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Does Texas have a game this week? Wouldn't know it from Steve Sarkisian's press conference

Steve Sarkisian's final game-week press conference of his inaugural season was a perfect example of where this Texas program is at.

Consider this: the Longhorns are playing their final regular-season game in four days, and how many questions did he field Monday in his 30-plus minutes about Kansas State?

One question. At the very end, too.

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Does that mean Texas is looking past Kansas State? Hardly. It means the rest of us are. Fans, probably like the media, are already past this first season that's left the rails and are looking at 2022, from what Sarkisian has to do/thinks he has to do to fix this thing, to how many players or coaches are going to leave the program, to who'll be the quarterback.

Oh, his one Kansas State question? What's he think of Wildcats running back Deuce Vaughn, who looks like he'll be the eighth straight running back to put up 100 yards on Texas. Vaughn looks like "Duce Staley 2.0," Sarkisian said.

Texas coach Steve Sarkisian looks into the crowd at Milan Puskar Stadium after last Saturday's 31-23 loss to West Virginia in Morgantown, W. Va. The Longhorns' final game of the season is Friday; Sarkisian's first year will end with either a 5-7 or 4-8 record.

What's at stake on Friday, anyway?

Making a bowl game is out.

Even finishing with a winning season is out.

So what is there left to play for in Friday's season finale against Kansas State, anyway?

Sarkisian said there were four things: to finish strong, to send the seniors out with a win, to assure fans that the program is at least pointed in the right direction, and to send a message to everyone that 2022 will be different than 2021.

The narrative of his debut season at Texas will be that it was a losing season no matter what happens in Years 2, 3 or beyond. The further we move from it, the less we'll remember how frustratingly close the Longhorns were from a much, much better record. Football is, of course, a game of four quarters and the Longhorns' problem is they pretty much played at a winning level for only two of them.

More college football:No easy answers, no easy fixes for 4-7 Texas

"We had a really good team meeting last night," Sarkisian said. "I recognize that some of the narrative is that the sky is falling on the Forty Acres. We kind of went through it with the team, to think about we were ahead 41-23 against OU in the second half, we were ahead against Oklahoma State 24-13 in the second half, we were ahead against Baylor 21-10 in the second half, we start the second half against Iowa State up 7-3, we come all the way back down 35-14 and we're ahead 56-49 against Kansas, and last week we're down 28-23, we come back with the ball at the 28-yard line going in.

"So as bad as it looks, because you are what your record says you are, I wanted to make sure our players understood that we're still really close and let's not lose sight of that. Ideally we would love to play really well Friday and send a message to ourselves (1) of what we're capable of, (2) make sure we send the seniors off the right way, (3) let our fans know that we're building this the right way, and (4) that future opponents have something to look at for us in terms of what type of team they're gonna play next fall."

After Friday's game, Sarkisian will wear two hats: one as a head coach, talking to players and assistants about the season and their futures, another as a recruiter with a two-week window to woo recruits to sign in the early signing period in December.

Sarkisian does not think what's happened on the field this season will impact recruiting negatively. The Horns' 2022 class currently is the No. 7-rated group in the country per 247Sports' composite rankings.

"The ones that are considering, I think see the blueprint for what the potential can look like here by the way we're going about our business," he said. "A lot of times there are the kids that only look at the direct result of what a record could be or is, and the reality is we're in Year 1. Did it go exactly the way we wanted it to? No. If this was Year 4 and we had multiple losses and we weren't competing for a conference championship, then I would be really concerned. If I was in Year 4 of our program and I had three or four losses already right now and I've been banging this drum of where we're gonna be four years from now, and we're still not there, then I would be concerned. But we're in Year 1, we're in the building phase of where we're headed as a program."

Report card:How the Texas Longhorns graded out in their Big 12 road loss to West Virginia

Our own Cedric Golden wanted to know what Sarkisian's evaluation process looks like. The coach said they will be "full" evaluations, including how the player is doing in the weight room, what the player's position coach has to say, how the player is performing academically and socially, and then to identify specific areas for improvement. "Every guy is gonna be different," he said. "The sheet written up is very different for every player, but ultimately this is an all-encompassing developmental program. It's not just about the player, it's about the person, it's about the student, and when we can build up and develop all three of those areas, ultimately we get somebody who is a quality member of our football team."

Sark later was asked about just what gives him confidence in his defensive staff. "Experience," he said. "Great coaches, done it for a very long time at a high level. We've assembled a tremendous staff. Ultimately, they're aware, we're aware, we need to play better on that side of the ball."

Texas quarterback Hudson Card (1) quarterback Casey Thompson (11) speak during warm ups before the field before an NCAA college football game in Austin, Saturday, Sep., 18, 2021.

Casey Thompson or Hudson Card? 

Both Casey Thompson and Hudson Card are considered day to day with injuries, Sarkisian said. How that translates to who starts on Friday depends on how they both progress.

Sarkisian guessed that it'll be Thompson. He was 4 of 14 for 29 yards an an interception against West Virginia. Ben Ballard will be the third quarterback. Charles Wright also is out there.

That's for Friday. As for 2022, who knows? Sarkisian didn't sound overly confident — and perhaps not even overly interested — in the prospects that either quarterback would be back next season. Both were signed by Tom Herman, don't forget. Sark went hard after Quinn Ewers and is going hard now after Arch Manning. Maalik Murphy, a Californian, is committed for next year's class.

Sarkisian was asked about the possibility that one or both quarterbacks could go into the transfer portal. Anwar Richardson of Orangebloods asked him what his pitch would be to Thompson and Card, and whether he's confident that he could get both to return for 2022.

"I don't know," Sarkisian said. "At the end of the day, that's the era that we're in. We've created free agency in college football — without long-term contracts where guys are bound to them. I think every case and scenario is gonna be different, and not only are we trying to recruit those two guys to stay, we've got to recruit other players to come in because clearly, the situation we're in right now, we don't have the depth at that position that's needed moving forward."

What makes that trickier, he added, is that it's now so much easier for a player to leave. "Every guy wants to play," Sarkisian said. "There's only one ball, there's only one quarterback. Hopefully they believe in the development of the position and the way we do it."

After going 5-7 or 4-8, what's the one thing Texas has to fix?

That literally was the question Sarkisian got: "Is there an area in your program where no matter what happens on Friday, you can wake up on Saturday and say, 'I need to improve this right away, something specific in the program?'"

Sarkisian's first response? It was pretty spot-on. "It's hard to say one, I'll be honest with you, because I think there are some things that are pretty glaring."

But, he did identify three things:

  • Texas must find a way, "whether it's through scheme or personnel," to generate a pass rush.
  • The offensive line depth must get better. "That area is one of need," he said. Texas signed only two linemen in its 2021 class and so far has only two committed for 2022.
  • The Longhorns need to get healthy in time for spring football.

Texcetera

Friday's game will be senior day. This may or may not be the last game for some other Longhorns who have an extra season of eligibility if they want it because of the pandemic last year. Sarkisian said he spoke to players during the bye week and he urged them to not make any decisions until after the season — which is now just four days away. "After this ball game, I'll try to sit down with each and every one of them and try to do what's in their best interests and what's best for the program," he said. ... Sarkisian was asked what position groups he feels really good about. He pointed to the running backs. 

Friday's game kicks off at 11 a.m. Kansas State (7-4, 4-4) is tied for fourth in the Big 12 with Iowa State, but the Longhorns (4-7, 2-6) — who now are ahead of only Kansas in the conference standings, all alone in ninth place — are favored by 2 points. Texas has won four of the last five meetings, though four of the last five have been decided by six points or less. The Wildcats haven't won in Austin since 2011.