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Is Texas Truly Back?

Texas has now won five straight games after a season-opening loss to the Maryland Terrapins. But are the Longhorns truly back?

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Tim Heitman, USA TODAY Sports

I’ve never been a fan of preseason polls or making record predictions before actual football is played. It’s an easy way for unrealistic expectations to manifest themselves before actually knowing how a team will play under the spotlight.

I didn’t think Texas should be ranked coming into the season. In my opinion they had not done anything to warrant a preseason Top 25 ranking, and they lost a good bit of talent after last season. On top of that, this Texas program still had a lot to prove to make us think they were on the rise. Not just that they had improved, but that they were actually BACK. Let’s be honest — they’ve seemed like a team wandering lost in the wilderness the past several years.

Then Maryland happened. We saw a team that started slow and looked sluggish and unprepared, but managed to fight and battle through adversity. Then the turnover bug struck three times over and foiled a late comeback attempt. For the second year in a row the Terps stunned the Longhorns and the entire country was wondering if things were getting better in Austin. Then the Tulsa game happened. The Golden Hurricane were clearly an inferior opponent that the Longhorns should have ran out of DKR, but instead Texas let them hang around and had to manufacture a late drive to run the clock out. Not an ideal start to the season.

The Longhorns limped into the toughest stretch of their schedule, which included three ranked opponents and a road test in Manhattan, Kansas — a place they hadn’t won in since 2002. This was a brutal stretch of games where fans were going to discover everything they needed to know about Tom Herman’s 2018 Longhorns.

So, what did Texas do during that stretch? They answered. They beat up on then-ranked USC 37-14, then followed that up by snapping a losing streak to the Horned Frogs, who were also ranked. Then they grounded-out a win in Manhattan — their first since 2002. The Longhorns entered the Red River Showdown 3-0 over that stretch, with a chance to make it five straight.

The Sooners entered the matchup boasting arguably the best offense in the country, with certainly one of the most explosive quarterbacks in Kyler Murray. While the Texas defense played well coming into the Red River Showdown, I was still uneasy about how they matched up against the Sooner wideouts and their big play potential. Todd Orlando also had to worry about containing Murray in the pocket, which is a very tall task because of his elusiveness and ability to play backyard football.

It felt like a game that would take at least 40 points for the Longhorns to come out victorious, which held true this past Saturday. The Texas offense has shown the ability to put together long methodical scoring drives this year, and that was exactly what they would need against Oklahoma. Limiting the amount of possessions that Murray and the Sooner offense would get was critical. Teams don’t want to try to get into a shootout with the Sooners, but that’s exactly what happened in Dallas.

When the Sooners marched down the field for a touchdown on the opening drive, it was almost certain that Texas would be in for a long day. But the Longhorns gathered themselves and went on the offensive. Sam Ehlinger and his offense marched down the field in five plays and answered immediately with a touchdown of their own, sending the message that they were not going to back down. The Texas offense scored on each possession of the first half and didn’t punt until their second possession in the second half. Along the way they forced Murray into an errant pass that was picked off by Brandon Jones, which was converted into points. Murray would also put the ball on the ground later in the contest that would turn into a Texas touchdown. That’s two turnovers by the Heisman contender that turned into 10 points for Texas.

Turnovers in this game are typically contributors to the outcome. Texas needed some things to bounce their way in Dallas if they were going to pull off the upset, and those turnovers by Murray are an excellent example. The Longhorns were in control of this game until the 4th quarter, when the defense seemed to run out of gas and the offense couldn’t sustain drives. Adversity struck in the form a Sooner rally that resulted in a tied game, but the Longhorns had one more opportunity to put the game away in regulation.

Enter Dicker the Kicker.

The Texas offense manufactured a nine-play, 52-yard drive to setup the freshman kicker from Lake Travis for a 40-yard field goal attempt.  If Dicker were to nail it, he would become a legend overnight in Austin. The young man didn’t disappoint, as he stepped up and drained the biggest kick of his life. The upset of the 7th ranked Sooners was complete and the Longhorns completed a brutal stretch of their early season schedule at 4-0. This was a feat that any, including myself, didn’t think was possible just a few weeks ago.

Texas now sits at 5-1 on the year and is ranked 9th and 14th in the AP and Amway Coaches Polls respectively. Texas is undefeated in Big 12 play and in control of their destiny.

But is Texas back, like many were quick to say after the season-opening Notre Dame win a couple years ago?

Maybe.

Here’s why I say maybe. Saying Texas was back after one game , post-Notre Dame, proved to be premature. That could very well happen again after 6 games if this Texas team shows it hasn’t learned from the past.

One of the mantras for Tom Herman and this team has been about finishing. And while they’ve shown so far they can finish games, they now must finish the larger task of finishing the season — showing they have the discipline and will to win the Big 12. Texas is showing progress on the field, and that can’t be debated, but we all know that a program like Texas should compete for a conference title and playoff spot every year. Once they show some consistency in that regard, we can say for certain that they are back.

The 2018 Longhorns are halfway to their goal, but there is still a lot of season left. They have to show that they can truly finish. The optimism about this team is high, particularly because of the quality play from Sam Ehlinger at the quarterback position. Aside from the Maryland game, Ehlinger has taken very good care of the football and is showing the progress you want to see from a second-year player. The offense as a whole is in a much better place this year, and that’s a tremendous sign for a team that lacked an identity before.

Texas has a chance to truly put itself back on the national stage, but they still have to show they can finish the race. As Tom Herman says, they need to go “1-0 every week” and not get ahead of themselves. Through six games, Herman and his staff have done an excellent job of keeping the team focused on the task-at-hand — winning one game at a time.

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