For the past two-plus years, four words have underscored Texas’ interminable journey back to national prominence.
“Texas is back, folks!”
The phrase, uttered by ESPN play-by-play man Joe Tessitore at the conclusion of the Longhorns’ memorable 50-44 win over then-No. 10 Notre Dame to open the 2016 season, at the moment seemed prescient. Charlie Strong was entering his third season as head coach and on the strength of consecutive top-10 recruiting classes, seemed to be turning the corner, starting with that thrilling win.
Except it didn’t quite go that way. The Longhorns finished 5-7 that season, including a loss to cellar-dwelling Kansas, and Strong was fired. The Tom Herman era commenced shortly thereafter.
In the years since, “Texas is back” has become a question at best and a punchline at worst, as the Longhorns have gone 15-14 since the Notre Dame win. Social media can often be flooded with “Texas is back” jokes following a Longhorns loss.
As the 2018 Longhorns approach archrival Oklahoma in the annual Red River Showdown on Saturday at the Cotton Bowl, it’s more of a question these days, accompanied with cautious optimism for Texas fans, general curiosity for others (and certainly, some justified skepticism for those who have heard premature exclamations of the Longhorns’ prowess uttered before, only to see the bottom fall out).
The No. 19 Longhorns are 4-1, riding a four-game winning streak. The No. 7 Sooners (5-0), armed with Heisman Trophy contender Kyler Murray and an explosive offense, will be the ultimate measuring stick for gauging whether Texas is back. (Let us remind you that the last time the Longhorns registered double-digit wins in a season was 2009.)
Herman has been cautious to promise too much, too fast, saying after the Longhorns beat ranked teams in back-to-back weeks “this is just one step … not the end all, be all.”
We ask: Is Texas really back? Here are some sources for optimism as well as reasons for skepticism:
Why Texas might be back
1. They’re actually winning games
Quick, when was the last time the Longhorns were this far above .500? Answer: 2013. That was Mack Brown’s final season as head coach and signifies how long it has been since Texas has been simply good. After a season-opening loss to Maryland and a closer-than-they-wanted victory over Tulsa, the Longhorns have reeled off wins against USC, TCU and Kansas State. USC and TCU were both ranked when Texas beat them (neither is now), but Texas beat both teams by double digits. The Longhorns had downtrodden Kansas State down 19-0 but had to hold on late to win 19-14. But Texas hadn’t won in Manhattan since 2002, so that’s something. Herman, by seeing his team “win ugly,” saw progress: “There wasn’t an opponent on our schedule last year that we would have been able to do that.”
2. Their defense is pretty damn good
Defensive coordinator Todd Orlando’s group has generally been good since his arrival in 2017. Texas has held its past 17 opponents under 200 rushing yards, the second-longest active streak in FBS behind Clemson (19), according to ESPN Stats & Information. The Longhorns are allowing 19.8 points per game against FBS opponents this season, putting them in the top 25 nationally in that distinction. In the past three weeks alone, that number has whittled down to 14.6 points per game (sixth nationally in that stretch). In the second half against USC, TCU and Kansas State, the Longhorns allowed only 17 total points. Herman says the unit plays “loose, free and fearless.” The reason why? “The defense was working for us last year, but a lot of guys didn’t really understand it,” defensive lineman Chris Nelson said. “Why you’re doing this, what your keys are and why you’re playing this gap. Now, it just all works out because everybody understands what we’re doing.”
3. They might have, finally, found their quarterback
After years of a merry-go-round at the game’s most important position, Texas seems to have settled on its quarterback, at least for the foreseeable future. Sam Ehlinger, an ESPN 300 signee in the 2017 recruiting class, has shown significant signs of progress from his freshman to sophomore season. He has cut down on turnovers (he has thrown only two interceptions this season and hasn’t thrown one in 128 consecutive attempts). His completion percentage is up (from 57.5 percent last season to 64.7 percent this season). He’s responsible for 12 touchdowns against FBS competition, which is third in the Big 12. He’s a regular factor in the Longhorns’ run game, helping to get key first downs. Nobody is going to confuse Ehlinger with Vince Young or Colt McCoy, but he continues to improve and is making winning plays this season. “He’s more confident in himself,” defensive lineman Charles Omenihu said. “Everybody’s behind him, everybody’s pulling for him. We believe that he can lead this team. … It’s beautiful to see.”
