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Win over No. 11 Utah would give Texas much-needed momentum heading into offseason

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Texas might not be able to save its season, but the outlook entering the offseason looks much brighter with a win over Utah.

NCAA Football: Pac-12 Conference Championship-Oregon vs Utah Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Just days short of a year ago, a Sugar Bowl win over Georgia seemingly altered the trajectory of the Texas Longhorns football program for the better. Even without the win, Texas had enjoyed its most successful campaign since the 2000s, but the 28-21 victory over the No. 5 Bulldogs injected an overwhelming sense of confidence into the program — the kind that had quite simply been lacking since Texas routinely won those kinds of games.

Quarterback Sam Ehlinger so proudly proclaimed Texas’ rediscovered identity in the immediate aftermath of the win with the now-mocked announcement “We’re back!”

Seemingly innumerable feature stories for that quarterback and his Longhorns followed as Ehlinger graced on cover of a prominent magazine after another.

But then the 2019 campaign arrived and virtually every bit of that confidence and hype went unjustified. After entering the season as a heavy favorite to return to the Big 12 title game, and in the minds of some such as ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit, as a College Football Playoff dark horse, Texas slogged to a paltry 7-5 regular season finish, with the wheels largely falling off after the Red River Showdown marked the first of four losses in seven games.

Along the way, from both a confidence and competitive standpoint, Tom Herman’s team often looked nothing like the one that spent New Year’s Day celebrating a New Year’s Six bowl victory. Injuries and general inconsistencies impacted the competitive aspect, which in turn, saw Texas ultimately fall to 0-4 against ranked foes this season after enjoying a 5-2 effort in that regard last season. Bearing this reality in mind, it’s unsurprising that throughout much of the Big 12 slate, Texas rarely looked like the confident bunch that entered the season riding the momentum of a 10-win campaign.

There’s nothing to be done at this point that can quite equate to that high Texas found itself riding on Jan. 1, 2019, but with No. 11 Utah — a program that, much like Georgia, was on the cusp of a potential playoff appearance — now waiting in the wings, the Longhorns can at least salvage the tail end of their season, capture that staple victory that’s eluded them all season, and most notably, enter the 2020 offseason with some much-needed momentum.

“I do think the motivation, a lot of times, is two-fold,” Herman said while previewing Texas’ Alamo Bowl meeting with Utah. “One is for the senior class and to make sure that they go out their last game as a Texas Longhorn victorious, but also to propel some of those younger guys into the offseason and have some positivity as you head into winter conditioning.”

Not to mention, the fact that Texas will need to be near its very best to pull the upset over Utah could serve as added motivation. Despite some notable absences in the secondary, the Utes’ roster is abundant with all-conference talent, which has paved the way for Utah to rank as one of the nation’s very best in various key metrics, both offensively and defensively, including ranking No. 12 nationally in offensive efficiency and No. 5 in defensive efficiency.

It seems Texas may be preparing accordingly, as Ehlinger said this has been one of the Longhorns’ more crisp weeks of practice this season, per Orangebloods’ Anwar Richardson.

With a crisp week of practice, a focused Texas team has the talent on hand to compete with an even upset Utah, just as the Horns did last season against an elite-level Georgia squad that finished on the edge of the playoff picture. Texas isn’t currently expected to replicate that kind of success this time around, but if they don’t want that bad taste that is much of their 2019 season to carry over into the coming months, they may not have much of a choice.