Texas stopped chasing the ghost of being “back”. Now they can actually live up to the hype.

Photo by Paul Knight

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Forgive Texas fans if they resonate with Michael Scott in season four of "The Office" when Pam Beasley attempts to set him up with her landlord shortly after Michael's breakup.

"No question about it," Michael says. "I am ready to get hurt again."

The Longhorns are the state's premier team and sit No. 3 nationally in the AP Poll after dethroning Alabama in Tuscaloosa in Week Two and demolishing a wiltering Baylor team in Waco on Saturday. 

It's nearly impossible to find a weakness on this roster (save for fielding punts). Quinn Ewers has tossed nine touchdowns to zero interceptions, spreading the ball to two elite playmakers on the outside, Adonai Mitchell and Xavier Worthy. If they're somehow covered, he can dump it to his 6-foot-4-inch, 250-pound security blanket tight end, Ja'Tavion Sanders. Former Mr. Texas Football Jonathan Brooks has ascended into the feature back over the last two games and is spelled by five-star CJ Baxter. The defense has blanked teams to an average of 12.5 points per game behind Big 12 Preseason Defensive Player of the Year in Jaylan Ford, and a front seven that physically matched the mighty Crimson Tide has stuffed opponents to 87 rushing yards a game. 

The on-field product is so tantalizing it almost forces Texas's recent history, with all those baffling defeats that crushed fans' outsized hopes, out of mind. It's painful for fans to remember the five seasons in the last eight years that Texas found itself in the Top 15 before the Red River Rivalry. It's tough to acknowledge the one aspect of this program that's remained consistent, through three head coaches that yielded one double-digit win season, is misguided September hype. Except they're repeatedly forced to. 

Because for the Texas Longhorns, every win over a national brand is a chance to coronate the resurgence of a dynasty. It started in the 2016 season opener when Tyrone Swoopes lunged into the end zone to defeat No.10-ranked Notre Dame in double overtime, and Joe Tessitore first proclaimed, "Texas is back, folks!". Instead, Notre Dame proved to be a paper tiger with a 4–8 finish, and Charlie Strong got fired after a third-consecutive losing season. The meme skyrocketed after the 2018 Sugar Bowl when quarterback Sam Ehlinger, engulfed in the excitement of Texas's first New Year's Six bowl victory in a decade, leaned into Holly Rowe's mic and proclaimed, "Longhorn Nation, we're baaaaack!", only for Texas to crash back down to earth with an 8–5 record in 2019. 

Failing to achieve this "back" status has become so synonymous with Texas that we don't even realize the team is chasing a standard that only really ever existed in two decades of the program's 120+ year history. "Back" means Darrell Royal's three national titles in 1963, 1969 and 1970, or Mack Brown's 110–19 record and two national title appearances from 2000-09. It doesn't mean Tom Herman, who had the third-most wins in his first four years (32) of any coach in Texas history, and went 4–0 in bowl games.

But who cares? It's much more fun to carefully assemble the "Texas is Back" narrative to watch it blow up in flames by season's end. So, in the moments after the Longhorns toppled Alabama, Holly Rowe asked Quinn Ewers for the punchline.

"You know the whole world, the whole media, everybody is going to say something about Texas after this game," Rowe said. "What should it be?"

Ewers paused. In his third year as a college signal-caller, he'd achieved the statement game everyone expected of him since he was a junior in high school. He was six years old when Colt McCoy injured his shoulder in the 2009 BCS National Championship, sending Texas into a decades-long tailspin. The Texas program he's grown up watching has chased ghosts of glory days he doesn't remember.

He didn't fall into the trap those teams did.

"Nothing," Ewers told her. "We still got a lot of games to win. We're still going to roll, though." 

There are plenty of personnel arguments to be made about why Texas is a different team in 2023. After Herman signed just 10 four-star offensive linemen in five recruiting cycles, Sarkisian brought in eight in his first two recruiting cycles, including five-stars Kelvin Banks Jr. and DJ Campbell. The defensive line has three 300-pound game wreckers in Bryon Murphy II, T'Vondre Sweat and Alfred Collins. 

But the biggest reason Texas is different this season is that they haven't bought into the idea that they must live up to a myth. And if the guys in the locker room who carry that burden on their shoulders have stopped chasing the ghost, then the fans can, too. 

Lean into this team. Buy all the way in. Allow yourself to get hurt again.

Because if Texas does the damn thing, you'll wish you'd enjoyed every victory come season's end. You'll regret instead nervously anticipating the Longhorns to fall short of expectations heaped upon them by those who'll root against them no matter what.

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