Only a handful of games remain on the Texas Longhorns’ 2021 schedule — something that could serve as both good and bad news depending upon your emotional investment in the program. Now more than halfway through year one of the Steve Sarkisian era, the flashes of brilliance you’d expect to see from a team coached by a largely revered staff have been evident, but so have the growing pains that are to be expected in the first year under a new regime.
The result is a team that’s been remarkably close to being great, at least within the context of the Big 12, but yet, sits at 4-3 (2-2) following back-to-back losses to what’s now No. 4 Oklahoma and No. 15 Oklahoma State.
So, coming off a timely bye week ahead of the final five-game stretch, what’s the glass half-empty, half-full outlook on the season?
Bad news first.
Three halves of football ago, leading the Sooners 38-20 at halftime, Texas appeared primed to take control of the conference entering the season half of the season. Three halves of football later, Texas owns a two-game losing streak, sits in fifth place in the conference and is on the outside of the immediate Big 12 title picture looking in, and with some help from the bye week, hasn’t won a game in nearly a month.
To be sure, Sark wasn’t expected to have this program competing for a conference title in his first year, so that shouldn’t be the standard, even if it is a goal. So, the issue isn’t so much that Texas is 4-3 with losses to a potentially playoff-bound Sooners squad, per usual, and a better-than-expected Oklahoma State squad. The issue is that, for all intents and purposes, Texas should fairly easily be 6-1 with some room for error, but Sark’s Longhorns have completely collapsed in back-to-back games after owning double-digit leads — 21 over Oklahoma and 14 over Oklahoma State.
As of late, head coach Steve Sarkisian’s ‘All Gas, No Brakes’ motto only applies to the first half, it seems.
Much goes into that.
Since the loss to Oklahoma State, Sarkisian has cited issues including the staff’s need to make better second-half adjustments, the need to improve the psyche of the players and not allow one mistake or to become multiple and a swing of momentum — something that’s likely a hangover result from the previous regime — as well as the need to play a complete 60 minutes of football.
“Finishing games and winning those tight games like that, I think is somewhat contagious, because when you can do it once, you can do it twice, you start to build that confidence and belief in doing it,” Sark said.
But, of course, the aforementioned has prevented Texas from winning those tight games as of late, surrendering the kind of leads that help Tom Herman’s old adage, “winning is hard,” remain true today.
And, as least for the next couple weeks, things won’t get much easier.
Even at this point in the season, Texas is still shuffling bodies to find its best unit across an inconsistent offensive line that quite frankly just isn’t good enough. With Jordan Whittington sidelined with a clavicle injury, Sarkisian noted the need for more consistency out of a wide receiver room that’s essentially been a one-man show with Xavier Worthy. Each of these factors have led to some recent struggles from Casey Thompson, while defensively, none of Texas’ three levels have been as consistently impactful as they need to be to win at a high level.
All of this points to what Sarkisian identified as a need for his team to play more complementary football, with much of that recent blame falling on his offense. In the second half against Oklahoma, the offense went three-and-out four times, and the following week against Oklahoma State, Texas’ final six drives produced four straight three-and-outs, a turnover on downs after four plays, and an interception on the first play.
In real time, that translates to a Texas defense that held the OSU offense to just nine points through three quarters, but sacrificed 17 points as it wore down in the fourth quarter, spending 10:59 on the field for 27 snaps.
In short, it’s been ugly lately, watching what could be quickly unravel into what’s going on? But you know that.
This should be a good football team, but for too many reasons, it just hasn’t been. With respect to Louisiana, Texas has played three truly competitive opponents thus far — Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Oklahoma State — and lost each of those efforts in embarrassing fashion. And now, Texas is faced with back-to-back ranked road contests against No. 16 Baylor and No. 22 Iowa State.
So, it may very well get worse before it gets better.
Hypothetically, a Big 12 Championship appearance is still possible.
We’ll start there.
Unlikely, but technically possible. All Texas has to do is win out — not so hard, right? — and pray that Okie State drops one of its next four games against the conference’s bottom-feeders, and then loses to Oklahoma to cap the regular season.
Okay, it’s an especially unlikely outcome because it would require not one, but two unlikely outcomes to come to fruition. But who knows, maybe this story ends like 2018 when West Virginia gifted Texas a trip to Arlington behind back-to-back season-ending losses, including a 59-56 shootout against Oklahoma.
But, realistically speaking, let’s say the latter doesn’t happen and Texas simply takes care of its business from here on out, winning all five or four of five, as currently projected by ESPN’s FPI with the loss coming to Iowa State. That places Texas right on par with nearly every reasonable preseason expectation at 8-4 or 9-3 with a chance for 10 wins with a bowl game.
Would you bet the house on that happening? Absolutely not. But would you be surprised if it did? No, probably not.
After all, Sark’s offense has proven plenty capable of torturing defenses in spurts, thanks in large part to maybe college football’s best running back in Bijan Robinson — doing so for a full game has been the challenge. Elsewhere, while it’s far from a perfect product, Pete Kwiatkowski’s defense as a whole has shown gradual improvement and did its part during Texas losses if it weren’t for the offense refusing to give them any help worth writing home about.
Complementary football, as Sark said.
If the bye week proves to be a saving grace for Texas and suddenly, the second-half offense starts to hold up its end of the bargain, we could see a fairly formidable Texas team take the field in Waco, and in Ames and so on. This isn’t a Texas team that’s as talented as it should be, courtesy of a general lack of substantial development from the previous staff, but it’s one that’s more than talented enough to turn things around and address the issues most responsible for the last two losses.
“Our idea is if we trust our process and go through our process, we’ll get the results we want,” Sark said. “Whether that’s this week, two weeks, three weeks — whatever that is, end of the season.”
If that process leads to Texas beating No. 16 Baylor and then No. 16 Iowa State — something most would have agreed is more likely than not had Texas simply not imploded in recent weeks — then all that stands between Texas and 9-3 is a significant upset loss.
So, glass half full ... Three halves of football ago, all was very well in Austin. Four halves of football from now, things could be fairly close to the same if Texas is 6-3 with back-to-back ranked wins before closing the season on a much more manageable three-game stretch versus Kansas, West Virginia, and Kansas State.
“I think so many times in sports, we like to define a team by one moment or one game,” Sark said. “When in reality, the story is never really told until it’s complete.”