The Case For, Against Big 12 Dark Horses: Texas Longhorns
The very idea of considering Texas a dark horse contender is offensive to many or perhaps most Big 12 fans. First, you have the fans who say Texas is perennially overrated and shouldn’t be considered as a possible participant in the Big 12 title game until Texas proves that it’s worthy of such consideration on the field. Worse, you have Texas fans who are frankly insulted by the term “dark horse” because they feel Texas should always be considered a main contender.
As Aldous Huxley said, “There are things known and things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception.”
The truth between the doors to the perceptions Texas fans and other fans is the kernel of what makes preseason evaluations of the Longhorns so very difficult. Texas fans are right in that Texas always has the talent to be considered a legitimate contender, but the non-Texas fans are right too – Texas seems to be overrated every preseason, and as Pete Mundo recently pointed out, Texas has “finished second in the conference just once” since winning its third Big 12 title back in 2009.
Meanwhile, since 2009, Oklahoma State, Baylor, and TCU all won their first Big 12 titles, and K-State and Baylor each won a second, which gives the Cats and the Bears as many conference titles in the 21st Century as Texas. Worst of all for Texas fans, Oklahoma has won or shared in 14 conference titles since the turn of the century.
Thus, Texas seems like a special case when it comes to examining if they can stage a coup and reach the championship game in Arlington this season because it’s not a matter of whether the Horns have the pieces in place to do it; rather, the main questions entering each season seem to be all about what’s going on culturally and psychologically within the program.
What’s Right with Texas?
Texas is loaded with talent again entering the 2021 season despite having to replace some key players from the 2020 team, including quarterback Sam Ellinger, who often put Texas on his back last season and willed to the Longhorns to victory. The biggest potentially game-changing factor for the Longhorns is the new coaching staff led by head coach Steve Sarkisian.
Sarkisian’s rhetoric was spot-on during the recent Big 12 media days: “Recruiting rankings don’t win championships. You don’t get a ring for that.” This is a message that it seems every Texas player and fan needs to take to heart. Having a roster loaded with players who were highly rated as recruits isn’t what wins football games; neither does the logo on the side of the helmet.
However, having a roster full off guys who can play at high level certainly helps, and the competition Sarkisian has fostered will only sharpen this talent. The new spirit of competition in Austin was clear during Texas’ spring game, which was obviously a lot more meaningful than most spring games.
During this past spring game, Sarkisian had UT running trick plays, and the primary competitors for the starting quarterback job, Casey Thompson and Hudson Card, traded blows to the very end. Making the competition during the spring game even more intriguing, Thompson, the perceived frontrunner he threw a pick-six and struggled at times while Card displayed a laser cannon of an arm.
If the spring game was the deciding factor, Card would start the season behind center, but Sarkisian has stated that the competition will extend deep into fall camp, and this competition will only make both quarterbacks better. Whichever quarterback ultimately wins starting job, he’s going to be dangerous and worthy of taking the reins from Ellinger.
Longhorn Network commentary during the spring game noted that UT’s players excitement to play for Sarkisian and that many players stated they are having fun playing football again. This sounds extremely positive, especially in light of the message Sarkisian is apparently delivering in the locker room: championships are earned through hard work, not logos and recruiting rankings.
Given the right mentality of competitiveness and toughness, Texas has the players to win at a very high level. The offensive and defensive lines are two areas of particular strength, as is the running back position led by potential Heisman candidate, Bijan Robinson.
What’s Wrong with Texas?
As mentioned earlier, talent is never the problem with Texas; rather it has seemed for quite some time that Texas’ primary issue is between the ears. Many have noted Texas’ tendency to “play down” to “lesser” competition; however, I feel this a rather misleading way of saying that Texas doesn’t prepare equally well for all foes.
It’s not that Texas doesn’t play hard when Kansas comes to town; it’s that Texas doesn’t bother to prepare well for KU. Regardless of how much talent Texas has, the Big 12 is not a league where any you can have an off week on the practice field and expect the Longhorn logo to guarantee a blowout victory.
As Sun Tzu said, “Victorious warriors win first and then go to war.” Or, as Lou Holtz put it, “No one ever drowned in sweat.”
When the Big 12 announced recently that it will be calling taunting penalties against players who display the Horns-down hand sign to Texas players, it caused eyes to roll across Big 12 country, and, fair or not, pointed to perceived problem with the psychology of Texas teams. Bluntly, the perception is that Texas as a program seems to be so egotistical that its teams are psychologically fragile.
The argument here regarding the Horns-down penalty is that a psychologically healthy program would say, “if opposing teams want to go out of their way to us fire-up, good, thank you,” and lead the pushback against the specter of such ridiculous penalties being called.
Whether Texas’ problem has been, in fact, egotism and psychological fragility that comes from the weight of carrying an inflated ego, is not for me to judge. However, as the Jedi proverb goes, “overconfidence is the most dangerous form of carelessness,” and no Big 12 team in recent history has seemed more susceptible to this form of carelessness than Texas.
Can Texas crash the party in Arlington this year play for a Big 12 title? Some observers have picked the Horns to do just that while most have Texas pegged to finish third behind Oklahoma and Iowa State, but the answer must be yes, Texas has the legitimate potential to end the Big 12 season in Arlington playing for a conference title.
Whether Texas can get out of its own way and live up to its potential remains to be seen. Making it through the Big 12 grind is going to take more than lip service to daily preparation and the appropriate humility and drive such preparation requires.
It must also be noted that the Big 12 is loaded with teams beyond Oklahoma and Iowa State that are more than capable of knocking off the Horns, even if Texas’ mental game is on point. The Big 12 has more than its share of veteran quarterbacks, quality coaches, and rising defenses, so even Texas’ best shot may not be enough given it will be breaking in a new coaching staff and a new a quarterback.
Ultimately, I feel Texas’ success or lack thereof this season should be defined simply by whether Texas shows up truly prepared to play week after week, not just for the big games. As Bear Bryant said, “It’s not the will to win that matters – everyone has that. It’s the will to prepare to win that matters.”