NEW ORLEANS — Texas fans had a certain laissez-faire attitude toward the Texas Bowl last year. Win, lose, whatever. It was just the Texas Bowl.
But for the Longhorns themselves, it was rather significant. By “securing the bag” with a 33-16 win over Missouri, Texas snapped a three-year streak of losing seasons. They finished 7-6, allowing the Horns to call themselves winners again. It launched Tom Herman’s program into 2018.
In terms of gauging Herman’s progress, the Sugar Bowl means just as much now as the Texas Bowl did then. Tuesday’s game against No. 5 Georgia (11-2) is a legitimizing moment for 15th-ranked Texas, a 9-4 team listed as a double-digit underdog.
A win on New Year’s Day would be practically a supersonic rocket launch into 2019.
“Yeah, I think so. If you’re measuring the trajectory of our program, the answer is yes,” Herman said Monday under the klieg lights in a Marriott ballroom. “This is another very important step. Winning it would certainly be even bigger.”
Texas athletic director Chris Del Conte said the school sold its allotment of 15,000 tickets. The Superdome holds 72,500. Secondary ticket marketers have indicated UT fans have been more active than Georgia fans. “Pretty fired up,” Del Conte said of the burnt-orange fan base.
Fans are anxious to be among the national elite again. With a win, Texas would secure its first 10-win season since 2009. The Longhorns would be knocking off a team many feel should’ve made the College Football Playoff. That’s just for starters.
“Winning 10 games in the season, that’s the standard for Texas and that’s always been the standard,” receiver Lil’Jordan Humphrey said. “We’ve been off in previous years, but I do think that’s the standard.”
With a win, Texas would be an sure top-10 team in the 2019 preseason polls. Quarterback Sam Ehlinger would automatically become an early Heisman Trophy contender.
“If this is the step we need to take to move ourselves forward like the Texas Bowl did last year, then that is pretty logical,” Ehlinger said. “That kind of makes sense.”
A loss would not mean total despair. In Mack Brown’s second year at UT in 1999, the Longhorns went 9-5 and lost the Big 12 title game and then the Cotton Bowl. Texas went 9-3 the following year in 2000, and then had nine straight years of double-digit winning seasons.
Given that, a win over Georgia moves Herman ahead of Brown’s rebuilding pace.
Whatever the outcome, this game marks a terrific finish for UT’s senior class, a group that endured two 5-7 seasons and is ending with a New Year’s Six bowl. In 2015 and 2016, then-coach Charlie Strong pleaded with others just to reach a bowl. Now, these 26 seniors — including 12 graduates — can finish on top.
“I think for this senior class,” senior tight end Andrew Beck said, “looking at where we started when we got here to where we are now, I do think this is a legitimizing moment for this program.”
Said Herman: “It’s indescribable how rewarding it is.”
It’s not going to be easy. Not by a long shot.
Georgia players truly believe their program was snubbed by the CFP selection committee. Is Georgia truly one of the best four teams in college football? Die-hard Dawgs fans would say yes given how Clemson obliterated Notre Dame in one semifinal. Of course, Georgia is better than Oklahoma, they’ll tell you.
Asked if his team is one of the four best, Georgia running back D’Andre Swift said, “Most definitely.”
It does appear the Bulldogs can compartmentalize things. Their players showered real respect for the Longhorns, not the stereotypical fake niceties you hear at these events.
Georgia’s offensive players spoke in glowing terms about UT’s physical defense. Their defensive players know it’ll be difficult stopping 6-6 Collin Johnson and 6-4 Humphrey. Georgia is without Thorpe Award winner Deandre Baker, who is skipping the game to protect his NFL draft status. Several others are playing through injuries.
“The guy that just walked out of here, Tom Herman, I’ve had immense respect for, for a long time,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said Monday. “I know the standard that he has. I know the way they practice. I know the leadership qualities he has, and I know the recruiting base he has.”
Smart said the Bulldogs are up against a “very, very, very respectable opponent.”
As for the matchup, the game may be decided on third downs. Texas ranks 18th nationally in third-down conversions (46.3 percent) while Georgia’s defense ranks 18th in stopping teams on third down (32.6 percent).
The Bulldogs want to run the ball with Swift and Elijah Holyfield in true SEC fashion. Swift has 1,037 rushing yards while Holyfield has 956. These guys eat up the clock and pile on the points, averaging 39.2 per game.
“They’re a zone (blocking) team, so they can get that wave rolling on you and they can gobble you up,” UT defensive coordinator Todd Orlando said.
The Horns relish the underdog status. And they’re fine with everyone bowing to the aura of the SEC.
“To y’all it’s a big game, but that’s the thing about it. We look at it as the same,” UT’s Malcolm Roach said. “We got ready or the Texas Bowl the same way. We got ready for USC the same way. We got ready for Tulsa the same way. We got ready for Maryland the same way and so on.”
Ehlinger said flat-out that Georgia is “an elite team.” Georgia players were impressed by his toughness, and they were practically begging Ehlinger to lower his shoulder and run hard in the Superdome.
“Winning this game would put us in a position to understand that next year, we have the ability to do whatever we want to do as we continue to play and work every day like we have this season,” the quarterback said.
Texas is so far beyond the days of botched coin flips, embarrassing special teams plays and losing to Kansas, it’s practically indescribable. This arrow is pointed up.
Now comes a measuring-stick moment. Just how up is up?
“I know we haven’t been to a bowl game like this in a long time, so Texas is definitely headed in the right direction,” Johnson said. “I’m proud to be a part of it, and I’m proud to go out and compete on Tuesday.”
Contact Brian Davis at 512-445-3957. Email email@example.com.