Bowl game will determine improvement

AUSTIN, Texas -- Three weeks into the season and it became apparent Kansas State was a game Texas was supposed to lose.

Never mind the preseason predictions for either team. The Wildcats, who had a four-game winning streak against Texas already, had won at Oklahoma and looked much more daunting than the 2011 version that went 10-2 in the regular season. The rest of the regular season only served as evidence for what would become an inevitable fact on Dec. 1.

So, with that in mind, losing at Kansas State was not unexpected, devastating or program-shattering. Neither was the loss to Oklahoma. Sure, it was by 42 points. But Texas has suffered lopsided shellackings at the hands of the Sooners before.

Had the losing stopped there, it would have been easy to measure this season as a success for Texas. Not a confetti-filled-parade type of success. But two losses to top-12 BCS teams would have been another step in what has become an arduous journey back to respectability for Texas.

It's the losses to TCU and West Virginia that make it difficult to measure this team's progress. The Mountaineers lost five in a row after beating Texas. TCU, which lost three in a row to ranked opponents before beating Texas, was a seven-win team that had been decimated by injuries, suspensions and was playing in a new league with deeper and more physical players for the first time. By the way, both losses were at Darrell K Royal Memorial Stadium.

Texas coach Mack Brown has said this season's team is better than last year's version. That was contrary to the evidence hundreds of thousands see on the field some weeks. But Brown said he sees improvement in practice. The problem is Texas fans have to take Brown at his word. That word used to be gospel. That is what happens when everything a coach touches turns to gold. Now Brown's words are being greeted with suspicion, his teams more closely scrutinized and his legacy as the best coach at Texas since his mentor, DKR, called into question.

Texas has one month before it has to answer the next question posed to it. If the Longhorns do not perform at a level on par with their talent in the bowl, the possibilities and excitement that usually swirl in a offseason will be replaced by a malaise not seen around these parts since before Brown's arrival.

The talk now around Texas, among players and coaches, is about how they can win out and carry momentum forward like they were supposed to do last year. The Holiday Bowl was supposed to be a springboard to the BCS. Instead it turned out to be a gang plank back into the shark tank of college football. Still, turning from chum into champion starts with the bowl game.

This Texas team is still teaming with talent. The entire offensive line returns -- that might be considered good or bad, but at least more competition should now be provided by younger players who have been in the program. Nine of 11 return on defense. The running backs are returning. The two top wide receivers return. And so do the quarterbacks -- again, this quandary will most likely be a drama played before, during and after the bowl.

Even knowing the potential downfalls of this Texas team as it moves forward -- unsettled QB situation, suspect offensive line play and a willingness to shout olé and act as a stumbling matador every big play thrown its way on defense -- there still is potential to see signs of strides being made in the bowl.

When given a month to prepare for an average Cal team last season, Texas provided evidence that it had become a better team in the postseason than the regular season. The players and coaches need to produce some of that evidence again this year because the data given to date has not provided those who follow the program a shred of proof that Texas is indeed a better team than it was a year ago.

In fact, because of the lofty expectations provided by the roster loaded with talent and the win to cap 2011 followed by two home losses to seven-win teams, an argument could be made that Texas regressed even further into an abyss of unrealized potential this season. And until there is tangible proof that this team has started to accept what it has and what it can be, it is hard to fathom the next season will not hold the same fate for Texas.