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Texas showing signs of the program Steve Sarkisian wants it to be

“Now’s not the time to relax, now’s not the time to take a step back. Now is the time to push even harder to go to a new level.”

NCAA Football: Alabama at Texas Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

How can a program feel better about itself after a loss? I mean, there’s no moral victories, right?

In nearly every instance, a coach will say that to be true, especially when you’re the head coach of the Texas Longhorns. At Texas, you’re expected to win. But wins haven’t been the easiest thing to come by in Austin as of late — just ask Steve Sarkisian’s predecessor, who would tell you “winning is hard.” The reality is for all of the glitz and glamour that comes with the burnt orange, Texas has largely been lost (quiet literally) for the past decade, searching for that version of itself that’s becoming more and more of a distant memory with each year.

On Saturday afternoon, with the perception of Texas having next to no chance to even remain competitive against the gold standard in college football — the then-No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide — the Longhorns looked the part of the program fans have long wanted it to be; the program Sark wants it to be.

“I thought our team played hard, played tough, overcame a lot of adversity today, continued to battle and fight,” Sark said during his post-game press conference. “That’s the best team in the country. In a weird way, we can kind of feel good about ourselves of where we’re at and the state of our program.”

“I’m so proud of our team,” Sark later added. “Let’s just call it like it is — nobody gave us a chance in this game… But we believed in our locker room we could go win this game and we played like a team that believed they could win this game, and we played like a team that thought they were going to win the game.”

Texas entered as a 20-point underdog, and being only one win removed from losing more than half of their games a season ago, the spread was plenty justifiable. The Horns and Tide traded early field goals to settle in amid a hot and hostile atmosphere, but on the first play of Alabama’s second drive, running back Jase McClellan exploded free for an 81-yard touchdown.

Between the opponent and the recent history in Austin, it was difficult not to feel like “here we go again, this is where Alabama is going to be Alabama and Texas will unravel as they did time and time again last season.” Instead, quarterback Quinn Ewers stepped up in the moment, picking the Alabama defense apart, chewing up 74 yards in just five plays — but of course, that fifth play was Ewers’ last after suffering a shoulder injury when Dallas Turner unnecessarily drove him into the ground, prompting a roughing the passer penalty in the process.

Texas running back Bijan Robinson crossed the goal line two plays later, but it felt — at least from my perspective with Ewers out and Alabama simply being Alabama — it was fun while it lasted.

The Longhorns, and the defense in particular, had other ideas.

Alabama didn’t score again until the fourth quarter, punting six straight times between scores while a hobbled Hudson Card helped Texas to a 16-10 lead. When Alabama responded with an 11-play touchdown drive to capture the lead, Texas followed it with a three-and-out, and you couldn’t help but wonder if this is when the Tide pulled away, as expected. Instead, Texas held tough in the trenches, forcing a turnover on down on a 4th and 1, and in crunch time, the offense took the lead right back with a field goal, 19-17.

We know how things ended in the final moments. It wasn’t the culture-building win Sark and his team wanted, but even in the loss, the culture change was clear. Sark has a vision of what Texas’ brand of football should look like, and it did on Saturday.

“I told the team, particularly the defense but the team in general, we’ve created a new standard of what’s acceptable, what is our standard of play. Now that’s what we’re held to. We’re held to the standard of defense that we’re playing now, and now we need to meet that standard and exceed that.

“Now’s not the time to relax, now’s not the time to take a step back,” Sark added. “Now is the time to push even harder to go to a new level.”

The standard Sarkisian is hoping his team set on Saturday is one the burnt orange nation has craved since the last time the Longhorns and Crimson Tide met in 2010. In many ways, they actually looked elite, especially defensively. In a moment that likely would have been too big for so many of the Texas teams of the past, Sark’s Longhorns were aggressive, disciplined, enthusiastic and energetic, tough, physical, and in some ways, even dominant.

Despite the opponent and all of the adversity that presented itself throughout the game, Texas looked like the team fans have wanted for more than a decade.

“I’m very appreciative of the crowd for supporting our guys at the end for our style of play and the way we played because I think we played Texas football today. But in the end it still stings,” Sarkisian said.

“The key to the drill is getting back on the horse tomorrow and getting right back to work,” Sark added.

To that point, that’s what will determine whether or not a new standard was truly set on Saturday. Texas was almost certainly a healthy Ewers and some egregious officiating away from a comfortable win over the top-ranked Tide — more simply put, it’s quite easy to envision how elite this team could potentially be.

But new standard being set doesn’t mean it will be met.

Did Texas simply get up for the occasion, or is this truly the program’s new standard?

With all earned respect and credit to Texas playing with no fear and even being the aggressor against a program so dominant, it’s often poked at with “We want Bama” chants and signs, it’s easy to get up for that kind of opponent in that kind of environment. Can they do the same next week against UTSA, and then against Texas Tech, and West Virginia?

Now favored in every remaining game can they replicate Saturday’s energy an effort and execution and so on when they aren’t playing with house money and have heightened expectations?

Sark said a new standard was set, and suddenly, things seem a bit different after Saturday. We’ll see if that proves to be true soon enough.

“To quote my old boss, we’ve got to be careful of the rat poison of people telling us how good we are. A week ago, everyone told us how bad we were, now this week everyone wants to tell us how good we are. We’ve got to be careful to quiet the noise outside of our building and focus on us, be enamored with us.”