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Why Cal is among biggest Texas match-ups of the season

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The ‘Horns will get the chance to prove they can win on the road, and defeat an adequate opponent on Saturday

NCAA Football: California at Texas Brendan Maloney-USA TODAY Sports

Charlie Strong uttered the phrase countless times after the Texas Longhorns victory over the Notre Dame Fighting Irish — “one game does not make a season.”

Really, neither does two.

Though the Longhorns are 2-0, one can’t assume that a victory over overmatched UTEP really proves that the burnt orange are worthy of its No. 11 AP rank.

Imagine if the 2015 Texas season swapped out its Notre Dame opener with Oklahoma. The Longhorns would’ve entered Week Three in 2015 with a narrow top-10 victory over the Sooners, as well as a double digit win over Rice. We would be praising Jerrod Heard as Texas’ quarterback savior and the ‘Horns would undoubtably be in the top 25.

The reality is, Strong already proved he could beat elite teams last season after the Red River Showdown, and to some degree, a victory against an injury-depleted Baylor team (by an injury-depleted Texas team).

So when can we know that Texas really is back, that the strong start isn’t a fluke? How about this weekend against Cal?

The first road game of the season is obviously a huge test for any young squad, and the 7:30 p.m. Pacific kickoff does no favors for Longhorns whose body clocks will still think its 9:30.

Add in the fact that the only true Texas road win of the 2015 season was against that admittedly-depleted Baylor unit and its easy to see why the game against Cal feels like it could be one the season’s biggest litmus tests.

But time change and nearly 2,000 miles of travel aside, the Cal game is monumental mostly because last year Texas had more trouble sealing the deal against more evenly-matched teams.

Going by the 2015 F/+ team rankings from Football Outsiders, Texas was 2-2 against top-25 opponents, and 3-0 against teams ranked 80th or worse. However, the Longhorns were 0-5 against teams in the 26-79 range.

Cal is ranked 68th so far — the same spot in which Texas ended last season.

What better challenge for the ‘Horns to show they are improved over 2015 than to face off against a team of similar talent to the flawed edition of the 2015 Longhorns?

And any Texas fan can testify that the losses that hurt the most in 2015 weren’t the Notre Dame or TCU drubbings, but the close games against those evenly-matched opponents which disastrously slipped away.

From the missed extra point against Cal, to the officiating errors and botched punt against Oklahoma State, to the defensive meltdown against Texas Tech, Texas couldn’t catch a break against the solid, but beatable teams.

Yes, the Longhorns can win when their coaches’ job is on the line and the world is watching, and they can defeat the cupcakes, too. But the Cal game won’t be in prime time, nor will it be an easy test.

Texas opens as only four-point favorites against a team that isn’t rock steady, but isn’t without offensive weapons either. For the baby ‘Horns to prove they belong in the top-10 conversation, Texas will need to do what top-10 teams do — go on the road and win against because of more talent and better execution.

Beating the Golden Bears will be a formidable task when considering an aerial attack that consists of a great quarterback-receiver duo in Davis Webb and Chad Hansen. But for this incarnation of the Longhorns, these kinds of games need to feel less like a worrying toss-up and more like a solid challenge for Texas to make the necessary strides as a program.

The dreadful results of 2015 appear far in the rearview mirror as the ‘Horns hit the road for the first time in 2016.

One game doesn’t make a season. Nor does two. But three? Three starts to feel pretty good.