If you’ve ever driven halfway across the United States, you know how the trip can become less about the mile markers and places you’ve been and more about what’s coming next.
As you make it through St. Louis, you reflect less on how far you’ve driven since leaving Indianapolis, and you focus more on how far you still have to go before reaching Tulsa.
It makes each mile feel a little longer, your rear end a little more numb and those eyelids a little bit heavier.
You become so wrapped up in the miles still to come that you barely even think about the miles you’ve driven. Because anyone who’s driven across the United States knows, reflecting on the ground you’ve covered makes the road ahead a little less daunting.
Texas football is in the midst of a cross-country journey all its own and each week has felt bigger than the last for Texas as the 2019 season progresses.
Each season since 2016, for that matter, has felt more important than the previous.
Yes, this Texas team has been on quite the journey since Lawrence, Kansas, back in 2016. The Longhorns, fresh off of a 10-win season in which they played for a conference championship and won the Sugar Bowl, are now turning the corner along this journey. And what a long, winding corner it has been.
And the fans, despite focusing on everything that has been since that overtime loss to the Jayhawks, have found themselves focused more on what lies ahead.
The Longhorns likely have, too, in some capacity, though no one will admit it publicly.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Every road trip has to have a grand destination. It’s not a crime to look ahead and see where you want to go. But in doing so, it’s human nature to forget about where you’ve been.
And maybe that’s why the rest of this Texas season feels so… heavy.
Two losses — albeit to two top five teams and by a touchdown at that — have Texas looking at what lies ahead with a bit more gravitas than usual, a little more urgency than needed.
And make no mistake about it — the remaining six games of this 2019 regular season are going to require nearly flawless performances by the Longhorns.
The reasons have varied depending on the opponent, but through six games this season Texas has yet to arrive at a game week where everyone can just take five minutes and exhale.
This includes the Kansas Jayhawks.
Texas may very well drag Kansas up and down the football field on Saturday night en route to a 40-point victory.
But assuming that a win will come with ease — or that this Texas team even slightly resembles a squad that can go out and use a lesser Kansas program as its rebound, ragdolling the Jayhawks until all of the would-have-should-have from the Red River Showdown is all but forgotten, well, that would be silly.
Sure, the 5-7 and 6-6 seasons — the ghosts of this decade’s past — are so far behind this program you can’t even see it looking in the rearview mirror.
That, quite frankly, is worth a five-minute breather and a pat on the back.
At least Texas isn’t there anymore.
But if you’ve happened to glance in that rearview to reflect, you’ll have noticed the 2018 season riding your bumper so closely it feels like you’re going to get ran off the road.
That’s what this current Texas team feels like at 4-2. A 10-win season in 2018 means that anything short of 10 wins this season means regression. As goes the win total, so goes the chance to play for a conference championship and arrive at a New Year’s Six bowl game for the second consecutive season.
That’s the catch-22 in all of this.
Wedged between the breakout 2018 season that exorcised so many demons and the expectations of a program and its fan base so thirsty for continued success they could drink their own blood, that’s where you’ll find this current Texas team.
Good enough to run the table and repeat its 2018 success, fragile enough to lose a game or two it shouldn’t and skid off the road and over the cliff.
An 8-4 season wouldn’t be the worst thing ever, if you’re looking ahead to 2020, down the road, at the grand destination this program should be good enough to reach. But if you’re looking in the rearview and all you see is 2018 tailgating you, not a trace of some really bad years prior in sight, 8-4 feels like panic.
So, what’s the appropriate way to approach the rest of this season? Looking ahead based on the future, or looking ahead and comparing it to last season?
Here’s an idea: neither.
What if, in an insane moment of rationale and logic, everyone embraced things for what they are?
Tom Herman’s 1-0 mantra might be cheesy to some of you, but it’s truly the blueprint that absolutely must be followed if the Longhorns want to avoid the greatest misstep of all — losing to a team they have no business losing to.
Fans can be upset and kick rocks about Oklahoma and LSU and rightfully so. Oklahoma and LSU are better and played better, but both games felt like if a play or two went Texas’ way then this is a one-loss or undefeated team.
The mark of success on this season isn’t how close Texas came to beating two teams that it wasn’t supposed to beat. The mark of success is that at the end of November, will we be able to look at the results and say the Longhorns didn’t lose to someone they should have defeated?
Regression is not that the Longhorns didn’t win on these big stages early in the season. Regression would be to look back at this year and cringe at a loss to Kansas State or Texas Tech.
Texas is going to be tested immensely in the final six weeks of the season. Trips to Waco to face Baylor and Jack Trice Stadium in Ames, Iowa, to take on the Cyclones are going to push the Longhorns to their limits. Those games, while they’re both winnable, will tell us a lot about this team, especially when you consider key individuals who are going to remain out with injuries.
The remaining schedule isn’t going to be easy, but each game feels winnable. And, therefore, each game will feel more important than the previous, as it should, even if it is against Kansas, and at home.
What becomes of our opinions on the Texas football program will depend on how we view this season throughout these remaining six games. Are we going to tie in the past, intertwine 2018 into the earlier results of the season and make a knee-jerk assessment? Or will everything moving forward directly focus on what it means for 2019?
For me, it’s much simpler than that. These six conference games will be the defining stretch of the season. Don’t compare this season to 2018. Don’t look at what momentum X, Y or Z gives Texas for 2019. Instead, just take these six results and from there determine if Texas is still progressing or if its regressing based on the simple criteria of “are the Longhorns winning the games they should absolutely win?”
It’s not about being “back.” It’s about never going back to that place this program has crawled out of the last three years. These final six games of the season, each feeling more important than the previous, will tell us what direction this program is going and how far it still has to go.