The Texas senior class has been through a Depression Era of sorts.
They may have eaten well in their first two years on campus, but the football rations were minimal. A pair of 5-7 seasons with no bowl appearances to start a college career doesn’t exactly add up to food for the soul.
Then 2018 happened. Tom Herman has delivered so far on his promise to turn things around and Texas defied most oddsmakers to finish with a 9-3 record despite dropping a second straight season opener to the Maryland Terrapins.
Saturday’s Big 12 championship represents a huge opportunity for a crew that has taken its lumps over the years. A win over Oklahoma would not only ruin the Sooners’ chances for a second straight appearance in the College Football Playoff but would also give Texas a berth in a major bowl game for the first time since the 2009 BCS title game loss to Alabama.
True leadership comes from within and this battle-tested senior class has made its own breaks and passed down some tough lessons to the younger Longhorns.
Defensive tackle Chris Nelson was one of the team leaders who spoke up after Texas took down Oklahoma 48-45 in the annual Red River showdown in October. The locker room was jumping, as should be expected when a team that has struggled mightily for years realizes it’s just beaten the most consistent program in the conference, not to mention its fiercest rival.
“We know how good they are,” Nelson said he told his teammates, “but get your minds right because we will see them again in the Big 12 (championship game).”
He was right. Now here’s where losing cultures can change. When a new coach takes over, the people most affected are the incoming seniors who have served their entire careers under a different leader. Those struggles were evident when Mack Brown departed after the 2013 season. Charlie Strong took over and went 6-7 in his first season that could have been better if not for some late-game gaffes. Strong never found his footing and was excused after a 16-21 finish after three seasons.
Herman took over and turned in a hugely important 7-6 winning season in his first year. He got the buy-in he was after and the result has been a two-win increase in the regular season with the possibility of two more wins in the postseason. The rebuild is off and running as a result and the seniors are one win away from improving to 27-23 over their four seasons, including a 3-2 edge over the Sooners.
“I have been through so much through the years,” said senior left guard Patrick Vahe. “Been through coaching changes, learning different schemes and understanding different things for each coach. The reason why I say it’s humbling is because I always have the same guys playing next to me, playing on the same field. It’s kind of something I am really grateful for, and everything I have been through.”
You can’t put a price tag on that kind of growth. The leadership shown this season by Vahe, Nelson, Jerrod Heard, Patrick Vahe, Andrew Beck and Charles Omenihu will trickle down to the others for years to come. And if they can figure out a way to beat the Sooners again and win a Fiesta or Sugar Bowl berth, that trickle will become a tidal wave in Austin.