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6-1 Texas is battle-tested entering final stretch

The Horns have overcome slow starts and slower finishes, toppled ranked teams, and won without its starting QB. Can Texas maintain that momentum throughout the final month?

NCAA Football: Baylor at Texas John Gutierrez-USA TODAY Sports

At this current juncture in the season, the 6-1 Texas Longhorns are a lot of things — ranked within the top 10 at No. 6 nationally, sitting alone atop the Big 12 with a perfect 4-0 conference record, bowl eligible through just seven games for the first time since 2009, 3-0 over ranked foes with a scoring advantage of 41 points, on and on.

More notably as it pertains to the final five-game stretch, though, Texas is battle tested, which should prove essential throughout a schedule that doesn’t really relent at any point.

Baylor aside — we’ll come back to the Week 6 Texas win over Baylor in a bit — the first half of the season was largely expected to make or break the Longhorns.

Maryland, of course, was a challenging season opener, especially on the road, and following a home stand against Tulsa, ranked opposition awaited in USC, TCU, and Oklahoma, with a road trip to Manhattan, Kansas, where the Horns haven’t won since 2002, sandwiched in between the Horned Frogs and Sooners. The four-game slate featuring USC, TCU, Kansas State, and Oklahoma was projected as arguably the most daunting stretch on the schedule.

Had the Horns come out on the other side and reached the season’s midpoint sitting at 4-2, such year-to-year improvement would have drawn praise, with the results welcomed with open arms by Texas fans, but head coach Tom Herman and the Horns took it a step further.

After falling to the Terps yet again and slogging past a Golden Hurricane team that hasn’t won since Week 1, Texas pieced together win after win after win after win throughout the aforementioned grueling four-game stretch, outscoring the opposition by 45 points and checking boxes along the way.

Each win was telling of a team taking significant steps forward, from overcoming a slow start to absolutely overwhelm No. 22 USC, 37-14, to smothering TCU’s offense and scoring 21 unanswered to seal a 31-16 win, to exorcizing another purple demon and riding a defensive stand and clock-killing drive to a road win over Kansas State, to looking as fluid and efficient offensively as any Texas team in recent memory before burying Oklahoma with a game-winning field goal drive.

As a result, Texas rode a five-game winning streak into last Saturday’s showdown with Baylor ranked within the top 10 for the first time since 2010, and with a backup quarterback at the helm, proceeded to put the Bears to bed, 23-17, thanks in large part to the defense limiting Baylor to half of its scoring average.

The win wasn’t pretty, which, of course, has been the case in each of the six wins aside from the USC game. Thus, and unsurprisingly, on paper, the team’s résumé may not exactly be the most eye-opening, as the lack of overwhelmingly dominant wins such as beating Tulsa, Kansas State, and Baylor by a total of 18 points is precisely why advanced metrics systems such as S&P+ don’t like the Longhorns, ranking them at No. 38.

Nevertheless, a win is a win, and despite how unappealing or unconvincing certain wins may be, the Longhorns have topped national programs on national stages, overcome slow stars and survived slower finishes, and found ways to come out on top despite less than ideal circumstances. Each of the Texas wins aside from the 23-point win over USC was, at one point, a one-possession game in the fourth quarter.

Simply put, the Longhorns have been in some battles this season, and in each of its power six outings, it’s Texas that’s come out on top.

The fruits of the labor are a No. 6 national ranking and a seat alone atop the Big 12, but heavy is the head that wears the crown. Texas will now tread unfamiliar territory as the team with a target on its back throughout the final five-game stretch, and despite only one ranked team remaining in No. 13 West Virginia, a daunting month awaits.

Per ESPN’s FPI, the Longhorns have no more than a 71.4 percent chance to beat any of their remaining opponents, aside from Kansas (85.8%), and Texas is currently the underdog for a road trip to Lubbock against Texas Tech on Nov. 10.

The other three games in which Texas is favored? On the road on Saturday against Oklahoma State, which has dropped three of its past four games, at home against an elite West Virginia passing attack still reeling from a 30-14 loss to Iowa State, and a Cyclones squad that dealt the Mountaineers said loss in dominant fashion.

The unfortunate reality for this Texas team, which has battled its way to its most successful seven-game start since 2009, is that it isn’t smooth sailing now that the Horns are sniffing a top-five appearance as the Big 12 headliner. The remaining strength of schedule comes in at No. 15 nationally, per ESPN, and as noted, Texas is projected to drop one of those final five. Those same odds give Texas just a 2.2 percent chance of winning out.

As Herman so often says, the focus from his players and staff is to go 1-0 each rep, each day, and each game. With what Texas has put on film thus far, projecting the Horns to go 1-0 on Saturday against Cowboys, and then again the week after that, and so on is now more rooted in reality than it has been in some time.

Texas has been tested on numerous occasions this season and its passed each of its previous six tests, though perhaps not always with flying colors. Each remaining week will be just that, though — a test.

A test to avoid complacency amid national praise and prominence. A test of endurance after largely acing the first half of the schedule. A test of whether or not Texas can continue to take steps forward when it’s the team to beat.

And make no mistake about it: Texas will be the team to beat from this point forward, and all of its remaining opponents are capable of doing exactly that.