With two regular season games remaining, the die is cast on Steve Sarkisian's first season at Texas. As 2021 nears its end, it would be tempting to say the Longhorns are in the same place they found themselves ever since the moment Colt McCoy hit the Rose Bowl grass on Jan. 7, 2010, but that would be incorrect.
As coaches love to say: there is no staying the same. You're either getting better or getting worse, and Texas is getting worse.
Kansas 57, Texas 56 represents the lowest point in program history -- at least since you and I have been alive.
The Horns have lost five in a row for the first time since 1956, a 1-9 campaign that ultimately brought Darrell Royal to Austin. They lost to Kansas at home for the first time ever. And they are now 12 seasons removed from their last conference championship -- a program record.
Typical of bad teams, when one problem is fixed, another arises. When the defense plays well (or at least passible enough to win), the offense vanishes. When the offense plays well, the defense... well, we all saw what happened Saturday night.
Kansas came to Austin averaging 15.1 points per game; they scored 57. They came to Austin converting less than 33 percent of their third downs; they went 11-for-17. Quarterback Jalon Daniels came to Austin with two career touchdown passes; he threw three. True freshman running back had never had a night like his 24-carry, 143-yard, 3-touchdown effort; now he has. Kansas came to Austin with a 56-game Big 12 losing streak; they left with a winning streak.
A program that led the nation in yards per play defense way back in the prehistoric time of 2009, and finished among the top 10 nationally four times in six years from 2009-14, now fields consistently one of the worst defenses in major college football.
Texas Yards Per Play Defense in the Charlie Strong/Tom Herman/Steve Sarkisian Eras:
2014: 4.68 (8th)
2015: 5.63 (70th)
2016: 5.63 (60th)
2017: 5.19 (37th)
2018: 5.60 (61st)
2019: 6.11 (98th)
2020: 5.22 (27th)
2021: 6.13 (106th)
Pete Kwiatkowski Yards Per Play Defenses, 2014-20
2014: 5.38 (51st)
2015: 4.90 (23rd)
2016: 4.61 (4th)
2017: 4.42 (3rd)
2018: 4.67 (11th)
2019: 5.11 (29th)
2020: 5.35 (34th)
So, you take one of the best coordinators in college football, add him to a defense that was actually pretty good last season, and you get one of the worst defenses in the country.
The whole adds up to far less than the sum of its parts, which makes sense when you consider Sarkisian's defensive staff is not one whole, but itself just a collection of parts.
Not only had Sarkisian and Kwitatkowski never worked together.... not only had Kwitakowski never worked with his own secondary coaches (Terry Joseph, Blake Gideon) and his own D-line coach (Bo Davis)... none of those coaches had ever worked with each other, either. Only Kwitatkowski and co-defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Jeff Choate arrived in Austin with prior experience.
Compare that to Washington, where Kwitakowski arrived to Boise State with a braintrust of Chris Petersen, Jimmy Lake and Bob Gregory firmly entrenched.
All of that falls, ultimately, on Sarkisian. He's the one who hired Joseph, Gideon and Davis before Kwitakowski and asked them to figure it out on the fly.
On Monday, Sarkisian said he has not been told by anyone above him to make changes, but he does not say that changes won't be initiated on his own.
"No one's told me that at all. I give our administration a lot of credit. They gave me a lot of resources to go hire, in my opinion, arguably the best staff in the country. These guys didn't forget to coach overnight. They've been doing it for a long time at a very high level. They're championship-caliber coaches, they've developed NFL players, All-Americans, all-conference players.
I've got a lot of belief in our staff, but hear me when I say this -- and this isn't a negative -- when the season comes to an end, I evaluate everything in our program. You ultimately do what is in the best interest of the university and the program. It's all encompassing."
The most maddening aspect of this whole season for the Texas defense is this: it wasn't always this bad. The same defense that got 50-burgered by Kansas also held No. 22 Louisiana to a season-low 18; shutout Rice; chased Spencer Rattler from the game in Dallas; and limited No. 9 Oklahoma State, No. 11 Baylor and Iowa State to one first half touchdown combined.
"To be fair to our players, this is their third consecutive year in a third defensive scheme. There is a little bit of a lack of continuity as far as calls, how we play plays, zone coverage drops, how do we match certain routes, all those things. We're still in the phase of, we're trying to keep getting things taught. We're trying to practice the look that we're going to get, but all of a sudden we get a different formation, or a different motion, or a little different way to run a play, and now there's a little bit of hesitation on our part. We're hesitating and not fitting things the way we're capable of fitting them."
Texas' issues aren't either/or, they're both/and. Texas' players don't have much experience in the same and they're being taught by coaches who haven't worked together and are teaching the system as they learn it and the players simply aren't trying as hard as the season has gone down the tubes right before their eyes.
Texas defensive coordinators, 2012-Present
2012: Manny Diaz
2013: Greg Robinson (mid-season hire)
2014-16: Vance Bedford
2017-19: Todd Orlando
2020: Chris Ash
2021: Pete Kwiatkowski
Sarkisian said his charge is to get players who are bought in to remain so, players who are kind of bought in to go all the way, and fence-sitters to decide if Texas football is really for them.
In the locker room, Sark sounds like he knows what he wants to do.
In the staff room, it's not so simple. Do you run it back with a hodgepodge staff that produced the worst defense in school history, or do you introduce more change to a locker room that has known nothing but that their entire time in Austin?
That choice will ultimately decide whether or not Steve Sarkisian succeeds at Texas.