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Why the Texas vs. Baylor game matters for the Longhorns

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On the surface, the season finale is mostly meaningless. Digging deeper, however, the Horns have plenty to play for on Saturday.

Brendan Maloney-USA TODAY Sports

Bowl eligibility is no longer a possibility for the Texas Longhorns, so the disappointing and difficult 2015 season will come to an end on Saturday in Waco against the Baylor Bears.

Since there aren't any major goals left in play, the contest doesn't exactly feature high stakes for a Texas team that is reeling from injuries and facing significant questions about the long-term future of head coach Charlie Strong in Austin ahead of an offseason that will in all likelihood feature multiple staff changes.

However, there are some compelling reasons for the Horns to come out and play hard.

Send the seniors out on a high note

For the remnants of the 2011 and 2012 recruiting classes, things haven't exactly gone to plan at Texas. Fifth-year seniors like Desmond Jackson committed in the aftermath of the national championship game appearance in 2010 and had high expectations for themselves and the future of the program.

Instead of racking up wins and accolades, they've endured coaching changes and dealt with a great deal of adversity, with many of the high-profile recruits from those classes flaming out. The players still left are the survivors.

Jackson in particular embodies that survival ability. He suffered a Lisfranc foot injury that cost him most of the 2014 season and limited him at the start of his second senior year. One of the team's leaders, the consensus No. 3 overall defensive tackle in the 2011 class said that he returned in 2015 after rehabbing from that difficult injury because his teammates are family and he enjoys putting in work with them. So he's not going to take his last chance to put on a Texas uniform for granted.

"For me, I get one more Saturday I get to play against Baylor in Waco, Texas," Jackson said this week. "I want to go out there just knowing how much this University means to me, and a lot of [my teammates] understand that, as well, so they want to give the same effort."

Strong always talks abut wanting success for his seniors and this will be the last chance for this group to experience some and to avoid the ignominious distinction of tying with the 1989 group for the most losses of any senior class in school history (24).

Whether they do it for themselves or to avoid going in the record book for all the wrong reasons doesn't matter as long as it happens.

Generate some offseason momentum

Remember how awful it was getting stomped by Arkansas in the Texas Bowl and having to listen to Bret Bielema gloat about it repeatedly throughout the entire offseason? You know, that whole "borderline erotic" thing? How opposing fans steady clowning on that putrid offensive performance?

Yeah, that was not fun.

Last year, the coaching staff was still selling the potential for progress and improvement on the recruiting trail. It hasn't happened in the win-loss column this year, even though there have been positive developments with all the young players, so having a season-ending victory over a team that had Big 12 title and national championship aspirations not so long ago would benefit Strong and company on the recruiting trail.

The bottom line is that upsetting the Bears would represent some major progress for the Longhorns as the program faces the longest offseason since 2010 and provide some much needed feel-good vibes for the interminable months ahead.

Avoid a historic losing stretch against the Bears

Since the head-to-head series began between Texas and Baylor in 1901, the Longhorns have largely dominated, winning 74 of the 104 meetings and reeling off several lengthy winning streaks, including the first 11 games the schools played and 16 straight games starting in 1958.

Never in school history has Texas lost three straight games to Baylor and only once before have the Longhorns lost four of five games, so losing on Saturday would make the last six years the most successful stretch for the Bears in the long history of the series.

That should be sufficient motivation for the team in and of itself.

Ruin the Baylor Sugar Bowl hopes

Even after the two losses, head coach Art Briles and his team still project as Sugar Bowl-bound with a victory on Saturday. Throughout the golden years of the Mack Brown era, the Longhorns performed at such a high level that it was almost always the opponent trying to play spoiler. As Texas cemented a position among the winningest programs in the country, rivals and even random opponents could define a season with a victory over the Longhorns.

Much of that has continued even as the Horns have fallen.

Now the roles are reversed -- Baylor won the conference the last two years and appeared in two BCS games, while Texas, well, you know. Now the Longhorns can play that spoiler role and knock the Bears down to a lower-tier bowl game. Maybe that isn't what this program is supposed to be about (correction: it most assuredly is not what this program is supposed to be about), but that's where it is right now and the only way to change that is to start beating best teams in the conference again.

And more than just one in a year -- as the rhetoric surrounding Strong and his future clearly indicates, even dealing Oklahoma its only loss this season isn't enough.

Pride

Strong and his assistants consistently harp on the scarcity of fall Saturdays. The staff and players work virtually every day all year for 12 or 13 opportunities to play for 60 minutes. Failing to play hard during that time is to discredit and throw away all of that hard work, letting down fans, coaches, and the players who are doing things right in the process.

Since the the Iowa State game, Texas has mostly played hard and with good effort, even as the team sunk itself with turnovers and suffered from injuries and some pure bad luck in the last two games. Sadly, consistent effort is an improvement, but an important development heading into the crucial 2016 season.

Pride is something that Strong is still working to completely instill in this team and there are incremental signs of that happening. Saturday is another chance to prove that the team is advancing in understanding and owning that pride that will be a necessary component to a successful rebuild in Austin.