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Texas can’t afford to eat the rat poison

The maturity to manage success and the national spotlight are pivotal if Steve Sarkisian and this talented Longhorn football team want to live up to the hype now surrounding the program.

NCAA Football: Texas at Alabama Austin American-Statesman-USA TODAY NETWORK

What a time to be a fan of the Texas Longhorns. Just upset the Alabama Crimson Tide at their own house, nationally ranked in the top five for the first time since 2010, Quinn Ewers looks great, the defense may be elite, the offense looks unstoppable at times. The college football playoffs, and even the national championship, look like they could be a real possibility for the first time since the likes of Vince Young, Colt McCoy, and Mack Brown.

When you went to work on Monday, with your burnt orange tie on, eager to talk your talk to your Sooner or Aggie co-worker, I’m sure they all said the same thing. “Y’all say ‘Texas is back’ every year, but they’ll slip up eventually.” How do the greats avoid that? How do the Nick Saban’s, Urban Myer’s, or Mack Brown’s of the college football world block out the noise, and not consume the “rat poison?”

“Rat poison” is a phrase you might have heard before from Alabama head coach Nick Saban. “All that stuff you write about how good we are, and all that stuff they hear on ESPN. It’s like poison — like rat poison,” Saban explained back in 2017 after beating Texas A&M. Sports media outlets are certainly laying out plenty of rat poison after Week Two — when Texas is good, it’s good for college football. “It’s the biggest brand in the land,” Sarkisian said on The Herd with Colin Cowherd on FS1.

Every big name in sports media is laying out the rat poison this week. Cowherd said on his show, “I think Sark has a top three roster in the sport.” FOX analyst Joel Klatt added, “We are officially allowed to talk about Texas as a college football playoff not only contender, but favorite to get into that spot.” Even Paul Finebaum, famously an SEC homer, said, “We can all collectively say Texas is back.” Everyone is quick to declare Texas “back,” but we’ve seen this show before.

In 2016, an unranked Texas team upset No. 10 Notre Dame in a Week One, double-overtime thriller, 50-47. Joe Tessitore’s call of the game-winning touchdown for the Longhorns was instantly iconic — “Texas is back.” As they are now, sports media was going nuts for that Longhorn team, but that group went on to finish the 2016 season 5-7 and head coach Charlie Strong was fired.

Then, two years later, Sam Ehlinger led the Longhorns to a 10-4 season and a Sugar Bowl victory against Georgia, after which he proclaimed to the nation, “We’re baaaack.” The following season Texas finished 8-5. After the 2020 season, the Longhorns fired another head coach.

So what’s the answer? How can Sarkisian and his coaching staff get this year’s team to block out the noise? How do you get this group of young men to not eat the rat poison?

“For us that one game isn’t going to define our season,” Sarkisian said on Monday. “Championship teams continue to improve as the season goes on, and we’ve got goals and aspirations of being champions this year. We’ve got to continue to improve this week and that was the starting point here this morning.”

It’s easy for coaches to say that after a big win; in fact it’s expected. More than anything it’s up to the leaders of this Texas team to believe in it, and get the rest of the team to buy in. Standout middle linebacker Jaylan Ford summed up the necessary mentality on Sunday.

Evidently Sarkisian brought the rat poison phrase with him from his time in Tuscaloosa with Ford’s tweet likely in response to a feed blanketed with stories and posts about how the greatness of this Longhorn team, just like all the rat poison circulating from college football pundits.

It’s also up to Ewers to set the tone for the rest of the team.

“Where I am right now, I’m mature enough to kind of handle what’s been going on,” Ewers said on Monday. “I don’t think last year I was able to handle the success that I had and I went through some adversity obviously but now this year, I think I’m a lot more capable and more mature.”

Hours after Ewers met with the media, he proved his improved maturity, texting Sarkisian asking permission for a player’s-only meeting on Tuesday morning to ensure the Longhorns were adequately prepared for their practice that day.

“The fact that Quinn and the leadership committee wanted to have a player’s-only meeting to make sure that they were reiterating the message about getting re-focused on what we need to do this week, I thought it was it was a great sign for us,” Sarkisian said on Thursday.

Maturity is key. Last year the promising five-star quarterback certainly had his ups and downs with all the hype in the world surrounded him. At 19 years old, Ewers was tasked with becoming the savior of one of, if not the biggest program in college football. It’s all about how someone so young can handle the pressure and success that inevitably comes with being the starting quarterback at the University of Texas.

One week you’re riding high after pitching a 49-point shutout in the Red River Rivalry, then you drop one to Oklahoma State two weeks later, the start of a difficult stretch for Ewers. The maturity to be able to manage that success is what will lead to consistency for Ewers and this entire team.

We often forget these are college kids. Ewers isn’t even old enough to buy a beer yet and he has the weight of Longhorn nation on his shoulders. From national media filling his head with hype to Zeta sorority sisters blowing up his phone after a big win, distractions and rat poison are everywhere for this young man.

Maturity cannot be taught, but learned over time. Maturity leads to consistency, and as Ewers said, a better ability to manage success. As these young players grow in the culture that Sarkisian is trying to build, hopefully they can mature and grow together as a team and collectively block out the noise that will inevitably continue to grow if or as they continue to find success.

Although ultimately it’s up to Sarkisian and his coaching staff to get this talented group of 20 year olds to buy into their system, and mature into a team that is capable of handling the national spotlight.

Confidence is key, but it can also lead to complacency when it turns into arrogance. Sarkisian discussed how he plans to walk this line following the big win against Bama. “It’s a little bit of a slippery slope — when you’re overly confident sometimes that’s when you can skip the details. Well, excellence lies in the details.”

Texas was certainly excellent in Tuscaloosa, but can they continue to be excellent and execute the details in Waco, at the Cotton Bowl, in Fort Worth, and ultimately in the College Football Playoff?

“There are two kinds of rat poison it seems like — the kind where everyone’s telling you how good you are, and the kind where everyone’s telling you, you’re knocking on the door.”

Texas is no longer knocking at the door — they kicked it off the hinges. With all the talent on this roster, this team is more than capable of doing big things this year. Saturday’s matchup against Wyoming will be a great test to prove whether or not Sarkisian has instilled the proper mentality and maturity to block out the noise, avoid the rat poison, and live up the hype that surrounds this talented football team.