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Texas an unlikely dark horse in Big 12 race

John Rivera/Icon Sportswire

A program with the lineage and resources of Texas can never truly be considered an underdog. Do not confuse Texas sliding short of expectations in the last few years of Mack Brown’s tenure, and the subsequent rebuilding effort under Charlie Strong, with Rocky.

The Longhorns of the last six years are more akin to the struggling titular character of the 1976 Academy Award winner’s sequel — or perhaps the Balboa from the second act of the third installment.

College football will remember why Texas stands among the sport’s most revered names soon enough. The Longhorns just need to peel themselves from the canvas, which just might happen in 2016.

Strong enters his pivotal third season in Austin well-positioned for a program resurgence. The Big 12 Conference faces an autumn of uncertainty, with recent heavyweights — and beneficiaries of Texas’ backslide — in periods of transition.

TCU replaces key contributors, Baylor’s embroiled in a matter far more important than anything that happens on the field (and one which might cripple the Bears program for years to come), and Oklahoma State plays a treacherous schedule laden with road games. Earlier this offseason, I posited that the Big 12 faced a power vacuum as a result of the tumult.

Who better than Texas to fill some of that power void?

Doing so immediately won’t come easily for a team coming off consecutive sub-.500 finishes. Reiterating that Texas is no underdog, a temporary blip inherent with a rebuild has Strong on one of the hotter seats in the coming year.

Pressure isn’t always conducive to success, but the Longhorns traverse a two-way street. The pressure isn’t on them so much to contend in the Big 12, if preseason publications are to believed. Sports Illustrated tabs Texas fifth in the conference. Athlon has the ‘Horns seventh.

Somewhere in that middle-to-lower tier is the universal place for this Texas team, according to prognosticators. No more perfect launching pad for a dark-horse campaign.

Texas has obvious questions — it wouldn’t be such a trendy middle-of-the-road pick otherwise — but enough positive to suggest a breakthrough year.

First and foremost: experience. Only Oklahoma State returns more starters from a season ago among all Big 12 teams than Texas’ 14 on offense and defense combined.

Strong was forced to throw in plenty of youngsters in last year’s 5-7 campaign, which makes them seasoned vets for 2016. Take Malik Jefferson, one of the premier linebackers in college football and perhaps the best defensive player in the Big 12. Jefferson joined the starting rotation immediately as a freshman,

As far as the aforementioned questions, Jefferson’s immediate contribution gives hope a freshman can adequately address a need — like say, quarterback?

That’s the hope many hold for ballyhooed newcomer Shane Buechele, a 4-star prospect who could be Texas’ answer to Teddy Bridgewater. Bridgewater was entrusted the reins to the offense of another Strong-coached team at Louisville as a freshman, and by the time he left, had led the Cardinals to two of the best seasons in program history.

Quarterback problems at Texas are not exclusive to the brief Charlie Strong era. Brown’s final four seasons concluded with a carousel spinning behind center, as the most productive signal-caller to ever don burnt orange-and-white in the post-Colt McCoy period did his work at Tulsa: G.J. Kinne.

This time, however, an import from Tulsa might be the solution to Texas’ quarterback woes. New offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert comes from one season on Philip Montgomery’s staff, where he oversaw the nation’s No. 21-ranked scoring offense in 2015.

The Golden Hurricane thrived with a system derived from the prolific system Baylor used to usurp Texas’ place near the top of the Big 12. Previously, Gilbert worked alongside Dino Babers at Bowling Green and Eastern Illinois, helping develop Matt Johnson into one of the most productive passers in the game, and Jimmy Garoppolo into an NFL talent.

Given all that Texas has available in the coming season, it looks a whole lot less like any Rocky installment, really. Perhaps more Empire Strikes Back better suits the briefly downtrodden Big 12 power.

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