It was fitting that Texas Longhorns senior right tackle Christian Jones was the first player off the plane on Wednesday as the team arrived in New Orleans for Monday’s College Football Playoff semifinal in the Sugar Bowl against the Washington Huskies.
After all, since Jones is in his sixth year, he’s the only player on the team who was with the Longhorns when they played in a bowl game other than the Alamo Bowl, traveling to New Orleans for the Sugar Bowl against the Bulldogs at the end of the 2018 season. The last three consecutive bowl appearances for Texas saw the team making the short trip down I-35 to San Antonio.
Senior linebacker Jaylan Ford called it a “big step up.”
“For us to get away from Austin and have a trip together and play ball, you really couldn’t ask for much more,” said Ford.
Especially since a berth in the national championship game is on the line.
Nearly a month ago, Texas was playing its best football of the season after a 57-7 win over Texas Tech in Austin to close the regular season and a 49-21 demolition of Oklahoma State to win the Big 12 title in Arlington.
So the task for Longhorns head coach Steve Sarkisian over the ensuing weeks has been to maintain his team’s edge. After the championship game, Sarkisian recognized that his fatigued team needed to back off to rest and recuperate even though they wanted to practice. Since they’ve started practicing again, Sarkisian is happy with where his team is at mentally and physically.
“I think part of it was making sure that we did enough good-on-good in practice, especially early on in the prep, that we kept the speed of the competitiveness, of what a game would feel like in a practice setting,” said Sarkisian.
“Not necessarily to scrimmage all the time, but at the line of scrimmage, offensive line, they need to feel the speed and physicality of our defensive line. Our DBs need to feel the speed and the rhythm of our passing game because that’s critical to when that ball gets kicked off next Monday night, it’s all going to be fast.”
Even though Texas hasn’t appeared in the College Football Playoffs before, Sarkisian has experience in this setting after helping Alabama win the national championship in 2021, days after he became the new head coach on the Forty Acres. So the Horns did the structural game-planning work in Austin before leaving for New Orleans late Wednesday morning before going into the balancing act of putting maximum effort towards the final game prep heading into Monday while also ensuring that the players have enough time to enjoy the city of New Orleans.
“We’re here to play our best football that we can play to try to win a Semifinal game to get into the national championship. So I think there’s definitely a workman-like mentality that this team has. But I want to make sure that they enjoy the experience as well, because they’ve earned it,” said Sarkisian.
Just not too much enjoyment in a city famous for its distractions.
Senior wide receiver Jordan Whittington is looking forward to some gumbo and other local food on Wednesday before tapering down. As a team leader, he's not worried about his teammates getting distracted.
“You just have to give the game the respect it deserves. All the external things are really cool, so we’ll get to see it and experience it, but other than that you have to respect the game because it demands it and we are here to win,” said Whittington.
“We are here to play a football game. At the end of the day you have to figure out what you want more and we all know what we want, which is to play a football game. The other stuff like the city is cool, but we are locked in.”
When it comes to the chaos of a College Football Playoff game on Monday, Texas will fall back on its training and one of Sarkisian’s favorite mantras.
“Be enamored with us.”
From Tuscaloosa to Arlington, it’s worked so far.