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USC Trojans vs Texas Longhorns: Sleeping Giants and history lessons

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Saturday’s game seems tailor-made for Tom Herman.

NCAA Football: San Jose State at Texas Erich Schlegel-USA TODAY Sports

With the USC Trojans hosting the Texas Longhorns on Saturday in the first meeting for these two teams since that epic and heartbreaking National Championship Game so many years ago there has been plenty of talk about history, perhaps too much. A win for the Trojans on Saturday may help exorcise some of the Trojan Family’s collective demons but the truth is nothing that will happen Saturday night can undo what Vince Young did in that National Championship game on January 5th 2006.

Perhaps more pertinently, that incredible piece of college football history does provide any insights, nor have any bearing on Saturday night’s contest a decade later. But since we all seem to be so eager to take a stroll down memory lane there might be another National Championship team that provides far more insight into Saturday’s meeting between USC and Texas.

Tom Herman finds himself on a team with plenty of question marks and a ton of uncertainty at quarterback. Injuries have necessitated a musical chairs approach to the position and most of the fans, along with pretty much all of the experts see a crushing loss on the immediate horizon. Herman may be playing a reserve QB in just the second start of his career, in a rowdy environment far, far away from home in a nationally televised game in prime time. It is a game that is filled with pageantry, media hype, and plenty of distraction against a playoff-caliber team that is red hot and currently playing their best football in quite some time.

Frankly, no one seems to believe Herman’s boys belong and just cannot compete at this level. It is almost certainly only a matter of time until they get exposed in front of the entire college football world. The expectations are so low at this point that fans and experts are starting to think that just staying competitive through most of the game would be a win.

You may think I’m talking about Texas heading to the Coliseum Saturday to take on USC and I very well could be, but actually, Tom Herman has been down this road before in 2014 when he was the offensive coordinator for the National Championship winning Ohio State Buckeyes.

Tom Herman has a proven track record of winning big games against top opponents particularly as a heavy underdog. Herman is a member of Mensa and is near universally lauded for his offensive football brilliance, his adaptability, and his ability to get his team to rise to the occasion when most outside experts and fans are predicting certain defeat. To be clear 2014 Ohio State was/is a vastly better program that Texas is at the moment, and I highly doubt anyone would refer to the 2014 Buckeyes as “mentally fragile” but Tom Herman’s ability to get his offense to get his squad to vastly outperform expectations is well established.

Eleven days before the first game of the 2014 season for the Buckeyes their starting QB Braxton Miller went down for the season. Up next on the depth chart was a redshirt freshman by the name of J.T. Barrett who had just over a week to get ready for a road trip to take on the unique challenge that Navy presented them. Herman was able to scale down the playbook and put together an offense that the new guy could run successfully without much prep time that would minimize mistakes (Navy’s option offense dominates time of possession and significantly reduces the number of possessions each team gets while leaving little to no room for error -- a nightmare scenario for a young inexperienced QB on the road). It wasn’t pretty but OSU got the win.

With exception of an inexplicable loss to Virginia Tech at home Herman kept the OSU offense humming along, scoring plenty of points and winning football games (they scored more than 40 points 11 times that season). Things were going so well that OSU went from a “disaster scenario” at QB to start the season to a redshirt freshman emerging as a Heisman contender by October/November. The Buckeyes were rolling into the final week of the regular season against rival Michigan and their eyes fixed on a spot in the Big Ten Championship game.

Disaster would strike again as Barrett went down at the start of the 4th quarter of the Michigan game with the Buckeyes leading by only a touchdown against their hated rival. Barrett would be done for the year and OSU was forced to bring in their original 3rd string QB redshirt sophomore Cardale Jones into the game. Jones had attempted all of 16 passes in his college career at that point. OSU would hang on to beat Michigan, but certainly OSU’s hopes of a conference championship or more were over.

The Buckeyes had a week to prepare for the 13th ranked Wisconsin Badgers with a 3rd string QB who had only passed the ball a handful of times in his college career. The Buckeyes had the elite Ezekiel Elliott which certainly helps but not even Elliott can win you the game when the defense knows you can’t reliably throw the football. It just wasn’t going to be the Buckeyes’ year after all.

Except, Herman drew up a hell of a game plan. Cardale Jones in the first start of his career, in the Conference championship game went 12-17 through the air for 257 yards and 3 touchdowns in a 59-0 curbstomping of the Badgers. Herman’s playcalling simplified the game for the new QB and focused on maximizing Cardale Jones’ strengths in a way that helped Zeke Elliott carry the load.

