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NCAA Football: Texas at West Virginia Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

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Leave it to Breckyn Hager to judge when Texas is back

“We’re not creating the hype, but we’re believing it,” the senior told USA Today Sports.

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“When the time comes, I’ll bring that quote back myself. I’ll say it. As of now, we haven’t proved anything yet.”

Like virtually the entire college football world, Texas Longhorns defensive end Breckyn Hager remembers the infamous call by Joe Tessitore some 700-odd days ago, and he isn’t going to let anyone else make that judgement this time.

The call was indelible, even if the moment itself and the future that it anticipated proved much more ephemeral. Or, perhaps, nonexistent in the latter case.

In double overtime of the 2016 season opener against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in a raucous Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium, Tyrone Swoopes took the direct snap in what would become known as the 18-Wheeler formation, side-stepped a defender running free through the hole, made another sharp cut to his left, and extended every bit of his 6’4 frame to find the end zone for the walk-off victory.

“Texas is back, folks,” intoned Tessitore in a spur-of-the-moment declaration that still reverberates.

Given the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear that Tessitore both echoed and amplified the feelings of Longhorns fans in the stadium and across the world when Swoopes broke the plane of the north end zone.

Hager and his teammates certainly bought into the hype. The senior recalls the thrill of being a Texas football player decked out in burnt orange Nike gear on the Forty Acres in those heady moments.

“I didn’t necessarily go to class, you know,” he told USA Today Sports with a laugh. “I was just out there out there thinking we just won the national championship.”

The philosophy major then felt the need to clarify a couple things.

“I’m in class all the time. I’ve never missed a class. I was tardy. Taking it all in. We’d beat Notre Dame, we’re ranked, and I’m like, ‘Yes! I’m part of this. Texas is back. We’re where we’re supposed to be.’”

And then, all of a sudden, the Longhorns were extremely not back at all. Certainly not where they were supposed to be.

Two weeks later, a weak defensive performance in Berkeley resulted in a monumentally disappointing 50-43 loss to a Cal team defeated the week before by San Diego State. The Golden Bears went on to suffer defeats in six of the next eight games and miss a bowl appearance.

NCAA Football: Texas at California John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

So the giddiness of the Notre Dame win lasted only 13 days before the team proved Tessitore’s statement false. Just as crucially, the road defeat put defensive coordinator Vance Bedford in an embattled position, though then-head coach Charlie Strong stuck with his longtime assistant heading into the season’s only bye week.

Unfortunately for Bedford and Strong, the vote of confidence didn’t pay off, as lineup changes failed spectacularly and Oklahoma State rumbled to an easy 49-31 victory. Strong demoted Bedford and took over the defense himself before opportunities to defeat an Oklahoma squad that went on to win the Sugar Bowl and an eventual nine-win Kansas State team fell by the wayside.

With Strong’s job hanging in the balance, the Horns squeaked past scandal-ravaged Baylor and mediocre Texas Tech.

On November 19, Texas traveled to Lawrence. With a mid-afternoon start in sunny, 47-degree weather in front of a crowd generously reported at more 25,000 strong, the Longhorns were supposed to cruise to an easy victory against the 1-9 Jayhawks to continue to build momentum for Strong to keep his job. According to ESPN, Texas entered the game with a win probability close to 92 percent.

Instead of the easy victory and that consolidated momentum, Kansas stunned Texas thanks to a late collapse by the Horns. Early in the fourth quarter, the visiting team seemed in control with a 21-10, but a steady touchdown drive by the Jayhawks and a fumble by star Longhorns running back D’Onta Foreman deep in Kansas territory gave David Beaty’s team a chance.

Strong’s defense forced a turnover on downs, then tried to ice the game by giving the ball to Foreman on 4th and 5 on the KU 32-yard line with a minute left in regulation. The eventual Doak Walker Award winner was stopped two yards short on his 50th carry of the game.

Thanks to a 26-yard pass to running back Ke’aun Kinner, Kansas moved into Texas territory with the clock ticking down before a targeting penalty on Longhorns linebacker Jeffrey McCulloch put the Jayhawks into field-goal range with 19 seconds remaining.

Kansas tied the game as the clock ticket towards zero and kicked a field goal to win it after Shane Buechele threw an interception on the second Texas play in overtime.

NCAA Football: Texas at Kansas Gary Rohman-USA TODAY Sports

It was the first victory by the Jayhawks over the Longhorns since 1938, ended a nine-game losing streak overall, and now stands as the only win over an FBS team for the Jayhawks in nearly 1,400 days. That’s right — the only win for Kansas since then came against Southeast Missouri State. The last FBS win before it? Against Iowa State in 2014.

So it’s understandable to treat any positive predictions about Texas and where the program might be right now with a heavy degree of skepticism.

“We’re a 7-6 team until we prove otherwise,” head coach Tom Herman told USA Today Sports.

But that inescapable reality hasn’t stopped a flood of surprising predictions from national pundits. Back in June, Fox Sports analyst Joel Klatt tapped Texas as his pick to win the Big 12. ESPN’s Lee Corso did the same on Saturday. In an outlandishly bold selection, Fox analyst Robert Smith chose the Horns as one of his four College Football Playoff teams.

Yes, that really happened, and there is footage to prove it.

Those takes might surprise junior wide receiver Collin Johnson — the Longhorns legacy doesn’t expect anyone outside of the Moncrief-Neuhaus Athletics Complex to believe that a Big 12 title or a College Football Playoff berth is possible.

Herman using four qualifications when providing a sober assessment of the Big 12 championship possibilities for his 2018 team was telling.

“Do we have the pieces to win the Big 12? I think if everything goes right, if we stay healthy, I think if we develop both as football players and in our relationship, if we continue to finish and learn how to finish, then we should have a very good chance to achieve our goal, which is to be in contention for the Big 12 championship in the month of November.”

Note that Herman isn’t saying that the goal is to win the conference — it’s to have a chance to win the conference late in the season, something that Texas hasn’t achieved since the collapse of the Mack Brown era in 2013.

In the vein of understandable statements from the Longhorns program, sophomore quarterback Sam Ehlinger wasn’t willing to make any of his own predictions in the middle of preseason camp.

“I don’t want to set any predictions or anything like that, but I’m really excited about what this team can do and will do, the love that we have for each other, and the fire to be great is very prevalent.”

What Herman has been emphatically positive about is his excitement to coach this team and how much impact a season of establishing baseline expectations has had on the way he and his staff do their jobs.

“I just think the biggest thing is we’re coaching football,” he said. “We’re coaching individual drills. We’re coaching schemes. We’re coaching techniques and fundamentals, where that was almost a secondary thought, as to ball security and effort, physicality, not turning down hits or shying away from things.”

Hence the two areas of focus throughout spring practice and into preseason camp — finishing and developing.

Finishing is about the improvements through the strength and conditioning program so that the Horns don’t have tired legs in the critical moments of games. And developing aids that process because improved technique, fundamentals, and understanding of scheme means the players will be in better position to finish by limiting mistakes.

From a wider perspective, Hager believes that the pieces are now in place, aided by a conference that lost a significant amount of star power from last season.

“The talent’s there. The depth’s there. Everything is there,” Hager said. “The Big 12 is down. The teams we are playing are down… It’s now Texas who’s the experienced team. We’ve worked hard enough to make something awesome happen.”

So if Texas manages to make it to the third week of the season undefeated and beats USC in the biggest home game since the Notre Dame win, someone should let the always excitable Gus Johnson know that Hager has claimed the role of announcing when the Horns are back.

Officially this time. One hopes.

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