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A quick conversation about Texas football with USA Today’s Dan Wolken

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NCAA Football: Texas at Oklahoma Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The Texas Longhorns are 5-1 and playing relevant football for the first time in a decade. As bizarre as it sounds, it’s our current reality.

To get a pulse on the national perspective surrounding Texas — something most Texans rarely have an interest in doing regarding pretty much anything — I connected with USA Today national college football columnist Dan Wolken this afternoon.

Below is our conversation.

Texas opened the season — rightfully so — as the No. 1 team on the Misery Index in your weekly column. Initial thoughts on this team as we enter the second half of the season?

Well I think the point that I made in that first week — and this is something that I really believe — coaches, most of the time if they have greatness potential, it will show by year two.

Certainly, losing that game against Maryland was a concern. Of course, the Misery Index is really, in my opinion, a vehicle to talk about what happened the previous weekend in college football and what the big topics were and the overreactions that can take place or whatever. And that’s what everyone was talking about week one.

The other thing that is pretty consistent year to year is the week one lies. Things that we think or things that we think we think turn out to be false all the time.

Of course, teams do improve and teams do get worse. You just don’t know what’s going to happen once they get that first game out of the way. And obviously it was a total stink bomb for Texas — but you have to give them a lot of credit for getting their act together.

We spend a lot of time talking about ‘Is Texas back?’ or ‘Is Texas not back?’ and all that stuff. I think if they continue on their current trajectory they are going to end the season with nine or 10 wins. That goes back to what I wrote in that first Misery Index which is by year two — if you’re going to be great — you should start to see that potential for greatness.

If they win nine or 10 games then I think they are exactly on schedule.

I think you’ve said before that the current standard — outside of Alabama, of course, which is in a different world — is Clemson in terms of buy-in from fans and alumni, transparency, facilities and lack of scandal. In the grand scheme of things, where do you see Texas in 2018 on that hierarchy of college football teams?

You know, that’s a tough one to answer really.

There’s obviously that group at the top which is Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and maybe a couple others. But I think that next tier below them is pretty transient. There are a lot of teams that can come and go from that next group — whether it’s Auburn, Wisconsin or whoever — the margin between that next group of 15-20 teams is not huge.

The way I look at college football: You’ve got the handful of about six or seven that can really win it. And then you’ve got like 20 teams below them that are fairly interchangeable from year to year based on who has a good quarterback or whatever.

Texas’ goal certainly is to get into that group of six or seven — and obviously they aren’t there yet. When you’re in that second tier, I don’t want to say it doesn’t matter, there just isn’t enough of a difference between No. 8 and No. 25 in that list to pinpoint.

Since the Maryland game, Ehlinger has 17 total touchdowns and zero turnovers against three ranked opponents in USC, TCU and Oklahoma. I know it’s Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa’s trophy and they can etch his name in it already, but if he continues to play consistently and Texas continues to win, does Sam deserve to be in the conversation for a free trip to New York?

You know, maybe? Truth be told, and I know it’s a weird thing to admit for someone who follows college football as closely as I do, I just don’t care about the Heisman really. I don’t particularly love the Heisman organization. And those are sort of my own reasons. The award itself — it just doesn’t really generate, to me, a lot of buzz. At least not compared to what it used to be. I don’t vote for it.

I don’t have a list. I think I would just say — in general — I don’t think Ehlinger is going to be a candidate. Partly, just because there are too many candidates. You have Tua, (Ohio State’s Dwayne) Haskins, (West Virginia’s Will) Grier. There is only room for so many quarterbacks. My guess is he will not be a candidate.

How monumental a hire was Chris Del Conte? What is the reaction from those in CFB circles about his move to Texas?

I think it was obviously a sensible and good move and Chris does a terrific job.

I think some people were a little bit surprised just because he had talked about how great life was at private school. He had come to TCU from Rice. Schools where you don’t have to deal with the politics as much as you do at a place like Texas. And I think we all know that Texas is a highly political job — whether you’re the athletic director or the head football coach.

When they hired Patterson — I think the idea might have been right in terms of getting someone from outside to bring a fresh and modern perspective on an athletic department that had become a little bit stale.

Where they erred was just that Patterson wasn’t the right person and didn’t have the kind of human touch that you need in that job. Because it’s not professional sports, it’s college sports and there is just sort of a different ethos around these athletic departments.

