On the first day of the new year, the Texas Longhorns imposed their will as part of a Sugar Bowl win that not only solidified the program’s first 10-win campaign in nearly a decade, but prompted a proclamation from quarterback Sam Ehlinger that, at long last, Texas was back.
Whether it Ehlinger’s sentiments or the Sugar Bowl win, itself, a new standard was set on New Year’s Day. New expectations were established.
After years of wandering through the college football wilderness, the standard and expectation in Austin entering the 2019 campaign was to capture a conference championship. Sure, nearly every program across the country will say that winning a conference championship is one of, if not their main goal, but for most part, most of those aspirations are far-fetched and simply coach-speak.
For Texas, though, for the first time since the Colt McCoy era, the goal to win the league is one that’s rooted in reality. It’s actually attainable.
That’s still the case following the Longhorns’ Red River Showdown loss to Oklahoma on Saturday, but for those goals to materialize, the margin for error moving forward is now slim-to-none.
Last season, Texas snuck into the Big 12 title game at 9-3 overall and 6-2 in conference play, but they were only able to do so courtesy of some help elsewhere, as West Virginia, which owned the tie-breaker over Texas behind of a 42-41 win over the Longhorns, dropped back-to-back games to Oklahoma State and Oklahoma to cap the regular season.
Had West Virginia not fallen just short in a shootout in Stillwater, it would have been the Mountaineers enjoying a chance at revenge for their regular-season finale loss to the Sooners.
This all to say that save for a considerable turn of events, Oklahoma will once again be represented in Arlington, and the team that meets the Sooners there quite likely can’t afford more than two losses in league play, and even then, a two-loss team may need some luck to punch its ticket.
Texas, of course, already owns one loss at the hands of the Sooners.
The good news as far as Texas is concerned is unlike recent years, the Big 12 doesn’t feature multiple borderline elite teams in addition to Oklahoma, as Oklahoma State, West Virginia, and TCU have all recently enjoyed various stints among college football’s upper-echelon.
Considering the current Big 12 landscape, it isn’t too surprising that Texas owns at least an 80-percent win probably against half of its remaining schedule, per ESPN’s FPI, as the Horns are heavily favored against Kansas (96%), Kansas State (82.7%), and Texas Tech (83%). Texas is also a fairly comfortable favorite against TCU (61.3%) in two weeks, though the Horns’ 31-16 win last season snapped a four-game skid against the Horned Frogs.
So there’s some reason to consider this season’s trip to Fort Worth a trap game, even if for no other reason than that history between these two program’s hasn’t favored the Horns as of late.
The remaining two matchups, back-to-back road meetings with No. 18 Baylor and Iowa State — the second team receiving votes outside of the top 25 — are the two most notable roadblocks looming in Texas’ pursuit of a Big 12 title.
Baylor remains undefeated (6-0, 3-0), but the Bears haven’t looked overly-impressive since the second week of the season, and meetings with Oklahoma and Texas still loom, as does a road trip to Stillwater next weekend, which FPI projects to become Baylor’s first loss. After dropping two of their first four games to Iowa and Baylor, Iowa State has improved in recent weeks, but the Cyclones appear to be playing catch-up to Oklahoma, Baylor, and even Texas within the conference title conversation — they’ve already lost to the Bears and ISU will see Oklahoma and Texas in back-to-back weeks in November.
Entering the weekend, ESPN’s FPI projected Texas to drop both games against Baylor and Iowa State, though the Bears narrowly escaping Texas Tech in double-overtime has since slightly shifted the odds in Texas’ favor.
Iowa State remains projected to upset Texas in Ames, with the Longhorns owning just a 37.4-percent chance to steal a win on the road.
Simply put, each of these November matchups are losable games for a Texas team that, if the Big 12 Championship is the goal, almost certainly can’t afford more than one more loss.
If those expectations seem a bit too steep, well, that’s typically what’s required of a team ultimately capable of contending for a conference championship — something the Texas staff and players have noted as their No. 1 goal on numerous occasions.
The loss to Oklahoma didn’t derail that goal by any means. It simply made the margin for error going forward much smaller.