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Tom Herman doesn’t like the word, but Texas’ next step is beating teams it’s ‘expected’ to beat

Texas is now 3-0 against ranked competition this season, but can the Longhorns avoid slip-ups against lesser foes?

NCAA Football: Texas at Maryland Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Tom Herman has a list and he’s checking it twice — well, once every weekend, at this rate.

Just days ago, I detailed how topping Oklahoma would check yet another box for a Texas team that has spent much of the 2018 slate, as well as its 2017 postseason, defeating its past demons.

Knock off a nationally prominent program, such as USC, and secure that potential corner-turning, confidence-building win that eluded Texas in 2017?


Finally find a way to topple TCU, a Big 12 power that has overpowered Texas by a whopping 120 points throughout a four-year span from 2014-17?


Exorcise yet another purple demon and win on the road in Manhattan, Kansas, where Texas hasn’t left victorious since 2002?


Compile the program’s first four-game winning streak since 2013, and along the way, beat two ranked opponents in two weeks for the first time since 2008?

Check. Check.

Beat Oklahoma in a Red River Showdown that’s actually meaningful beyond mere rivalry bragging rights?

That bottom box can now be scratched off the to-do list, too, but other boxes below it remain unmarked. With No. 9 Texas (5-1, 3-0) enjoying its best six-game start since 2009 and its first placement within the AP top 10 since 2010, one’s mind may immediately envision a Big 12 Championship, but as Herman noted during his Monday afternoon media availability, the Horns hoisting the Golden Hat doesn’t bring the Big 12 title to Austin.

“There is no midseason conference championship trophy. Bob Bowlsby was at our game; he didn’t handout a midseason conference championship trophy,” Herman said. “There is a lot of season left. A lot!”

To that end, a conference crown is far from a certainty if the Horns can’t handle business against teams they’re expected to beat, although “expected” isn’t exactly the term Herman would prefer to use going forward because, well, as he noted, his program isn’t at a place where wins should necessarily be expected.

“I don’t think we’re at a place right now where you can say winning is expected and I think that’s okay,” Herman said. “I think winning right now is the fruit of the labor of the week of preparation, and it should be celebrated immensely, you know, whether you’re beating Tulsa or Oklahoma, it doesn’t matter.”

“It is nice to know that for the most part, if we do play our best, our best is good enough, but that’s more the expectation than expecting to win,” Herman added. “I just think there is a level of arrogance maybe that comes with expecting to win that I don’t know that I every really want our guys to have. I want them to understand that each week is a freakin’ battle.”

Herman’s wishes won’t resonate with the media and oddsmakers and, though.

For example, per ESPN’s FPI, Texas owns at least a 76 percent chance to beat Baylor (84.2%), Iowa State (76.7%), and Kansas (84.2%), so it’s safe to say Texas is generally expected to come out on top in each of those outings. The Bears are the first opponent of the bunch, and the Longhorns opened as 16-point favorites for their Saturday afternoon showdown with Matt Rhule’s program, which currently sits at 4-2 on the season.

“I’m maybe the most proud of how they came to work yesterday,” Herman said on Monday. “They came to work yesterday ready to get better, understanding that we’re 0-0 against Baylor this week and our preparation is what’s led us to where we’re at now. And how we prepare and how we tune the noise out and how we manage all of the distractions; I think we’ve done a really good job with that.”

But expectations, of course, don’t always equal the outcome, as Texas has learned time and time again. Of the seven losses the Longhorns have suffered under Herman’s tutelage, four have come against teams ranked within the top 12 nationally.

The three others? To Maryland; not once, but twice, to open the 2017 and 2018 seasons, and to Texas Tech to cap the 2017 regular season. The difference between those defeats and Texas’ 2017 losses to No. 4 USC, No. 12 Oklahoma, No. 10 Oklahoma State, and No. 8 TCU, though, is that the Horns were expected and projected to win. Consequently, Herman’s résumé at Texas reads 12-7, as opposed to 15-4, and the lone 2018 loss to Maryland is likely all that separates the Horns from a place in the College Football Playoff conversation.

NCAA Football: Texas at Maryland Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Nevertheless, now No. 9 nationally behind five wins in five weeks — three of which came against ranked teams that the Longhorns failed to beat in 2017 — Texas is well on its way towards a major step forward in 2018, but doing so will require the the program to check yet another box off its bucket list.

Despite the many demons Texas has defeated dating back to the Texas Bowl, the one that still haunts the Horns is the inability to consistently come out on top when Texas isn’t the underdog. Again, nearly half of the Longhorns losses under Herman are to teams Texas was expected to beat, but didn’t.

The Longhorns won’t be able to completely close that hard-to-read chapter of their recent past with a single win, but at the least, Texas can begin rewriting the narrative by beating Baylor on Saturday.