Will the real Texas Longhorns please stand up?
Heading into the second half of the season, head coach Charlie Strong's Horns are trying to consolidate momentum from the upset victory over the Oklahoma Sooners in the Cotton Bowl, all while trying to avoid the type of "here we go again" moments that defined the blowout losses to the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and TCU Horned Frogs.
"Today was our day, and that's the team," Strong said in the jubilant moments following his team's takedown of the Sooners.
"And I just told them, you know what, you guys? It's too bad, you should have showed that performance today, because that's what we expect each and every week."
The thing is, Strong has long been expecting that type of performance, he just hasn't gotten many during his season and a half at Texas.
So what happens at home next Saturday against the Kansas State Wildcats will start to set the narrative for the season's second half and define whether this is a team capable of improbably coming up with the six wins necessary to extend the season and reach a bowl game.
Is this a program on the rise or was the game against Oklahoma just a rivalry-created perfect storm?
The Wildcats are reeling after one of the worst losses of the long Bill Snyder area -- a week after getting embarrassed by Texas, Oklahoma came out on fire and jumped on Kansas State early. Shockingly, Snyder's team never responded, eventually falling 55-0 after giving up 35 points in the first half. The surprising final result broke a streak of 234 games since the last Wildcat shutout and became the first scoreless home performance since 1991.
In fact, Snyder thought it might have been the worst performance of his long tenure in Manhattan.
"I can't remember being involved in a game like this since 1989, the first year we were here, and I don't even know if we had one that bad in that first go-around."
There's definitely some competition for the title of worst loss in 1989, which was Snyder's first at Kansas State, including a 31-0 loss in the opener to Arizona State, a 59-7 destruction at the hands of Nebraska in Lincoln, and a 59-11 beatdown by a good Colorado team. The Wildcats finished 1-10 that season, with the lone victory narrowly coming against a North Texas team that didn't even compete in Division I-A at the time.
The difference now is that Snyder has built his career on reloading quickly and effectively, making the Texas-style metldown against Oklahoma so perplexing.
The reality, though, is that the team lost its starting quarterback on the first play of the season and hasn't been able to find the playmaking at wide receiver to replace departed star Tyler Lockett. Poor quarterback play is another culprit, as Joe Hubener went 4-for-14 with two interceptions against the Sooners, resulting in his benching at one point. Part-time wide receiver Kody Cook wasn't any better, throwing an interception of his own and completing only 1-of-8 passes.
Meanwhile, the defense has been giving up major yardage -- 450 or more in the last four games, including 568 on Saturday against Oklahoma. With 32 plays allowed of 20 or more yards, the defense is giving up far too much chunk yardage to make up for such an inconsistent offense.
Facing a reeling program that has only lost to Texas once since 2003 seems highly dangerous, though, as Snyder is too good of a coach to allow his team to come out so unprepared two weeks in a row. After all, this was the same team that hung with TCU until late the week before, eventually succumbing to the incredible Horned Frog duo of Trevone Boykin and Josh Doctson.
As flawed as Kansas State appeared to be against Oklahoma, this group can play with anyone in the country despite its limitations, so the result in Manhattan is certainly more of an anomaly rather than a sign that Texas is likely to come out with a large margin of victory next Saturday.
Other than needing to get healthy during the bye week, Strong also suggested that his team was beat up mentally after facing six tough opponents to open the season and suffering two embarrassing losses and two heartbreaking last-second defeats in that stretch.
Now the team has to continue building its confidence to ensure that any adversity it faces against Kansas State or the final five opponents doesn't spiral and get out of hand.
Strong is a believer.
"The thing about these guys is they really believe that they're really good, and I know they don't always show it; they don't always play like they do, they have confidence," he said. "One thing they're not missing is confidence -- I know for sure Heard has plenty of it, but they're not missing that at all. They can build on something special here."
Just as importantly, the freshmen cornerbacks need to continue to grow to aid the pass rush, the defensive line needs to get healthy, and the offense needs to continue refining its identity, which will have to include some semblance of a quick passing game and the ability to pass protect long enough against good defensive lines to threaten teams vertically.
Snyder will certainly have a plan in place to take away the quarterback run game Texas used so effectively against Oklahoma, so the Horns will need some new wrinkles and complementary plays to avoid a repeat of what happened offensively against TCU when the Horned Frogs' ability to take away the base concepts that worked for the first three games of the Jerrod Heard era quickly sunk the Longhorns' attack.
With four games in a row before another bye leading into the Thanksgiving contest against the Texas Tech Raiders, this time off represented the team's best chance improve significantly. Considering the quality of the performance against Oklahoma, it's really about becoming a more consistent football team, one that can execute in all three phases and sustain the intensity of a rivalry game into an early-morning kick in front of what may well be a tepid home crowd.
Winning at least six games after the 1-4 start would do wonders for recruiting and the offseason outlook heading into a critical 2016 season for Strong and his program. The opportunity is there for Texas against a much easier schedule down the stretch -- now the Longhorns just have to take advantage and keep making steady progress.