The nature of the Week Five matchup between the No. 3 Texas Longhorns and the No. 24 Kansas Jayhawks in Austin on Saturday holds more significance than simply the first top 25-ranked Big 12 opponent of the season for Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian — it marks the rematch of the 2021 57-56 overtime upset by then-first year head coach Lance Leipold and the Jayhawks over then-first year head coach Steve Sarkisian and the Texas Longhorns, an incredible high and respectively terrible low point for each coach so early in their tenures with their new teams.
The more interesting and more topical aspect of that pivotal moment for each of these coaches now in their third year is the trajectory it sent them on, a trajectory that placed both teams at 4-0 and massively improved so far in 2023.
Let’s call a spade a spade. Historically Kansas has a bad football program, while Texas is one of the biggest college football brands in the nation. So it’s easy to see what this win meant for Leipold’s career, and what the loss meant for Sarkisian’s career — a win for Kansas over Texas is huge for the Jayhawks and devastating for the Longhorns. Texas has bested Kansas 17 times in 21 matchups, with the Jayhawks often labeled as an easy win in the Big 12. A loss to Kansas in Lawrence was cause enough to end Charlie Strong’s tenure on the Forty Acres.
But this Kansas team is much improved compared to the product this basketball school has fielded in the past. For the first time since 1914, the Kansas Jayhawks are 4-0 in two consecutive seasons, also the first two years they have been ranked in the AP Poll since 2009.
Third-year offensive coordinator Andy Kotelnicki and the Jayhawks rank 26th in the country in points per game with 37.8, 25th in total offense averaging 463 total yards per game, and first in the country in third-down conversion rate converting at an incredible rate of 60.5 percent. On defense they are 21st in the nation in total defense and 12th in interceptions with six through four games.
“We’ve got a great deal of respect for Kansas and the team they have, and what they’ve built over the past three years,” Sarkisian said. “Defensively it’s easy to see the improvement that they’ve made over three years.”
It’s a remarkable turnaround for a historically abysmal Kansas football program and it all began in earnest on November 13, 2021 in Austin with a win that skyrocketed Leipold’s career in Lawrence. It boosted his team’s confidence, improved their recruiting of high school players and players from the NCAA transfer portal, and ensured the university and roster’s faith in what their coach was building.
When asked about the 2021 game this week, Leipold is obviously fed up with the topic, responding, “Both teams are significantly better — yeah, it helped this program, it helped our players, but we need to move forward.”
It was also a breakout game for then-sophomore quarterback Jalon Daniels, who this year earned the nod as the pre-season Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year. Sarkisian alluded to it on Monday, saying, “The quarterback Jalen Daniels is a heck of a player — we saw him first hand in his first start here a couple of years ago, so we know what he’s capable of.”
This Jayhawks football team has found a swagger and rhythm that they haven’t seen in a century and it all started two years ago after a pivotal win in Austin.
For Texas, the loss marked a major low point for Sarkisian in his first year as head coach of the Longhorns. In the emotional crater left by the defeat, the Sarkisian experiment felt like it might be dead on arrival, the type of loss like the beatdown suffered by Strong’s second Texas team in the 2015 season opener at Notre Dame that augured his doom.
Like many other major football programs in college and even the NFL, the University of Texas fans and board of regents do not have the time or patience to wait and pray that a new head coach can develop a championship program. After the loss to a Jayhawks team that has historically been viewed as an easy win for the Big 12 powerhouse programs, the proverbial hot seat under Sarkisian started to heat up after his 5-7 inaugural season.
“A team that has discipline, commitment, toughness, and accountability all of the time, that’s what wins games and that’s what ultimately wins championships. That’s a problem that we have to get fixed. That’s what it’s about. It’s about being a true competitor and competing with that mindset. And clearly we didn’t do that tonight,” Sarkisian said after the loss.
Instead of letting this loss consume the program, and result in another failed coaching hire, Sarkisian and the Longhorns used it as the moment that vaulted them into a more promising future, putting the state of the program into perspective and pushing them to where they are today — the No. 3-ranked team in the nation.
“I want to say that was also a turning point in my career here and for the rest of the team not wanting to experience that again,” Texas senior right tackle Christian Jones said in reflection on the loss.
Leipold even commented on the improvement of this Longhorns team since their first meeting in 2021.
“If you are going to keep looking at our previous meetings, I think that the [Texas] defensive line continued to improve. Consistent play and physically tough kids. Linebackers who are extremely physical and run well. It’s definitely a different team and a huge challenge for us,” Leipold said.
Valleys lead to mountain tops when they are handled correctly. Otherwise they remain low points forever. The precedent that this valley set for this Longhorns team changed everything for Sarkisian and the team as a whole.
“I’d probably say that we’re a resilient group. I think externally it felt worse to some degree. It hurts to lose a as a competitor. It’s never fun to lose. I don’t care if it’s ping pong, whatever it is, if you’re going to compete for something, you’re trying to win. Naturally in that game, we didn’t play as good as we would have liked. They made some plays at critical moments. The game didn’t go our way,” Sarkisian said on Monday.
“But in a weird way, I’m kind of glad it happened because it exposed some warts in our program that needed to get removed and if we hadn’t removed those warts, we might not be where we are today in our program. And so sometimes not all storms come to cause issues in your life. Some storms come to clear the path, and I felt like that storm cleared a path for us on what we needed to do in our program to move forward.”
Of the 85 scholarship players on the 2021 roster, 35 players entered the NCAA transfer portal over the last two years in addition to five departures from the 2022 class. Taking advantage of the ability to add more than 25 players in each cycle, Sarkisian and his staff signed 28 recruits in the No. 5-ranked 2022 class while adding seven players from the transfer portal. The No. 3-ranked 2023 class included 25 signees and five players from the portal.
And despite all the changes on the roster, the coaching staff largely remained intact, providing much-needed continuity missing since the demise of the Mack Brown era.
We have seen the changes made by this coaching staff in turning over the roster, the use of the transfer portal, and the overall development of a culture that could resemble a championship program. In his third year Sarkisian has been able to massively overhaul this team’s roster and culture, and create a team immensely improved from three years ago.
The weight that this week’s matchup holds for both programs is palpable. Both teams are fighting to stay undefeated and prove that they belong in the higher echelon of college football. Standout Kansas cornerback Cobee Bryant said in response to the upcoming game against Texas, “It’s a statement week, like a championship game. That’s how we see it in the locker room.”
A win for Kansas would skyrocket them into the conversation of elite programs in college football for arguably the first time in their history. For Texas, a win would solidify their station as a national championship contender this year. For both programs, those stakes are an incredible evolution after not so respectively finishing 2-10 and 5-7 the last time they faced off on the Forty Acres.
It’s interesting how a completely opposite outcome can lead to a similar result — arguably the highest and lowest point of each head coach’s career in their first season led them here in their third. The juxtaposition of how this one game changed everything for these two programs and set into motion a chain of events that led to both finding tremendous success over the same period of time is remarkable. Now, two years later, that chain has come full circle, back to where it began in Austin.