4. Recruiting is going well
Herman’s first full recruiting cycle as the Longhorns’ head coach — the 2018 class — resulted in the nation’s No. 3 class. Several of those prospects are already making contributions, namely safety Caden Sterns, who looks like a bona fide star. Texas’ 2019 recruiting class is trending up, with three commitments in the past two weeks helping launch the Longhorns into the top 10. Recruiting is the most vital part of this equation, because when Texas was at its peak in the mid-2000s, it consistently recruited at a top-five level nationally.
Why Texas isn’t back
1. It still lost to Maryland
The Longhorns came into the past two seasons with some measure of expectation (they were ranked 23rd in the preseason AP poll both times) and laid an egg against Maryland on each occasion. The first time, in Herman’s debut, it yielded his infamous “fairy dust” comment (“If you thought we could come in here and sprinkle some fairy dust and think we’ve arrived, you’re wrong”) as the Terrapins hung half-a-hundred on Texas in Austin. This time the Longhorns fell on the road to a Maryland team with an interim coach who was coming off a trying, emotional summer after the death of one of its players, Jordan McNair. Herman insisted that, despite losing to Maryland again, things were different this time, but it fell on mostly deaf ears at the time. The loss underscored how far the Longhorns still had to go.
2. The running game is still hit-or-miss
Texas is averaging just 3.74 yards per rush this season, which is eighth in the Big 12. One big reason that number is low is that defenses are getting to the ball carrier quickly. The Longhorns are averaging 1.69 yards before first contact per rush, which is second worst in the conference (only Iowa State is worse). Texas is running the ball a little better with its running backs than a season ago, but that’s not saying much because the Longhorns were largely inept in that department in 2017. They are handing it to running backs more often, though, giving it to the backs almost six times more per game than they did in all of 2017. They’re better, but they have to continue that progression.
3. As a result, the offense has been inconsistent
There are moments when the Longhorns look good offensively, moving the chains, hitting big plays (the second half against USC and TCU come to mind). There are other times when they don’t. Against Kansas State, the offense generated just 10 points and none in the second half. The 25.2 points per game the offense generates (excluding special teams and defensive scores), ranks 46th among the 65 Power 5 teams. In the red zone, the Longhorns are only scoring touchdowns half the time, which is 111th nationally. “We’ve taken a knee twice in the red zone, which skews the numbers a little bit early in the season,” Herman said. “We have felt more confident in our field goal kicker, which skews the touchdown numbers. We want to score touchdowns 75 percent of the time in the red zone offense. We feel that’s a realistic goal. We’re not there right now. We definitely do need to improve. But it’s not a massive panic right now.”
4. They haven’t beaten an elite opponent
USC and TCU were ranked when the Longhorns defeated them, and Texas deserves kudos for that. The USC win, however, raised more questions about the Trojans than it did reveal how good Texas was. (In fairness, the Trojans have won the two games that followed the loss to Texas, but the jury is still out on them.) The Horned Frogs were expected to be one of the league’s better teams but have been a turnover machine so far, committing 12 in their past four games. They squeaked by 1-3 Iowa State with a late field goal last week. Kansas State, meanwhile, has yet to register a win over a Power 5 team this season. The Longhorns have an opportunity to change that last bullet point if they’re able to upset the Sooners. It’s a statement game for Texas, even if the players aren’t saying it. “To say ‘Texas is back,’ we’re not looking for that at all,” defensive back P.J. Locke III said. “We’re looking to go 1-0 every week.”