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2016 season preview: Texas Longhorns

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Jerrod Heard making the move from QB to WR (1:01)

Texas' Jerrod Heard moved from QB to WR in practice this month. He's been studying receivers in college and in the pros and says he's going to be an all-purpose "athlete" this season. (1:01)

Charlie Strong enters his third season at Texas with a ton of pressure to win and a ton of talent on his team. The Longhorns have a shot to be one of the Big 12's more exciting teams if their new offense clicks and their youngsters take the next step. But as is becoming tradition in Austin, the question mark at quarterback is the No. 1 concern.

Our season preview capsule for the Texas Longhorns:

Key losses: RB Johnathan Gray, WR Daje Johnson, WR Marcus Johnson, DT Hassan Ridgeway, DT Desmond Jackson, CB Duke Thomas, K Nick Rose

Key returners: RB D'Onta Foreman, RB Chris Warren III, WR John Burt, OT Connor Williams, OG Patrick Vahe, LB Malik Jefferson, CB Davante Davis, CB Holton Hill

Preseason storyline: The "How many games does Strong have to win to keep his job?" question has been a popular one, obviously. Bringing in another elite recruiting class certainly helped his case, and Texas is poised to be really good in 2017. But his team must first make a lot of progress in 2016. They have to show up in big games and avoid big blowouts.

We’d have a better answer for that if we knew what the Longhorns are going to do at quarterback. Senior Tyrone Swoopes and freshman Shane Buechele will both play against Notre Dame, and Strong has made no guarantees beyond that. The popular belief is that Buechele will soon prove to be their starter, and he’ll have to play up to some big expectations in Sterlin Gilbert's new-look offense. Whoever starts will benefit from leaning on a potentially excellent group of running backs.

Texas' defense, meanwhile, has to get better. The unit didn’t play up to Strong's standard in 2015. Jefferson is the face of the operation, but the Horns have several more big-time sophomores -- Davis, Hill, cornerback Kris Boyd, linebacker Anthony Wheeler, defensive end Charles Omenihu -- poised to break out this season. If a deeper defensive line can become more of a force, this unit will be pretty salty.

Most interesting position: Besides quarterback? Texas’ wide receivers should be much improved. They aren’t getting much hype, since the Longhorns struggled mightily to throw the ball in 2015. But the duo of sophomore Burt and freshman Collin Johnson on the outside has a chance to be special, and Devin Duvernay should make an instant impact in the slot. A few more Texas wideouts, like Armanti Foreman, Jacorey Warrick, Lorenzo Joe, Davion Curtis or Jake Oliver, will have to step up and make important contributions. And don’t forget the wild card, Jerrod Heard.

Game that matters most: No. 10 Notre Dame, Sept. 4. Calling this a make-or-break game for the Longhorns isn’t really hyperbole. Their embarrassing 38-3 showing in South Bend last season only ups the stakes. They have to bring it for this game with a great plan and a ton of emotion, and their quarterbacks have to step up and make the big throws. The Irish have been dealing with their own problems this month and look a tiny bit more more beatable than they did a few weeks ago. Still, for Texas, this is a statement game no matter the outcome.

Prediction: Texas is one of the hardest teams to predict in the Big 12. The Longhorns have a good enough roster now to support the argument Strong can win a lot of games, but that will require really good quarterback play, some upsets and some luck. There’s still just too much uncertainty and too many tough games (Notre Dame, at Cal, at Oklahoma State, Oklahoma) in the first half of the schedule. A 7-5 season with a shot at an eighth win in the bowl seems like the safest bet, but the Longhorns can certainly do a lot better ... or a lot worse.