Texas' future shines bright despite Sugar Bowl setback in New Orleans

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NEW ORLEANS – The Sugar Bowl loss to Washington showed Texas exactly how far it has come, and precisely where it needs to go. 

Steve Sarkisian inherited a program lacking enough offensive linemen to hold a spring game in the early days of 2021. He needed beef for the Longhorns to return to national prominence. A Texas team that struggled to bully opponents despite five-star talent and resources limped through 11 seasons between the 2009 Big 12 championship team and the arrival of Sarkisian. He went 5-7 in 2021 and 8-5 in 2022 as his program struggled to hold leads. 

Charlie Strong was 16-21 in three seasons at Texas following Mack Brown’s departure. Tom Herman was 32-18 in four seasons. Sarkisian was 13-12 in his two seasons. That included six straight losses in that maiden season on the Forty Acres with blown second-half leads against Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and Baylor. Texas lost in overtime at home to Kansas. Texas was 91-72 in the 13 seasons from 2010 through 2022 with a 61-54 mark against Big 12 teams in that timeframe. 

The glory days of Vince Young and Colt McCoy were disappearing in the rear-view mirror. Texas quarterback Quinn Ewers admitted during Sugar Bowl lead-in that he couldn’t remember the 2009 Rose Bowl loss to Alabama because he was only five years old. He was only two the last time his Longhorns won a national title. True freshman starters like running back C.J. Baxter and linebacker Anthony Hill weren’t born when Young glided into the Rose Bowl end zone for Texas’ only national championship since 1970. 

The visibly grey-bearded Young wears the truth about Texas football – it needed fresh faces. The Longhorns took a step towards building a new crop of stars for young Texas fans to cherish during the 12-2 season that snapped the Big 12 championship draught. They beat Alabama on the road in Week 2. T’Vondre Sweat won the Outland Trophy. The offensive line was one of the best in the country. 

The previous versions of Texas football faded at the first sign of adversity. Not anymore. This Texas team fought. And then they fought some more. The Longhorns trailed 31-21 at the end of the third quarter as Michael Penix Jr. bombed the secondary with precision pass after precision pass. But there was Texas, with the ball and within six points of the lead with under a minute left to go. Every time the Longhorns would’ve blinked in past big games, they bellowed. 

“This was indicative of the character that we have on this team and the men that we have in this locker room,” Sarkisian said after the game. “These guys are fighters. They never gave up hope and they believed, and that’s how you give yourself a chance in the end.” 

Texas lost this game for two reasons – pass defense and an inability to create pressure. The Longhorns entered the season with edge rusher as the biggest question mark. It ended the year with a leaky secondary, especially against the deep pass. Washington completed nine passes for 15 yards or more. Penix completed 29 of 38 attempts for 430 yards and two touchdowns. Texas didn’t record a sack in 39 pass attempts by the Huskies. 

Texas’ back seven on defense included three true freshmen in Hill at linebacker, Derek Williams at safety, and Malik Muhammad at cornerback. Free safety Michael Taaffe is a sophomore. Towards the end of the game, Texas had a secondary that included two true freshman and two sophomores. The only upperclassmen on the field was STAR Jahdae Barron. 

Texas’ leading sacker – Ethan Burke is a sophomore. Barryn Sorrell is a junior. Hill, a freshman, and Byron Murphy, a junior, finished with five sacks each. Justin Finkley is a sophomore. J’Mond Tapp is a redshirt freshman. Potential edge rushers Derion Gullette and Billy Walton signed in the 2023 class and earned rave reviews by Christian Jones during bowl prep. 

The good news is help is on the way. The Longhorns signed a five-star pass rusher in Duncanville’s Colin Simmons – the two-time Class 6A Division I championship game Defensive MVP – in December. Four-star cornerback Kobe Black and five-star safety Xavier Filsaime should add youthful energy in the secondary. Texas signed transfer edge Trey Moore from UTSA and safety Andrew Mukuba, who could replace Barron at the nickel spot, through the transfer portal. 

The future is bright in Austin. Texas is headed to the SEC for an anticipated 2024 season. The Longhorns renew rivalries with Texas A&M and Arkansas. They host Georgia. They travel to Michigan. There is always the Red River Rivalry. Next season is always the most anticipated one by the fan base, but that’s especially true heading into next year. 

The Longhorns could be instant title contenders in the SEC. No one would’ve reasonably assumed that when the move was announced between the 2021 and 2022 seasons. But with a win over this year’s SEC champ and so much talent on and headed towards the roster, Texas should enter next year as a top 10 team nationally that’s in the mix with Alabama and Georgia n a new-look power conference.

Sarkisian found his big humans. Texas controlled the run game offensively and were one of the best defensive lines in the nation throughout 2023. He’s also built toughness and grit in a locker room that used to be bashed for softness. He’s adding weapons with top five recruiting class after top five recruiting class. And he’s safe proofed his quarterback room with stars. If Quinn Ewers returns, playoff talk is guaranteed. If he doesn’t, the Longhorns start the Arch Manning era. 

Either way, get used to Texas talk. The Longhorns are back, even if they fell short in New Orleans. 

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