A little more than 25 months have come and gone since Joe Tessitore profoundly proclaimed, “Texas is back, folks.”
Of course, he couldn’t have been more wrong.
The No. 10 Notre Dame team that Texas topped in double overtime, 50-47, was anything but a top 10 team, finishing at 4-8, and the Longhorns weren’t much better. After outlasting the Fighting Irish and climbing as high as No. 11 in the AP Top 25, the Longhorns lost seven of their next 11 games, including a 24-21 overtime loss to Kansas that effectively ended the Charlie Strong era and still looms large throughout the Twittersphere.
Joe Tess voice: "KANSAS IS BACK."— Matt Jennings (@MattAJennings) November 20, 2016
All the while, “Texas is back” has become an over-regurgitated running joke: Texas is back... to .500, Texas is back... in a bowl game, Texas is back... in Austin after losing to Maryland, again, and etcetera, etcetera.
Sound the alarm: Texas is BACK pic.twitter.com/SQcr3EF7zp— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) October 6, 2018
But those uttering “Texas is back” far more seriously are doing so prematurely, even amid the program’s most successful stretch in just shy of a full decade.
No. 9 Texas (5-1, 3-0) is enjoying its first top 10 appearance since 2010 and the program’s best six-game start since 2009; a season which ended with Texas competing for a national championship. With three of those five wins coming against ranked competition brandishing nationally respected names, such as No. 22 USC, No. 18 TCU, and No. 7 Oklahoma, of course a fan base so severely starved of the true relevance and prominence it enjoyed thoroughly throughout the 2000s is going to get a taste of that distant, yet familiar success and fill up on it.
That’s to be expected, and the fans aren’t the only ones, either. Just moments after Texas mounted its most monumental win in recent memory in the Red River Showdown, Longhorns head coach Tom Herman was asked whether Texas is back, to which he responded, “It’s irrelevant to us, I think is probably the best way to put it. We’re not so concerned about where people think Texas is.”
Monday’s edition of ESPN’s College Football Live prompted its panel to answer the same question, as did ESPN’s First Take to Paul Finebaum on Tuesday, as has virtually every national and Texas-centric media outlet.
However, it doesn’t seem as if the sheer scope of what Texas once was is being considered when trying to decipher if Texas — what it is now — is back.
Most would agree that Texas hasn’t been Texas since 2009.
As noted, that 2009 campaign ended with the Colt McCoy-led Longhorns taking center stage at the Rose Bowl with a national championship at stake. The season before that, Texas was a last-second road loss to No. 7 Texas Tech and a controversial BCS snub from meeting Florida for a chance to be crowned national champs.
Of course, three short years prior to that point, Texas did cap a historic season by hoisting the crystal ball after outlasting top-ranked and heavily-favored USC in what still may be the greatest college football game ever played.
An 11-win effort preceded that, and so on and so forth so that nothing short of tremendous success was being celebrated on the Forty Acres. Throughout the 2000s, Texas averaged 11 wins behind double-digit-winning seasons every single season.
For this current Texas team, at 5-1, to even reach the program’s 11-win average throughout the noted 10-year span when Texas was the Texas many ask if it’s finally back to being, it will have to remain perfect between now and Nov. 23’s regular-season finale meeting with Kansas, knocking off four more S&P+ top 50 opponents along the way. ESPN’s FPI projects Texas to stumble twice throughout that six-game span, which surprisingly doesn’t include the Nov. 3 showdown with No. 6 West Virginia, which of course, if quite losable.
Hypothetically speaking, though, should Texas win out, or potentially drop just one game and enjoy a trip to Jerry’s World for the Big 12 Championship, and even go on to secure the program’s first conference crown since 2009, would Texas be back, folks?
The general consensus would almost certainly be a resounding yes, but even then, I would advise to tread those waters with caution.
Remember Kansas’ miraculous 12-win 2007 season, which came out of left field only to be followed by 8-5, 5-7, and 3-9 efforts throughout the next three seasons? More notably, you surely remember the madness that surrounded Johnny Manziel’s Heisman-winning campaign, which actually overshadowed the Aggies 11-2 record in 2012 — the program’s most impressive since 1998. But Texas A&M, too, regressed, following a flash-in-the-pan performance with a nine-win season in 2013 and three consecutive 8-5 efforts from 2014-16 before ultimately dropping to 7-6 last season to end the Kevin Sumlin era.
Make no mistake about it — Texas is far from immune to falling victim to the same fate.
Whatever success this Texas team ultimately enjoys will be followed by a mass exodus shortly thereafter, as more than half of the Horns starters won’t be back in burnt orange in 2019, including three along the offensive line, the entire defensive line, linebackers Gary Johnson and Anthony Wheeler, cornerbacks Kris Boyd and Davante Davis, nickel back P.J. Locke III, and running back Tre Watson. This double-digit figure doesn’t include the strong possibility that budding stars Collin Johnson, Brandon Jones, and Lil’Jordan Humphrey may entertain the idea of entering the NFL Draft a year early.
Not to mention, much like last offseason, the Longhorns may have to endure the coaching carousel that is seemingly sure to include defensive coordinator Todd Orlando’s name.
Bearing in mind that Texas’ best-case scenario is replacing at least 12 starters, it seems more likely than not that what may ultimately end as an 11- or 12-win season in 2018 sees the program take a step back in 2019.
Would Texas still be back if an 11- or 12-win campaign, and per usual, an offseason abundant with hype — although this time, far more glorified than usual — was succeeded by a regression to nine wins?
This isn’t to imply that a regression is guaranteed, because that couldn’t be further from the truth, especially after Texas has checked boxes in back-to-back-to-back-to-back weeks.
The Longhorns may be amid the earliest stages of a rise similar to that of Alabama, which has blossomed into a decade-long dynasty after dropping its final four regular-season appearances in Nick Saban’s debut season, or potentially something along the lines of the stretch Clemson is currently enjoying, as the Tigers have averaged 11.7 wins per season after a 6-7 slate in 2010. But the difference between those two examples and something such as Kansas’ 12-1 effort in 2007, or Texas A&M’s 11-2 showing in 2012, is sustainability, and who’s to say the Longhorns aren’t in line for that unfortunate fate?
Sure, Texas could cap a storybook season by celebrating a Big 12 title and enjoying a paid vacation to Pasadena, New Orleans, or some other New Year’s Six bowl destination, but can the Longhorns do it again next season, and the season after that, and so on as the program did throughout an entire decade when Texas was Texas?
The early signs are encouraging, certainly, from elite-level recruiting to, at long last, some consistency throughout the coaching staff, to a team that’s not only abundant with former four- and five-star talent, but competing with tremendous effort and intensity across the board, to the buy-in level being as high as it has been since Mack Brown’s glory days.
Not to mention, it seems Texas finally has its quarterback in sophomore Sam Ehlinger, which has, at times, been the more significant storyline while the Longhorns wandered through the college football desert.
If the proof is in the pudding, Texas may finally have found the correct combination of ingredients, and thus, we may very well be witnessing the front end of college football’s long-lost powerhouse returning to its place among the elite, but it’s still too early to be sure.
Lest not forget, at this time last month, it was unclear if Tom Herman would last at Texas after his Longhorns narrowly outlasted Tulsa — which hasn’t won since — to reach 1-1. Much like that two-game sample size was far too small to discern whether the burnt orange nation was staring down the barrel of yet another lost season, a half-season sample size — which has been unimpressive as often as it has been praiseworthy — is far too small to definitively declare that Texas is back, folks.