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Texas comes to a fork in the road as tough final stretch looms

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The Longhorns haven’t looked good as of late, but despite the sense of despair, the ultimate goal of a Big 12 title is still attainable.

Oklahoma State v Texas Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

It certainly appears that the Texas Longhorns have come to a fork in the road, and now more than ever, head coach Tom Herman’s team needs to figure out who they are and which direction this season is heading.

One path — the path some may believe the Longhorns are already traveling — will force the wheels to fall off as Texas falls short again, and possibly again and again, ultimately falling short of every goal the Horns entered the season with.

The other path, perhaps, leads back to Arlington.

Each option is still well within the realm of possibility, and the simple reality is that at this point, neither outcome would come as too much of a surprise. The latter will require the Longhorns to address a laundry list of issues and enjoy a bit of help elsewhere, as well.

The former is likely the more expected outcome, and for obvious reasons.

Throughout the non-conference slate, Texas largely looked the part of an elite team, blowing out Louisiana Tech and Rice — a somewhat notable feat given that Texas failed to overwhelm teams it should have in recent seasons — and trading haymakers with an LSU squad that’s now ranked No. 1, which, at the time, arguably inspired more confidence about what Texas could become this season. But once the conference slate got underway, the Longhorns have looked good, at best, and more often underwhelming throughout their three most recent outings.

The score suggested otherwise, but Texas was entirely overmatched and out-played in a 34-27 loss to then-No. 6 Oklahoma. The following week, the final score of 50-48 was enough evidence of just how pedestrian the Texas performance was in a last-second win over Kansas. But a win is a win and despite the disappointing showing, Texas still controlled its conference destiny.

That’s no longer the case.

Another week, another regression, as arguably the worst showing of junior quarterback Sam Ehlinger’s Longhorns career paved the way for Texas to fall to an unranked TCU team by double digits, 37-27.

Now, a mere two and a half weeks after entering the Red River Showdown ranked No. 11 nationally, needing just one win over the Sooners to cement themselves as the Big 12 headliner, the Longhorns have lost two of three contests and are no longer in the driver’s seat for a Big 12 Championship appearance.

Not all is lost, but it soon could be if Texas continues down what appears to be their current path and continues to lose.

ESPN’s FPI projects that to prove true two more times this season, with the metric pegging Texas as road underdogs against both Iowa State and No. 12 Baylor. But first, Texas must defend its home field against a Kansas State team that’s now 5-2 and ranked No. 22 nationally after upsetting then-No. 5 Oklahoma.

Simply put, the road ahead isn’t going to get any easier for the Horns. So, soon enough, we’ll learn how how long the Longhorns can keep their Big 12 title aspirations within reach.

To that end, despite the increasing sense of despair that seems to surround the program at this point, it’s worth noting that Texas’ goal of returning to the Big 12 title game is still quite attainable.

As far as the sheer path to Arlington in concerned, all Texas needs to do is win each of its final four games and pray to the college football gods that Oklahoma does the same. ESPN’s FPI anticipates the Sooners to take care of things on their end.

On the other hand, while the recent Texas outings don’t inspire much confidence, LSU and Oklahoma are now in the rearview, so the Longhorns will quite arguably arrive to each contest as the more talented team on paper. That should prove especially true with Texas set to re-incorporate an influx of talent in defensive back starters Caden Sterns, B.J. Foster, and Jalen Green, as well as likely key contributors in defensive back DeMarvion Overshown and running back Jordan Whittington, who has been sidelined since the second week of the season.

That collection of talent — as well as others not mentioned — missing more than their fair share of time is among the most notable reasons the Longhorns have regressed throughout the Big 12 slate. Said returning starters will certainly help as far as Texas’ secondary woes are concerned. Other concerns, such as some necessary schematic tweaks and the issues on special teams should be more fixable — should — especially with Texas entering another bye week with an opportunity to reset and resolve a few of its most damaging deficiencies.

It Texas can do exactly that, then every remaining game is winnable.

Again, while the Horns won’t be picked by many to run the table until Texas does show marked improved in the necessary areas, it also wouldn’t surprise too many if an excellently-timed bye week and the injury bug relenting a bit paved the way for the Longhorns to knock off a few teams most would have picked Texas to beat just a few weeks ago.