Unlike the Associated Press Top 25, Texas isn’t the only team with four losses to crack the College Football Playoff rankings, but the Longhorns come in at No. 23 on Tuesday, making them the highest-ranked club with a record of 7- 4. (Louisville is No. 25). Back in the CFP selection committee rankings after a 55-14 systematic destruction of bowl-eligible Kansas, Texas has a chance to finish by the committee for the second time since the introduction of the playoff format in 2014.
That’s one way to stamp the second season on the job for head coach Steve Sarkisian if a success and if it happens, it would mean the Longhorns will hit some other key markers along the way. If Texas (7-4, 5-3 Big 12) beat Baylor (6-5, 4-4) on Friday (11 a.m., ESPN), it will be only the program’s fourth regular season with eight or more wins since 2009 (eight in 2012 and 2013, nine in 2018) and would mark only the third time for the Longhorns to finish a season over .500 over .500 in Big 12 since the conference went to a 10-team configuration and round-robin schedule (7-2) in 2011 records in both 2013 and 2018).
The regular season finale with the Bears offers Texas a chance to keep their Big 12 title game hopes alive. A Longhorn win combined with Kansas (6-5, 3-5) to upset No. 12 Kansas State (8-3, 6-2) on the road Friday (7 p.m., FOX) would make the Longhorns ticket to AT&T Stadium for a date with No. 4 TCU (11-0, 8-0) and a chance to claim the program’s first conference championship since 2009.
For the third time since the program fell from grace, which started with a 5-7 campaign in 2010 on the heels of going 13-1, winning the Big 12 and playing for the BCS title, Texas goes into final week in of the regular season squarely in the conference championship picture.
Even if Texas doesn’t get a rematch with the Horned Frogs, beating Baylor and winning a bowl game to be determined would be a plus-4 reversal in the win column. That would be the biggest year-on-year increase in wins at the Forty Acres since Mack Brown’s side went 9-3 in its inaugural campaign in 1998 following John Mackovick’s 4-7 swan song in 1997.
Pointing out achievements like Sarkisian joining Darrel Royal and Ed Price as the only Longhorn coaches in the AP Poll era to win more games in their second season than their first, and Texas avoiding consecutive regular season losses for the first time since 2009 for the first time since 2009 won’t the kind of progress will satisfy anyone following the program. Nevertheless, Sarkisian pointed to the resilience his team has shown to recover from heavy losses as a sign of overall program growth in 2022.
“I’m really proud of our guys,” Sarkisian said at his weekly press conference Monday about the Longhorns accomplishing things like a five-game losing streak with a win over K-State on Nov. 5 and dominating the Jayhawks together at the line of scrimmage. the melody of a 427-130 rim in rushing yards. “To stack up road wins and play the style of football we’ve been playing – I think it’s a physical kind of football, I think you can feel our effort where we play the game, I think we play smart, so I’m proud of that guys.
While losses to Alabama, Texas Tech, Oklahoma State and TCU by a combined 18 points keep the Longhorns from deciding their own destiny in the Big 12 and possibly beyond, there’s no question that Sarkisian’s club is better than the 5-7 product from last season with both talent and player development serving as arrow pointing catalysts. Quinn Ewers has shown he can become Sarkisian’s franchise quarterback, Bijan Robinson enters what could be his final game at Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium as a candidate for national honors, Ja’Tavion Sanders (47 receptions for 512 yards and five touchdown catches) put up one of the best seasons in school history with a tight end, Kelvin Banks looks like a future first round NFL draft pick at left tackle and the progress made by the inside defensive line, Barry Sorrell on the edge and Jaylan Ford at linebacker, along with the offseason shuffling in secondary, has led to a season-long performance on defense that has seen the Longhorns improve dramatically in key statistic categories such as yards per game allowed (6.0 in 2021 to 5.0 this season), rushing yards per attempt allowed (5.1 to 3.4), and points allowed per game (31.1 to 20.6).
“You can always look back and play the ‘what if’ game,” Sarkisian said. “What if this game, what if that game plays into a few other ball games, but ultimately, the resilience our guys have shown, I’m very proud of that. I’m proud of their ability to stick together, to fight through some of the adversities we’ve faced. [The team] showed a lot of perseverance and a lot of pride putting on that jersey and that helmet every weekend. We have another chance to do that this weekend. Again, I’ve always challenged our guys [to understand] if you get good wins, that’s not the time to relax. Now is the time to dig deeper and sharpen with even more mental intensity.”
If Texas can successfully lead Sarkisian and dispatch Baylor, it could enter the postseason with a shot at the program’s third nine-win season in the past 12 years. As much as things have improved, any praise the Longhorns get will carry more weight if there is tangible evidence to show that the current regime is moving in the right direction, something that has not escaped Sarkisian’s attention as the Longhorns a game with a lot on the line.
“A lot to be proud of this season,” said Sarkisian, “but there’s more work to be done.”