After a lot of controversy surrounding the playoff selection committee OSU made it to the playoffs as the 4-seed. Many, many folks at Baylor, TCU, and around the nation were horrified that this new playoff committee would put Ohio State into the top 4. They simply did not belong and had no chance of competing with teams at that level. So-called experts, media personalities and others were so convinced OSU did not belong that they took to the airwaves and computer screens and with a completely straight face began postulating conspiracy theories that Kirk Herbstreit (possibly in collusion with ESPN) used their platform to constantly lobby the CFP committee to take the Buckeyes in the top 4. Certainly this whole thing had to be rigged and now we were forced to watch a dreadful playoff game which would be a guaranteed blowout courtesy of Nick Saban and the Alabama Crimson Tide.

Herman once again orchestrated a masterful game plan that was able to put 42 points up on the mighty Alabama Crimson Tide in his Quarterback’s second career start. The following week the Buckeyes thumped Oregon and capped off their National Championship season. Tom Herman would move on to the Houston Cougars head coaching job but not before a brief stop in Tuscaloosa to explain to Nick Saban how his offense put up 42 points on them.

In Herman’s first season in Houston the Cougars went 13-1, winning the American Athletic Conference and capping off the year with a win against a top-ten Florida State Seminoles team in the Peach Bowl (another game Herman’s team probably was not supposed to win according to the experts).

The Cougars then started out the 2016 season with a huge win over a 3rd-ranked Oklahoma Sooners team in a win that did not just establish that Houston was for real, it almost vaulted Houston into the Big-12 Conference. Overall the Cougars record dipped in 2016 and inexplicable losses (another emerging Tom Herman trend) to Navy and SMU brought Houston’s expectations crashing back down to earth. Then on a Thursday night in November they took on Louisville who was knocking on the door of the playoffs at the time and QB Lamar Jackson was destroying everyone in his path on his way to a Heisman Trophy. Houston was not supposed to win that game. Naturally, Tom Herman and the Cougars went out and dominated the Louisville Cardinals crushing their playoff hopes.

As we approach this game there has been a ton of unease in the Texas camp about the Longhorns chances Saturday night. Many have even given up any realistic hope of a win and just want the Longhorns to be competitive. The inexplicable loss to Maryland did not inspire much hope in the fanbase, and dominating one of the worst teams in the country at home did not alleviate those concerns. It is true that there seems to be an awful lot of rotation at the QB which certainly does not help build chemistry and develop a rhythm.

Shane Buechele might be the better QB, and with more experience he may be better prepared mentally to go into a hostile environment in a huge moment and compete. Sam Ehlinger is healthy, and played well enough in his first start (albeit against one of the worst teams in the country at home) but it is not absurd to conclude that Ehlinger may not be up to the task of going on the road and taking down a playoff contender on National Television in prime time in only his second start. Once and future QB and current wide receiver Jerrod Heard will also enter the game at QB. He is not much of a passer compared to the other two but he is an excellent runner and he can occasionally throw the ball successfully. Heard’s skillsets more closely resembles that of Tom Herman’s QB at Houston, Greg Ward Jr.

Five different players in the first two games have taken a direct snap for the Longhorns. It may seem like this bizarrely cobbled together frankenstein QB situation is certainly doomed to fall apart against a better defense. Tom Herman, though, has been down this road before, he has proven himself capable of adapting to less than ideal circumstances yet still finding ways to win.

So while Urban Meyer’s 2014 team was in far better shape, and far more talented the the Longhorns team Herman has inherited, and Ezekiel Elliott was, and is a far better running back than Chris Warren III (though he has inexcusably only had 22 touches this season) the point is this whole scenario normally would spell doom for a team but seems to be right in Tom Herman’s wheelhouse and more often than not when everyone is quite certain Herman’s team is going to lose, that is usually when they win. The same experts that always underestimate Tom Herman are also the same people that were certain USC was overrated a week ago and left them for dead against Stanford.

Just about anyway you look at it USC is a better team than Texas right now and they should win at home but it is certainly not a given, and I am certainly glad Clay Helton has spent most of the week making it clear that he is no way underestimating Tom Herman and his team. Alabama, Oklahoma, Louisville and more all did that right before they went down in a “shocking” upset. Helton clearly is focused on not adding the Trojans to that list. Helton has referred to Texas as a sleeping giant and it seems clear he is prepared for a Texas team that plays far better than anything they have shown on tape in Herman’s first two games and possibly better than any Texas team that we have seen in quite some time.

Herman has tried to be clear about where this Texas team is at right now and set realistic expectations. He referred to his players as a bit emotionally fragile, too tight, and too afraid of failure. Which is why the talent and preparation is not translating to on field performance. To correct this Herman has tried to instill a “bunker mentality” where the team is playing for one another and tuning out the rest of the world that says they are no good or that USC will destroy them.

If Herman can get this Texas team to go out there and play with passion and play for one another, and not be afraid to fail then the Longhorns might just make this a heck of a game. If not, USC may win comfortably as predicted and all of the tweaks, adaptations, and offensive mastery may not be able to save the Longhorns.