The message was the same.
Throughout Charlie Strong’s 30-minute press conference Monday to discuss Saturday’s game against Kansas State, the vast majority of the questions concerned the 180-degree turn that Texas’ football season took over one weekend in Dallas. And on the direction it is headed next.
That’s the mystery.
Not even Strong is sure what kind of performances his team is going to deliver, but he’s hopeful.
Boiled down, the issues are these: So how does Texas avoid overconfidence? How does Strong guard against his team feeling too good about itself? Who are the real Longhorns?
It sure beat the line of questioning during most Mondays for the first five weeks of the season. Strong seemed as relieved and happy as he’s been in Austin in 22 months.
But it will take more than a big victory over Oklahoma to suspend the ludicrous national notion that Strong is over his head and also convince Longhorn Nation that Texas has turned the corner.
On the outside national perception that Texas is still a bad football team, Strong said, “You have to have courage to override everything said about you. You can’t let doubt creep in.”
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Senior cornerback Duke Thomas said he’s heard the whispering by classmates about the team, heard a professor here and there cracking on the Longhorns. “It’s annoying,” Thomas said.
But that’s also the nature of a season in which Texas has alternated between brilliant and blown-out. In between what-ifs and what-was-that, the Longhorns have to now show that they’ve grown up from the colossal collapses against Notre Dame and TCU and the near-misses versus Cal and Oklahoma State and show they can be a consistent team. They have to show they’ve grown up.
Which is why this Saturday’s game will be played between the ears.
What’s in the heads of this young team that’s had adulation heaped on it the last two weeks after a dominant, 24-17 win over then-10th-ranked Oklahoma? Will they believe the same clippings that infuriated them in September?
“Honestly, it’s just how crazy people can switch, how fast they can switch from ‘oh this and that’ to praising you and telling you how good you are,” senior wideout Marcus Johnson said. “It’s one of those things where you can’t get caught up in it.”
Johnson laughed when asked if Strong had employed a sports psychologist, but he and his teammates say the coach spends a lot of time cultivating the team’s mental approach to games.
Sure, the Longhorns were angry, coming off the 50-7 beatdown administered by TCU. But won’t Kansas State be just as mad after those same embarrassed Sooners humiliated the Wildcats in their own house?
That’s the consistent story line in college football these days. Very few are consistent, which is why a dozen or more teams are still in the running for CFP spots.
Texas isn’t one of them, but it will need a strong mental approach just to win at least four of its last six games and reach a bowl game. It can’t relax for a second, even if it does face a softer schedule of six opponents who are a collective 19-18. Of those, only Baylor (6-0) and Texas Tech (5-2) have winning records. The other four are a combined 8-16.
Not that it should matter to Texas. It can just as easily overlook an overmatched opponent as it can not prepare correctly for a great one.
“I think the fans want to see which is the real team and wonder if we won just because it’s OU and everybody tends to play hard in that game,” offensive guard Sedrick Flowers said. “People want to know is that a one-time deal or is that the team we are and can be?”
All are valid questions.
Strong certainly gets it. He put the huge win over OU to bed last week and focused on mistakes that needed cleaning up. Offensive line coach Joe Wickline, a harsh taskmaster, gave out OU grades to his players, and Flowers said “for the most part he gave us Cs. The high was a B.” Marcus Johnson spoke of redemption. Other staffers reminded the team of its record.
A 2-4 team is still a 2-4 team.
“We know where we’re still standing in the conference and with our overall record,” center Travis Doyle said. “And we know the caliber of team we can be.”
The players have to play up to that level. They have to forget OU ever happened the same way as they put TCU behind them. And they have to give their fans and their coaches something else to remember.