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Previewing the 2023 Texas Longhorns: Key players, big games and what to watch for this season

The highly-touted Longhorns are in position to leave the Big 12 with a conference championship and a possible trip to the College Football Playoff.

AUSTIN, Texas — The 2023 college football season has arrived, and with it comes renewed expectations for one of the nation's most prestigious programs.

The Texas Longhorns enter the 2023 season surrounded by a lot of expectations, the likes of which the team hasn't seen in some time. The program has only won 10 games once since 2013, and fans have long wondered if and when Texas would truly be "back."

2023 might finally be that year.

Head Coach Steve Sarkisian is entering his third year at the helm of the program and after taking a massive leap from five wins in Year 1 to 10 wins in Year 2, he has the ingredients in place to make yet another big jump nationally.

While the team did lose a bevvy of stars to the NFL, there is a great deal of optimism surrounding the current iteration of the Longhorns, as evidenced by media members naming them the preseason favorite to win the Big 12 in what will be their final year in the conference. Many in the national media are also tagging Texas as a possible College Football Playoff contender if all goes right this season.

So, let's take a look at why these Longhorns have such high expectations in 2023.


First, here's a look at the Longhorns' schedule:

  • vs. Rice - Sept. 2, 2:30 p.m.
  • @ Alabama - Sept. 9, 6 p.m.
  • vs. Wyoming - Sept. 16, 7 p.m.
  • @ Baylor - Sept. 23
  • vs. Kansas - Sept. 30
  • vs. Oklahoma in Dallas - Oct. 7
  • BYE - Oct. 14
  • @ Houston - Oct. 21
  • vs. BYU - Oct. 28
  • vs. Kansas State - Nov. 4
  • @ TCU - Nov. 11
  • @ Iowa State - Nov. 18
  • vs. Texas Tech - Nov. 24

Highlighting the 2023 schedule is undoubtedly the Week 2 matchup in Tuscaloosa, Ala., against the University of Alabama – a rematch of the Week 2 matchup in 2022 that saw the Crimson Tide prevail with a 20-19 win thanks to a field goal in the final minute. That game was also notable for an injury to Quinn Ewers late in the first quarter, which forced the Longhorns to rely on backup Hudson Card for the remainder of the game.

Other notable matchups on the schedule include the annual Red River Showdown against Oklahoma in Dallas on Oct. 7, reigning Big 12 champion Kansas State traveling to DKR-Texas Memorial Stadium on Nov. 4, a battle with the reigning national finalist TCU in Fort Worth the following week on Nov. 11 and a season finale against archrival Texas Tech on Black Friday, Nov. 24 – a matchup that has gathered some increased scrutiny due to recent comments made by Big 12 Commissioner Brett Yormark.

Key Players

Quinn Ewers

While it may seem a bit of an exaggeration, the Longhorns' 2023 success may live or die by the will of Quinn Ewers. The Carroll High-bred signal caller enters his second season as the team's starter, but his first as the primary focal point of an offense that lost superstar running backs Bijan Robinson and Roschon Johnson to the NFL.

Ewers' first season with the Longhorns was underwhelming, though it's worth noting he faced some injury issues. He passed for 15 touchdowns opposite six interceptions, while completing a modest 58% of his pass attempts en route to a 6-4 record in 10 games. He also ran for one touchdown.

Ewers enters the 2023 campaign with the weight of the offense on his shoulders, but fans, analysts and oddsmakers alike feel he's up to the task. He currently has the third-highest odds to win the Heisman Trophy and would likely find himself in the conversation as a first round pick in next April's NFL Draft with a big season. Offensively, he certainly has the weapons around him to succeed.

Xavier Worthy

A large piece of Ewers' success will be the chemistry he maintains with preseason All-American wide receiver Xavier Worthy.

Worthy has already had two great seasons on the Forty Acres. His record-breaking freshman season put him on the national scene and an impressive encore in Year 2 has put him in first round consideration for the NFL Draft.

The two-time All-Big 12 selection enters his junior season with high expectations after racking up over 1,700 receiving yards and catching 29 touchdowns in his first two seasons with the Longhorns. His resume already puts him in a prime position to stake claim as one of the top receivers in the nation, and a big 2023 could translate to unprecedented offensive success for the Horns as a whole.

A.D. Mitchell

Worthy's main running mate in the wide receiver room will be A.D. Mitchell, a Houston-area native and transfer from Georgia who caught seven touchdowns in two championship-winning seasons for the Bulldogs.

Mitchell opted to join the Longhorns as a means to be closer to home and to his family, and his championship experience and skillset will undoubtedly be an appreciated tool for Coach Sarkisian and Ewers.

Ja'Tavion Sanders

Making up the third arm of elite receiving talent on for Texas is junior tight end Ja'Tavion Sanders, whose breakout 2022 season saw him rack up 613 receiving yards and five touchdowns on 54 catches, culminating in his being named to the All-Big 12 First Team after the season.

Sanders is a physical presence on the field, with prototypical NFL tight end size at 6 foot, 4 inches tall and 243 pounds. He will likely be relied on heavily in the red zone this season, with the hope that his touchdown production increases, as he didn't reach the end zone in any games last season after Week 6.

Kelvin Banks Jr.

Ewers is lucky to have one of the nation's best offensive linemen protecting his blindside again this season.