But Chris is a people person and a tremendous administrator. So I think they had the right idea initially, just the wrong person. Chris is the right person and they finally figured that out.

Are you buying stock in the 2018 Texas football team?

Well, I’m buying stock in them in that they are undefeated in the league and beat Oklahoma. There are still tough games to play but could they win the Big 12? Yeah, absolutely.

Here is what I would say: My guess is that they will have to play Oklahoma again in the Big 12 championship and that — probably the second time around — Oklahoma would win. But that’s a prediction that’s two months away and who knows what is going to happen between now and then. There may be injuries or whatever.

I do think West Virginia is a factor. I don’t particularly think anybody else in the Big 12 is a factor. Oklahoma State is interesting. TCU is interesting. But those teams are just not contenders to win the conference title.

I think Texas is far from perfect. Their offense is not as good as it looked against Oklahoma. We saw that against TCU and in the second half against Kansas State when they couldn’t put the game away. But they are getting better as a team and that’s important and what you want to see this time of year.

They’ve done a good job. They are physically tougher than they used to be. There is a lot to like about them.

Frankly, I think this would be a good thing for the Big 12 to have a Texas-Oklahoma rematch. I don’t like projecting playoff stuff right now because you just don’t know but if both teams win out, that game would be for a playoff bid and that would be very cool.

What is the Achilles heel for this team?

I just don’t think Texas’ offense is as dynamic as they were made to look. Saturday was just a terribly bad defensive performance by Oklahoma and Oklahoma had been trending toward that. I actually picked Oklahoma in the paper for some reason, but went into the game thinking Texas was going to win.

That game, it exposed that Oklahoma needed to fire Mike Stoops. So now we will see what becomes of them with a different voice leading that defense.

If there is an Achilles heel, it’s that you’re not going to be able to count on that team to score 30 points a game. I just don’t believe Ehlinger is that kind of quarterback — I don’t think he can throw the ball well enough to do that.

But again, they have improved so we will see.

What is the realistic ceiling for this Texas team?

I don’t think it’s crazy at this point to say that they could make the playoff.

Now, I don’t think they are a threat to a Clemson or an Alabama or an Ohio State really, but if things shook out the right way and they won the rest of their games and were Big 12 champions — yeah they could make the playoff. When you beat Oklahoma, that suddenly is is out in front of you.

The Big 12 does back-load the schedule. And I don’t think Texas is good enough where they can take a game against Oklahoma State for granted. Like, that’s not a gimme.

They may very well could get tripped up. I would not be surprised if they got tripped up somewhere and then you pair that with the Maryland loss and they’re just not a viable playoff team. That’s totally possible.

But if you continue to get better and when the games you’re supposed to win, then you’re in the Big 12 championship game and possibly a playoff bid is on the line. I don’t think that’s out of the realm of possibility at all.

How does this recent success affect the perpetually suffering Longhorn Network?

Well, if this is any indication, I don’t think I have thought about the Longhorn Network in two years. I don’t even know if my cable company has it on my plan — I honestly don’t know.

The whole conference network thing is interesting with the ACC starting one. Obviously not a great environment for TV of late, so I don’t even know.

Who is watching the Longhorn Network? Where is it on? I honestly don’t know anything about it. I really don’t.

You’ve been to a lot of stadiums for college football games. If you had to pick one that’s a better venue for college football out of the following two, which would it be: AT&T Stadium in Dallas or Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta?

I love Atlanta’s new stadium. I think it’s just a better place to watch a game than Dallas. I think it’s more intimate than Dallas. It doesn’t hold as many people. I think it’s got a better atmosphere to it.

The scoreboard is better in Atlanta with the halo. It’s not as distracting as that massive monstrosity at JerryWorld. The way the concourse is designed and the way you can move through — to me, it’s just better. Other people may have a different view.

You think A&M is a little nervous right now with how Texas is doing?

For Texas A&M right now, a lot of it is about recruiting.

They are kind of rolling on the recruiting front right now. They are getting that bump. So, we’ll see. Right now, it’s all honeymoon you know? And it’s going to remain that way going into next season if they sign the class it looks like they are going to sign. It’s still a honeymoon phase.

You can follow Dan Wolken on Twitter and check out his USA Today column’s HERE.

The Golden Hat belongs to Texas. This t-shirt can belong to you. The victory will live forever.