- Associated Press - Tuesday, October 17, 2017

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - Midway through a first season most notable for two close losses, an emerging freshman quarterback and an off-hand “fairy dust” comment, Tom Herman has a 3-3 team that is not really any closer to reaching a bowl game than Charlie Strong’s last one was.

When asked to grade his program so far, Herman gave his players top marks for effort if not for results

“We’re well on schedule in terms of our effort level and physicality,” Herman said this week after Texas lost 29-24 to rival Oklahoma. “I told our assistant coaches at the start training camp if we can get them to play hard and play physical we’ll have a chance to be in every game. … We’re here for a reason and that’s to rebuild this thing from a bunch of years of mediocrity and sub-mediocrity.

“We understand that’s going to take time,” Herman said. “We also want to win right now.”

Herman is at Texas because Texas got tired of seven years of not winning a Big 12 title and three straight years of losing. Strong’s last team started 3-3 and finished 5-7, missing a bowl game for the second straight season.

The back half of this year’s schedule doesn’t look much easier.

Tenth-ranked Oklahoma State visits this Saturday with games still to come at No. 4 TCU and No. 23 West Virginia, and a season finale against improving Texas Tech. The only two games most would consider easy wins are on the road at winless Baylor and home against Kansas, one of the worst road teams in college football history. (This is where Texas fans would gently remind Herman the Longhorns lost at Kansas last season, a defeat that sealed Strong’s fate.)

Herman isn’t coaching on short time. Texas gave him a long-term contract that guarantees him more than $25 million and he’ll get time to turn things around.

Herman said the only thing that surprised him over the first six games was an ugly, season-opening loss to Maryland in which the Longhorns gave up 51 points, the most they’d surrendered at home in 20 years. Texas fans bristled at his postgame comment he could not just sprinkle “fairy dust” on the program to turn it into a winner again.

“The first game surprised me. Surprised everybody. A lot of introspection after that one,” Herman said. “The way that we responded from that was awesome.”

Texas shut out San Jose State the next week and the Longhorns had a late-fourth quarter lead at then-No. 4 USC before losing in overtime. Freshman quarterback Sam Ehlinger has pumped life in the offense with his tough running and late-game play making.

Ehlinger seized on the chance to play after last season’s regular starter Shane Buechele got hurt, and he hasn’t let it go.

“I think we’re going to come together as a team. We’re going to translate this pain of losing (to Oklahoma) so we can be the best we can be moving forward,” Ehlinger said.

A question over the next six games will be Ehlinger’s durability. He was injured much of his senior season in high school and took a beating from Oklahoma last week. That Ehlinger has emerged as Texas’ best rusher is a concern.

“I worry about it. We don’t want our quarterback carrying it 20-22 times. If you’ve got to have it to win the game, we’ll do it,” Herman said. “He’s like a wild horse right now, trying to tame him. You don’t want to take away his energy.”

Texas at least seems to be closing the gap with top teams. Strong’s teams lost 11 games by at least 21 points over the previous three seasons. The 2017 Longhorns are just a handful of plays from being 5-1.

But even those stats could create the false optimism of moral victories. In his last season, four of Strong’s last five losses were by five points or less, starting with a five-point loss to Oklahoma.

Herman said he didn’t set reaching a bowl game as a minimum standard for his first season.

“We’ve never said we want to make a bowl game or we want to beat Oklahoma or we want to beat USC,” Herman said. “We said we want to be in the conversation for the Big 12 title in the month of November and December.”


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