ARLINGTON -- The Texas Longhorns didn’t come to AT&T Stadium on Saturday for a participation ribbon. Texas walked into the Big 12 Championship game with the intention of winning its first Big 12 championship since 2009.
“We can find some positives in the fact that we got here from where we were last year,” offensive lineman Zach Shackelford said. “[But] we didn’t just come here to take part. We came here to win.”
Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be. Texas fell 39-27 against a buzzsaw of an Oklahoma team led by Heisman favorite Kyler Murray. But still, the Longhorns have plenty to learn from a season that ultimately was ahead of schedule.
There was noticeable progress in 2018. The Longhorns went 0-4 against ranked opponents in 2017 with three of the losses coming by fewer than 11 points. In 2018, that record improved to 4-2. The two losses were to a playoff-bound Oklahoma and in a wild one-point loss against No. 13 West Virginia.
“We learned that we can hang with anybody when we play well,” Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger said. “That’s going to give us a lot of confidence heading into the bowl game and heading into next year.”
Saturday was the first time in five years that Texas played in a late-season game with conference championship implications. It showed at times. The Longhorns allowed a late safety on a Sooner blitz that everyone missed. The defense pressed a little too hard at times and allowed Kyler Murray to break away for a few plays. Texas also cost itself big time with procedural penalties.
Texas is Texas. The Longhorns are supposed to contend for conference championships. Only Oklahoma has more Big 12 crowns than Texas’ three. However, it’s still rare for a coach to come in and immediately compete for this conference.
Put Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley aside. He took over an Oklahoma program that was already fully formed under head coach Bob Stoops. No second-year coach has finished top-two in the Big 12 since Bo Pelini at Nebraska in 2009. Pelini coached in a weak Big 12 North, not in a round robin format.
In the eight seasons since Pelini, the second-best team in the Big 12 has been led by a head coach that has averaged more than 13 years with their respective programs. That includes conference mainstays like Stoops, Bill Snyder and Gary Patterson.
The least experienced coach to lead their program to a second-place finish in the conference? Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy, who was in his sixth season in 2010. He spent four years as the assistant head coach in Stillwater before taking over.
Rebuilds don’t happen overnight. But two years after going 5-7, Herman seems to already be instilling his identity in Austin.
“Coach Herman has done an unbelievable job of bringing his culture in,” wide receiver Collin Johnson said. “The guys bought in and we’re sitting here at a championship game. We haven’t done that in a long time. Obviously, we fell short today, but there’s definitely positives.”
The Longhorns have another shot at redemption on New Year’s Day. Texas earned a New Year’s Six trip for the first time since 2009 and will face off against the University of Georgia for the first time since the 1980s. It’s a big opportunity to arrive on the national stage.
Two years ago, Texas was in the midst of its third losing season in three years. The Longhorns seemed miles away from every competing for the conference. Just two years into Herman’s tenure, the Longhorns are already back in the rankings and playing in meaningful games.
The matchup against Oklahoma on Saturday didn’t go well. But still, learning how to play in meaningful games is a skill. The more games this team plays in, the sooner Texas can win them.
“After the bowl game, I think we will do some reflection and be very proud of where we’ve come,” Texas coach Tom Herman said. “But there’s just not anytime for that right now. We’ve got a game to prepare for starting tomorrow. I do know that whenever we’re done with our bowl game, we will reflect on the season and realize truly just how much progress we have made.”
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