Kelvin Banks Jr. will look to build on what was an exceptional freshman season that saw him take home Freshman All-American and Second Team All-Big 12 honors in 2022.

As was the case in 2022, when the Humble native faced off with eventual third overall 2023 NFL Draft pick Will Anderson in Week 2, Banks will get an early season test protecting Ewers against another projected top 10 NFL Draft pick, Dallas Turner, in Week 2 when the Horns travel to play Alabama.

Jaylan Ford

There's a reason Jaylan Ford was named the Preseason Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year.

After being a rotational defensive piece in his first two seasons, the senior linebacker is coming off a junior season that saw him earn First Team All-Big 12 honors, after racking up 119 tackles, including 10 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles.

After the departure of DeMarvion Overshown to the NFL, Ford will now spearhead the Longhorns' defensive unit, which is looking to improve after giving up nearly 370 of total offense per game in 2022. A big year from Ford and the defense could be just what the Longhorns need to be in the conversation for a New Year's Six bowl this season.

Byron Murphy II

Anchoring the Longhorns' defensive line will be Byron Murphy II, an imposing 6 foot, 1 inch, 309-pound defensive tackle who, like his defensive teammate Ford, was named to the 2023 Preseason All-Big 12 team.

The junior is now the focal point of a defensive line that lost Keondre Coburn and Moro Ojomo to the NFL, upgrading his status to full-time starter as opposed to the rotational role he had been playing the previous two seasons.

Murphy's numbers aren't showy, as he only racked up 24 tackles and one sack in 2022. But those numbers should increase as the team's primary run defender in 2023.

Burning Questions

What if Ewers struggles?

Head Coach Steve Sarkisian has said on numerous occasions that Quinn Ewers is the team's starter, and he hasn't deviated from that narrative. However, it is far from uncommon to see coaches change their tune after a pair of subpar outings.

The Longhorns are in a unique position for quarterback. Ewers is viewed as one of the nation's top QBs, but second-string Maalik Murphy and third-string Arch Manning were both highly touted high school quarterbacks, with Manning viewed as the nation's top overall recruit during his senior year.

While Ewers' 2022 stats were underwhelming as he dealt with an injury last season, this Longhorns roster is viewed as talented enough to be in a position to meaningfully compete with the nation's best squads. However, a number of weak outings from Ewers could still lead fans and boosters alike to call for one of the young backups to get an opportunity.

How will the running game look without Bijan and Roschon?

A recruiting factory like Texas can always replace great players, but replacing a running back as talented and efficient as Bijan Robinson is a tall task.

To further complicate matters, the team also lost Robinson's running mate and team leader Roschon Johnson, meaning the Longhorns' running back room is one of the least experienced on the team.

Jonathon Brooks and Jaydon Blue return to the squad, while freshman C.J. Baxter also jumps into the fray. Keilan Robinson will also be in the mix while primarily handling kick returning duties.

The running back room has talent, but replicating the output and production of the two departed stars will not be easy.

Who is the biggest threat in the Big 12?

The Longhorns are the preseason favorite to win the Big 12, and after the game against Alabama, they will likely be favored in each game from Week 3 onward. However, to assume there won't be another Big 12 team to emerge from the rest of the pack is foolish.

Last season, Oklahoma started strong before completely falling apart after Week 6. Kansas State went from a decent 6-3 start to Big 12 Champions. And TCU quietly built up an impressive winning streak that allowed them to reach the College Football Playoff, despite losing in the Big 12 Championship. Texas Tech was a tiebreaker away from being in the Big 12 Championship game and even Kansas started 5-0 before returning to their usual ways and finishing 6-7.

In what will be the final season of the current iteration of the Big 12, who could be the team that will make an unexpected surge to the top?

Kansas State was projected to finish second behind the Longhorns in the Preseason Poll, followed by Oklahoma, Texas Tech and TCU. Baylor, the 2021 champion, was picked to finish sixth, just ahead of Oklahoma State, Big 12 newcomer UCF and upstart Kansas. 

In other words, there is plenty of possibility in the Big 12, and one of these programs will almost certainly be a thorn in the Longhorns' side at some point this season.

Can the defense be elite?

Thankfully, far away are the years of Longhorns defenses giving up north of 400 yards per game on a regular basis.

That being said, last year's squad gave up 368 yards per game, which was 54th-best in the nation. While 54th isn't terrible, any team that wishes to be in contention with the best teams in the country needs to be more stout on defense.

Another issue the Longhorns face is the loss of defensive stars like DeMarvion Overshown, Moro Ojomo and Keondre Coburn. While Jaylan Ford is rightfully getting his due this preseason, the unit needs to be more of a brick wall to compete with the Georgias, Michigans and Alabamas of the world.

Final Takeaways

In years where they see success, Texas Football is objectively one of college football's glamor programs. The end of the Mack Brown era led to years of mediocrity not anticipated – and certainly not tolerated – by fans on the Forty Acres.

For the first time since 2009, there is legitimate championship discourse surrounding the Longhorns. A roster as deep as this brings with it high expectations – ones that Steve Sarkisian will hope to parlay into serious national contention.

Realistically, there are about nine teams in college football that have a legitimate chance to win a championship: Georgia, Alabama, Michigan, Ohio State, LSU, USC, Clemson, Florida State and, if this team lives up to its potential, Texas.

Exciting times are ahead on the Forty Acres. Longhorns fans, it's time to embrace being a glamor program once again.

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