College Football Writer
ARLINGTON, Texas – In the history of college football, just three major programs have won more games than Texas.
All those wins have been nice for a state that cherishes football unrelentingly, but the trophy cabinet just outside Darrell K. Royal Memorial Stadium hardly reflects success. There has been just one national title in the last half-century and before Saturday, only three Big 12 Championship Game trophies in the 27 years since Texas helped form the conference from the ashes of the old Southwest Conference.
Still, this is a program that has long considered itself to be the sport’s gold standard – not just in the state, but nationally.
“We are the Joneses,” former athletic director DeLoss Dodds once quipped, silently underscoring the dichotomy between how the burnt-orange machine views itself internally vs. the reality outside the state capital.
To change this perception and on-field fortunes, the university brain trust decided to do something very un-Texas-like three years ago: act like some peers who had lorded over the sport due to a relentless focus on winning from the ground up.
Out went Tom Herman as head coach despite a top-20 ranking after the 2020 season; in came Steve Sarkisian to build his version of Alabama beside the Brazos. Not content to toil in the Big 12, a stunning departure for the SEC was engineered. Recruiting, name/image/likeness, facilities and much more were all reoriented toward a singular goal of making sure the slogan “Texas is back” was no longer a punch line.
Though nobody involved with the Longhorns will say that Saturday’s 49-21 domination of No. 18 Oklahoma State at AT&T Stadium to capture the Big 12 Championship was the culmination of all that focused labor, it sure felt like a cathartic relief. At least it was all for something and that they would not be making the return trip down I-35 without a shiny new trophy to display.
[Texas caps long goodbye to Big 12 by routing Oklahoma State, 49-21, for title]
“We’ve been talking about being champions since this summer and we haven’t backed off of it. I challenged them, made it known very publicly, that this season was about. They never blinked and continued to respond to adversity every time it struck,” Sarkisian said. “In the end, we probably played our best football the past two weeks and we played two really good, complete games.”
Now the question hovering over this successful campaign is: Which game comes next for the Longhorns? Texas did everything it could to leave a lasting impression on the College Football Playoff Selection committee meeting 20 minutes away that its postseason fate should be a date in the Sugar Bowl semifinal.
In any other year, the celebrations after beating the Cowboys would have been met with an assurance that ringing in the New Year with a playoff bid was practically assured. This is not any other year, though, just like this isn’t any other Texas side.
“I think one thing that we’ve shown is that we’re a very complete football team – we don’t rely on one phase or one aspect to win,” Sarkisian said. “That’s what’s unique about our team, we are very versatile. We have extreme depth. We can win at the line of scrimmage and we can win at the skill position spots. This may be a little bullish for me to say, but we’ll play anybody in the country. I’m not shying away from that part. I feel very comfortable that if we get in this tournament, we’ll play anybody.
“We’ll find out if we’re good enough but I feel like we have the team, the culture, the scheme and the versatility to play against anybody.”
Do the Texas Longhorns deserve a College Football Playoff spot?
That UT is even in this position is as equal a flaw in the system, a confluence of irreproachable dominance among elite contenders across the Power Five conferences and a lack of top-25 teams on Texas’ schedule to strengthen its resume.
The playoff system was supposed to incentivize scheduling major non-conference tilts, which the Longhorns did to an impressive degree. They went to Tuscaloosa, against a top-five opponent at the time, and ended the nation’s longest non-conference home winning streak. They didn’t just beat a Nick Saban-coached team that recruiting rankings said was the most talented in the country; they convincingly beat it via a fourth quarter for the ages while nearly every member of that selection committee looked on.
Instead of acting like a get-out-of-jail-free card, though, one of the best wins of the season might wind up being utterly useless thanks to results that are simply out of the control of a team that did everything it could have – and indeed should have – to make the field of four. It’s not like a narrow neutral-site loss to a rival like Oklahoma (which is also in the top 12) canceled out all the good from that incredible September night.
“To go to Tuscaloosa, Alabama and win that game, that’s a tremendous feat for these guys to accomplish that,” Sarkisian added. “Since that ball game that we lost [to Oklahoma], we’ve only trailed twice in the rest of the games on our schedule. Hopefully when people look at the totality of the body of work, it’s not just about the record, it’s about the quality of the team. That’s the intent of the College Football Playoff, is putting the four best teams in the playoff. Do we think we’re one of the four best teams? Sure we do.”
Whether the committee sees things the same way won’t be known until Selection Sunday but Texas has given it food for thought. The Longhorns have also put their future conference in a very awkward position.
With Alabama prevailing over Georgia later Saturday, the Longhorns might have to sit right alongside the committee as it tries to come to grips with a resume-enhancing victory also complicating things exponentially within the grand scheme of sorting out the final four.
To that point, it’s within the realm of possibilities that the league where it just means more will have to claim the best non-conference win of the season shouldn’t factor in at all when it comes to getting its own champion in the playoff over the Big 12’s. You know, the one which happens to be the same program which is joining its ranks in 2024.
Perhaps the most ironic twist is that if Texas finds itself on the outside looking in come Selection Sunday, its program is largely one of the root causes. Not for anything on the field, mind you, but everything they set in motion off it.
“We thank [Texas and Oklahoma] for getting us where we are today, for being pillars in this conference and creating a great history and legacy,” commissioner Brett Yormark said in his news conference a few hours before kickoff. “I have no emotion about it, things happen in life. They made a decision that it was time for them to have another chapter in their journey, if you will.
“We wish them well and I’ll be rooting them on in the SEC.”
He’ll also be rooting for the Longhorns to make the playoff, representing the Big 12 with a patch on their jersey one final time.
Despite doing everything they could between the lines, they’ll find out like the rest of the country if it wound up being enough or if Saturday’s result will go down as being meaningful yet hollow.
“It’s human to think about it. Of course it’s crossed our mind a lot,” Texas receiver Jordan Whittington said of the playoff talk. “If you ask me, I’m going to fight for us and say we should be in.”
There won’t be many arguments on that front from those who witnessed Texas embarrass Oklahoma State to walk out of the Big 12 with one final championship.
But, this being the Longhorns, wins and the ultimate measure of success in this sport are often a complicated subject.
Bryan Fischer is a college football writer for FOX Sports. He has been covering college athletics for nearly two decades at outlets such as NBC Sports, CBS Sports, Yahoo! Sports and NFL.com among others. Follow him on Twitter at @BryanDFischer.
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