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College Football

Texas Is Back! Definitely? Maybe!

1:27 PM EDT on September 10, 2023

TUSCALOOSA, ALABAMA - SEPTEMBER 09: Adonai Mitchell #5 of the Texas Longhorns celebrates with teammates after defeating the Alabama Crimson Tide 34-24 at Bryant-Denny Stadium on September 09, 2023 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Texas has been here before. The Longhorns—a storied college football powerhouse that claims four national titles, albeit none since a legendary Rose Bowl win in 2005—have been trying to climb back into national relevance for about a decade. From 2001 to 2009 Texas won at least 10 games every year, consistently played in major bowl games, and even played in one of the early BCS Championship games, a loss after the 2009 season to an ascendant Alabama. The very next season, the Longhorns notched a paltry five wins. Since then, and through several head coaches, the program has, minus one bright spot in 2018, mostly been spending time at the Alamo Bowl.

There have been moments where Texas seemed almost back. Sure, last year Texas played in the Alamo Bowl again (and lost), but their early-season loss to No. 1 Alabama came with 10 seconds left in the game on a field goal. The AP poll had the Longhorns ranked 11th this preseason. And this year, on the road, they were finally able to finish off that win over Alabama.

Yeah, Alabama’s FG at the end of the first half is shown twice in these highlights. I dunno why.

Quinn Ewers, hurt in last season’s game against the Crimson Tide, threw for 349 yards and two touchdowns, including multiple great throws on touchdown drives in the second half. Texas led 13-6 at the half but several drives ended empty handed. Then Alabama took a 16-13 lead on a Jalen Milroe touchdown pass to Jermaine Burton with a few seconds left in the quarter.

In prior seasons, this might be where the scoreline remained. But not this time. Texas took the lead not even a minute into the fourth quarter when Ewers hit tight end Ja'Tavion Sanders, watchlisted for the John Mackey Award, for a 50-yard gain. Then a quick slant to Adonai Mitchell—yes, that Adonai Mitchell, who transferred from Georgia to Texas—put them back ahead. They would stay in front for the rest of the game.

When Bama closed to within three, the QB who cut his mullet in the offseason calmly took the Longhorns down the field on a seven-play, 75-yard TD drive. He hit Jordan Whittington for 31 yards, then found Mitchell for a 39-yard touchdown that sealed the game. It was the program's first road win against an AP top-three team since 1969’s Game of the Century. “It’s definitely going to be a moment I'm going to remember forever,” Ewers said postgame. Texas will be a top-10 team when the new polls release. They could be a top-three team. Texas is back!

Well, maybe. This is not the first time Texas has seemed like it might be back only to falter under the weight of having to play an entire college football season. The Longhorns were ranked in the AP’s top 10 in 2020, 2019 and 2018. Only in 2018 did the Longhorns finish ranked in that poll’s top 10, and that came after a loss in the Big 12 title game to Oklahoma. They were not national championship contenders that year, either (they lost to fucking Maryland in their opening game).

This year seems different to a lot of people; they come in varying forms. Dennis Dodd, of CBS Sports, was cautious: “It’s damn close to ‘back.’” Yahoo Sports’ Jay Busbee said they were there already: “Texas is, most definitely, back.” The Athletic’s Ari Wasserman went even further: “For the first time in years, the rest of the college football world will have to become comfortable with Texas being good,” he wrote. “Not back, but legitimately good.”

“The Longhorns have plans of overtaking Alabama as the South’s preeminent college football superpower,” AL.com’s Joe Goodman wrote before the game. “A win at Alabama sure would put the Longhorns on that path and maybe even signal the beginning of the end for Nick Saban’s dynasty in the process.” After the game, he wrote it might be the end of the Saban dynasty.

This is the final season for Texas in the Big 12. The Longhorns will join Alabama in the SEC next year. The Longhorn Network is folding. College football’s mass realignment is putting the Longhorns in a new place. Is it possible coach Steve Sarkisian (who once worked for Saban at Alabama) really has Texas back in the national conversation? Next up for Texas are Wyoming, Baylor, and Kansas, which means that, on paper, Texas should be 5-0 heading into a rivalry game with Oklahoma the first weekend of October. Let’s check back then.

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