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Texas vs. USC is most important Longhorns game in 2018, not the Red River Showdown

Tom Herman’s second team will define its season within the first month.

NCAA Football: Texas at Southern California Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Under the lights at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium, in front of a national audience on FOX, the Texas Longhorns will play the team’s most important game of the 2018 season in mid September, just 14 days after the season opens in Landover against the Maryland Terrapins.

That’s right — the biggest game of the season for the Longhorns won’t come against the rival Oklahoma Sooners at the Cotton Bowl on the first Saturday of October. No, it will come against the USC Trojans.

In 2017, the game in Los Angeles Coliseum against the highly-ranked Trojans ultimately defined the entire season.

It defined how well the offensive line could play, as All-American left tackle Connor Williams left with a knee injury. It defined too frequently how quarterback Sam Ehlinger would play with the game on the line when his double-overtime fumble near the goal line ultimately cost Texas the game. Most of all, it defined the Longhorns as a team that would play hard and compete against good teams, but fail to make enough plays and avoid enough mistakes in order to win.

Head coach Tom Herman’s team went on to lose another overtime contest on a similar mistake by Ehlinger and two more games by five points of less. One of those losses, the regular-season finale against Texas Tech, also swung on Ehlinger’s mistakes.

In 2018, USC should be more vulnerable after losing a number of star players, including quarterback Sam Darnold, wide receiver Deontay Burnett, and running back Ronald Jones. So Texas will have a chance to make a national statement and prove that it grew as a team as Herman dedicated the offseason to a focus on finishing.

If the Horns can pull out that game, then subsequent contests against the Horned Frogs, Wildcats, and Sooners will gain in importance, with each win raising the stakes for that game individually and the season as a whole.

Without a win over the Trojans, though, the season will take on a different form, with a goal of modest improvement from 2017’s 7-6 record a much more legitimate expectation than competing for a Big 12 title.

After all, an inability to win at home against a beatable team wouldn’t suggest a high probability of winning more than one of the next three games — TCU has largely dominated Texas since joining the Big 12, winning in Manhattan is notoriously difficult for the Longhorns, and Oklahoma is the class of the conference until another program proves otherwise.

As much as the Cotton Bowl will always matter, the storyline of the 2018 Longhorns season will take an early and definitive shape in front of what should be a raucous crowd full of burnt orange and white, not a crowd split at midfield.