TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Steve Sarkisian stood on the Alabama Crimson Tide logo as he conducted his postgame interview with ESPN’s Holly Rowe. From the northeast corner of the end zone, “SEC! SEC! SEC!” chants were bouncing off the walls of Bryant-Denny Stadium. The noise was coming from Texas fans, rejoicing in the program-legitimizing win everyone should have seen coming.
Texas 34, Alabama 24.
Quarterback Quinn Ewers stood behind his coach waiting for his turn to be interviewed. Smiling from ear to ear, he turned to a Texas state trooper who was on assignment to help the Longhorns return home safely. Ewers patted the officer on his chest and shared a quick word with him.
“It’s going to be a fun ride home, isn’t it?”
After his interview with Rowe, Ewers hugged receiver Xavier Worthy, and the two ran from midfield to the Texas fans. Players were flashing the “Hook ’Em Horns” hand signals, slapping hands with fans and hugging each other. This wasn’t a typical celebration you see after a hard-fought road win. Texas — and its fans — were celebrating like something changed. For the first time in years, the rest of the college football world will have to become comfortable with Texas being good. Not back, but legitimately good.
— Texas Football (@TexasFootball) September 10, 2023
This is no longer preseason hype. There is no more blind faith based solely on recruiting rankings. This was a complete victory by a complete team.
Even when Alabama took a 16-13 lead at the end of the third quarter, the temptation to sink back into the “here we go again” feeling was there. People in the press box were cracking jokes about how Texas was going to Texas. Instead, Alabama answered with 14 straight points in the span of 15 game seconds to knock Alabama down. Texas was the Goliath on that field, not the David.
A lot of that was Ewers and the unquestionable growth he illustrated — completing 24-of-38 passes for 349 yards and three touchdowns — but it was bigger than just the quarterback after a big win. This was a culture win that took the entire team. This was a Sarkisian-coached football team coming into one of the most hostile stadiums in the country expecting to win. This was a team that actually believed that it should win, not one trying to prove it was good enough to keep it close with the mighty Crimson Tide.
Does that sound like the Texas that has been the butt of everyone’s jokes for years?
Or is that progress?
Or is that a team that you’ll finally take seriously as a legitimate threat to make the College Football Playoff?
“I’ve been in that (Alabama) locker room. A lot of people walk into this stadium, the mystique of Alabama has them beat before the game kicks off,” Sarkisian said. “I had to make sure that our players understood that we’re good enough to come in here and get a win. But the moment doubt creeps in, that’s when you can start making the mistakes that can get you beat. I wanted to be clear with our players that it’s not about fearing them. We do respect them. But we were good enough to come here and win.”
Sarkisian has been a head coach for a decade and has failed to win 10 games in a season. This was his first win over a top-five opponent since 2009, improving his record to 2-7 in such games at stops at USC, Washington and Texas.
The Longhorns always have a ton of talent on their team but have inexplicably been unable to put it together. Last year, Texas played well enough at home to beat Alabama, but Ewers got injured and the Longhorns couldn’t get it done. Texas went on to drop a few more games in the Big 12 to inferior opponents en route to another underwhelming season.
There was plenty to doubt about this team. If you were hesitant to believe it before you saw it, that’s your prerogative.
But let this be a lesson that analysis isn’t just simply looking at what has been happening and assuming it’s going to happen again. Texas checks in at No. 6 in the latest edition of the 247Sports Team Talent Composite. It has the quarterback in Ewers, who proved he can throw the deep ball. He led two scoring drives in this game that were direct answers to Alabama points. He stood in the pocket, never flinched in the face of pressure and made most of the throws he was asked to make. That’s what you need out of your quarterback.
But that’s not all it was. It was a great performance from the offensive line, led by tackles Kelvin Banks and Christian Jones. Ewers wasn’t sacked. It was the way the defensive line constantly pressured Jalen Milroe, never letting the Alabama quarterback get comfortable as a passer. It was Texas’ entire defense, which made big-time tackles and delivered bone-crushing hits, playing the game at a speed that only the most supremely talented teams can play it at.
And, of course, now you have a head coach who has accomplished something. Sarkisian was masterful drawing up plays, whether it was the short passes to the flats that had Texas consistently gaining 5 yards or his ability to pick the right moment to hit Alabama over the top. It was the perfect type of aggression, too, going for it on fourth down when it was appropriate and kicking field goals when it made sense.
Texas came into Bryant-Denny Stadium and not only beat Alabama but handled the Crimson Tide physically. When Alabama punched back at the end of the third quarter and took the lead, Texas regained control and never faltered.
“We’ve put so much into the culture of this team,” Sarkisian said.
You could tell, and Sarkisian could have used his postgame news conference as a moment to bask in the glory and bite back at his critics. Instead, he spoke the truth.
“This game is not going to define our season,” Sarkisian said. “We have 10 more regular-season games to play. But it does serve as a good benchmark of who we can be as a team moving forward.”
There will be plenty of people who will make jokes about how Texas is probably going to lose to Kansas State or Texas Tech or Baylor. Many of you won’t believe that Texas is actually good. You’ll rely on “Alabama isn’t elite” takes and continue waiting for Sarkisian and this Texas team to fall flat on their faces.
Maybe Texas will fail. Maybe in some random week this season, the Horns will lose some dumb game in which they were favored by 17. That’s always viewed as an inevitability with this program. But I don’t believe that will happen this year.
What happened here in Tuscaloosa was different. It was the entire package from a well-rounded team that played like champions. At the very least, you can start to accept this Texas team as a legit contender on a national scale.
They didn’t win any conference championships or earn a College Football Playoff berth in Tuscaloosa, but maybe the Longhorns earned some of your respect.
(Photo of Jonathon Brooks: Photo by Kevin C. Cox / Getty Images)