We've got to find ways to develop. Our effort and physicality kept us in games that the pundits said we probably shouldn't have been in. We found ways to be in those games, so much so that (in) four of our six losses we had the lead in the fourth quarter. We've got to coach our guys how to finish. But they gave us great effort and great physicality last year."
The primary reason Texas didn't see its improvement translate into more wins was a rash of critical turnovers at the worst possible time. A fumble in double overtime against USC. An end zone interception in overtime against Oklahoma State. A near pick-six that turned a win into a loss against Texas Tech. Each of those was committed by true freshman quarterback Sam Ehlinger. The fourth loss Herman alluded to above, a 29-24 setback against Oklahoma, was sealed when Texas took a sack and a penalty on back-to-back plays, turning a 1st-and-10 at the OU 31 with under three minutes remaining into a 2nd-and-22 at the 43.
Reading between the lines, it seems Herman is comfortable with what he has, as long as what he has gets better. In his words: "Have we developed our guys into better football players for having been in our program for a year?"
Pursuant to that, Herman says the missing piece for Texas to make the next step is a continued revamping of the Longhorns' facilities. Here he expands on his mantra of "Players win games, administrations win championships."
"We need better facilities. If we're going to recruit continuously at the elite level this past season, we've got to get our facilities up to snuff. Other than that, we've got it. We've got a great recruiting base in the state of Texas. We've got the best strength coach in America, the best assistant coaches in America, we live in the No. 1 city in America according to U.S. News & World Report, a pretty renowned publication, and the kids that come here get a degree from one of the top 15 public institutions in the country," he said. "We need the facilities to stay on par at the elite recruiting level because that's when championships come. Other than that we've just got to develop what we have."
Texas famously overhauled its locker room and weight room in Herman's first year, and a project to revamp Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium's south end zone is in its embryonic stage. Given that, host David Ubben asked Herman what project was next on his personal wish list. I expected him to say The Bubble, which succeeds in its task of shielding Texas from the elements but is more than 15 years old and looks like this.
But Herman didn't say that.
"Nirvana, if you will, for that room here in a couple years, that's going to be state of the art recovery, state of the art preparation, getting in the cold tubs, the hot tubs, we're going to be able to go right from the shower into the cold tub to the hot tub, we're going to have cryo-chambers and salt water float tanks, massage chairs, all of that stuff," he said. "I think as much as these players put their bodies through for the University of Texas and this coaching staff, we need to make sure we're treating their bodies the best in the world. We do a great job with what we have right now, but I think in a couple years you're going to see that facility itself be as good as there is in the country."