CHUCK CARLTON | DALLAS MORNING NEWS
Credit Sam Ehlinger with three rushing touchdowns against Georgia, an MVP performance in the Allstate Sugar Bowl and the most polarizing four-word soundbite of bowl season.
“Longhorn Nation, we’re baaaaaaack!” the Texas sophomore quarterback declared from the victory stand at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome late New Year’s night.
Expect those works to echo and stir debate throughout the offseason. Is Texas really and truly back as a national contender? Longhorn fans were embracing the notion of an Internet meme actually becoming a, you know, real thing.
Ehlinger also struck a historic chord.
After the Rose Bowl win over Michigan during the 2004 season, Vince Young had famously said, “We’ll be back,” delivered on his promise the next season at the same site against USC.
In case you missed it the, the College Football Playoff national championship game next season is Jan. 13, 2020 — at the Superdome.
Skeptics were quick to note that for all the feel-good atmosphere, Texas was still a four-loss team, including one of those against Maryland for the second season in a row. It’s still a team that sometimes look ugly, even in wins.
Also Georgia may or may not have been totally focused on the Sugar Bowl, depending on whether or not you believe their Twitter feeds. Based on message board posts, large chunks of angry Texas A&M fans wanted to excommunicate Georgia from the SEC for the bowl performance.
Georgia coach Kirby Smart refused to use a CFP snub as an excuse.
“Our team was motivated to play Texas,” Smart said. “Texas outplayed us, outcompeted us. They outcoached us. They out physicaled us.”
But the biggest stumbling block for a Texas climb back to the top of the college football playoff might be the two schools playing for the national title on Monday, Alabama and Clemson. The gap between those two and everybody else looks more like a chasm after the CFP semifinals.
Late in his postgame press conference, Herman was questioned about challenging those two.
“They’ve got a pretty good head start on everybody, I can tell you that,” Herman said. “It’s going to take multiple years of recruiting classes like they’ve had in the last half decade or so. And then it’s going to take the development of those great players. And we feel like we’re on track, having been at this program for a couple years.
“We’ve recruited really well. We’ve developed really well. I think we’ve got the best strength coach (Yancy McKnight) and strength program in America. So I think we’re going to need to continue to recruit at that elite level. And once we get them here, we’ve got to develop them at an elite level like those programs.”
Texas has a great building block in the gritty Ehlinger, who might generate some preseason Heisman buzz but has holes to fill. Much rides on top receivers Lil’Jordan Humphrey and Collin Johnson, who each are mulling entering the NFL draft, with Jordan reportedly projected to go in the third to sixth round. Three starting offensive linemen depart, although redshirt freshman Sam Cosmi developed rapidly at right tackle.
After crafting an impressive game plan against Georgia, defensive coordinator Todd Orlando will have to replace three starting defensive linemen, two linebackers and both starting cornerbacks. Freshman B.J. Foster, part of a heralded 2018 defensive back class that also included standout Caden Sterns, was a force against Georgia and will demand more playing time.
Texas will get a chance early next season to see how much progress it’s made. LSU visits Austin in Week 2 in what could be a top 10 matchup.
So is Texas back? Herman noted the Big 12 title game loss to Oklahoma and the work remaining.
“It left a really bad taste in our mouth,” Herman said. “So the good thing is there’s still a lot for this program to achieve, mainly winning our conference title.
“But to beat such a quality opponent like that the way that we did it and to do it on this kind of stage in the Sugar Bowl certainly leads me to believe that we’re headed in the right direction.”