I remember the first Longhorn game I was deeply invested in well (and bitterly). It was the 1978 Cotton Bowl, in which Notre Dame dismantled Earl Campbell’s squad 38–10. It was a disappointment I would learn to get used to. As a devoted fan, I’ve seen a few peaks since then—the “Shock the Nation” campaign of 1990, the tenures of Vince Young and Colt McCoy—but a whole lot more valleys: the 1984 Cotton Bowl (a 10–9 loss to the University of Georgia that cost the Longhorns a possible national championship) and a bevy of mediocre to bad seasons from Fred Akers, David McWilliams, John Mackovic, late-period Mack Brown, Charlie Strong, and last year’s rookie Tom Herman season.
But that was last season’s Herman. After Tuesday’s Sugar Bowl win over Georgia, I’ve been racking my brain to recall a victory that was (a) so sweet, (b) so unexpected, and (c) on a larger stage.
Yes, there was the inaugural Big 12 Conference Championship Game in 1996 against the then-mighty Nebraska Cornhuskers, who were twenty-point favorites over the unranked Longhorns. “Maybe we will beat them by twenty points,” said Texas quarterback James Brown in a pregame press conference. The media and even some Orangebloods scoffed. The Longhorns didn’t win by twenty, but they managed to beat the Huskers by ten, thanks in large part to John Mackovic’s epic fourth down gamble and Brown’s perfect execution of the roll left play of Longhorn lore. So that was very sweet and unexpected, but not on as big of a stage. And then that season ended on a 38–15 pasting at the hands of Penn State in the Fiesta Bowl.
The fact that USC was favored over Vince Young’s Longhorns in the 2006 Rose Bowl doesn’t compare—anyone who’d been following the Longhorns closely that year knew that Young wasn’t going to lose that game. Very sweet and on an even bigger stage, but totally not unexpected.
Charlie Strong’s victories over Oklahoma and Art Briles’s last Baylor squad were sweet and unexpected, as was Tom Herman’s victory over the Sooners in October, but hey, those were regular season games, or relatively tiny stages.
But the 2019 Sugar Bowl? This one checks all the boxes. It was Texas’s first appearance in a prestigious bowl since the Colt McCoy shoulder stinger fiasco of 2010, and their first victory in one of the same since the 2009 Fiesta Bowl. Georgia was favored to win by two scores, anywhere from 11 to 13 points. And yes, the taste of victory was very, very sweet. Here are five takeaways from the most epic winning upset for the Longhorns in my forty-plus years of fandom.
1. Sam Ehlinger is amazing
Let me don my Captain Obvious suit and cape for a moment and start with the quarterback. There is something mythic about him, from that famous picture of him as a savage-looking toddler in overalls flashing the double horns, to the heartrending story about the loss of his father, to his progression from exciting but error-prone freshman to a nearly flawless field general of a sophomore. His passing is vastly improved. He runs with the fearless authority of a 1960s fullback.
Last year, he seemed to combine Tim Tebow–like running with the most reckless qualities of Brett Favre as a passer, but this year he began to combine the best of both. Most importantly, as with peak Favre, his team feeds off his leadership and grit. A signal-caller like Ehlinger can raise the game of an entire offense by those intangibles alone, but his actual play elevates him to something legitimately fierce for opposing defenses to behold. There are already whispers of Heisman 2019 talk in the air, and Longhorn blogger Geoff Ketchum tweeted this a few hours ago:
Everyone needs to prepare themselves for 5,000,000 Sam Ehlinger/Tim Tebow direct comparisons for the next nine months.— Geoff Ketchum (@gkketch) January 2, 2019
(Guilty as charged, Ketch.)
There is destiny in the Sam Ehlinger story, a future 30 for 30 ESPN documentary. It is written: Watch and see. He is now well on track to having his bust carved on the Mount Rushmore of Longhorn quarterbacks.
2. We used graduate transfers effectively
For reasons too complicated to go into here, with rare exception, UT has seldom dipped into the well of graduate transfers to paper over holes in their rosters. Herman ignored that precedent and brought in two, both of whom were absolutely key to this team’s success in both the regular season and the Sugar Bowl. (A graduate transfer is a player who has completed his degree in four years but has a remaining fifth season of NCAA eligibility after redshirting in his first season.)
Most obviously, there was Cal-Berkeley graduate transfer Tre Watson, a smallish running back at 5’10, 195 pounds, but nevertheless one who almost always moved piles of defenders for a few extra yards. (His 91 yards on the ground last night constituted 19 more than Georgia’s vaunted rushing attack last night.)
No, he doesn’t have the moves and speed of Jamaal Charles or the bone-crushing power of Earl Campbell, but he has surprisingly powerful runs, good hands in the receiving game, and a willingness and ability to block (all of which might portend an NFL future).
And speaking of blocking, there is that other grad transfer, the former Rice Owl Calvin Anderson, who was the sort of left tackle you seldom noticed. Going unnoticed is the goal of every offensive lineman, because unless you make some spectacular block in the open field, the only time people pay attention to you is when you screw up. Anderson very seldom did all season long, and was the anchor of a line that gave Ehlinger more-than-occasional clean pockets from which to operate. (Which hasn’t been the case on the 40 for a decade or so.) Ask any quarterback—it helps when you have more than 1.5 seconds before four or five behemoths are in your face with bad intentions.
You can only imagine how Watson and Anderson must have felt when they lined up in the victory formation at the end of the game. Could they have imagined that, when they signed letters of intent to play at schools like Cal and Rice, just a few years later they would be in different uniforms, taking down an SEC powerhouse in one of the most historic and prestigious bowl games in the history of NCAA football?
Since they are graduate transfers, Herman only had them for one year, and they will be deeply missed. If Herman can find two more, or better yet three or four more like them for next year at areas of need, expect a duplication of this year’s success.
3. We need to thank Charlie Strong
There are some vociferous Longhorn message board posters who regard anything and everything about Charlie Strong’s tenure as an abject failure, but these guys are partially his team. It was his recruit, P. J. Locke III, who made a key interception. His recruits—Collin Johnson and Lil’Jordan Humphrey—stretched the Bulldog D, opening up running lanes for Watson and Ehlinger. Defensive tackle Chris Nelson clogged up the middle of the line as effectively as former Longhorn great Casey Hampton, and defensive back Kris Boyd played one of his better games of the season. Linebacker Anthony Wheeler had perhaps his finest game as a Longhorn. And then there is defensive end Charles Omenihu, who wrecked shop in the Georgia backfield all evening long.
Hate on Strong for his dismal record in terms of wins all you want, but give the man his due from stocking the larder with talent, and recall what little he was left with by his predecessor. But, of course, give Herman credit for making the most of what Strong left behind.
4. We’re baaa-aaa-ckkk
After the season-opening loss to Maryland and a near-loss to the Tulsa Hurricane, it was hard to look circle an easy win on the schedule. (Yours truly rashly opined that a 1–5 opening to the season might well be in the cards.) But then the Longhorns beat USC (who turned out to be, in technical terms, meh), TCU (likewise) and Kansas State in Manhattan. Is Texas back? Yes, they are, came the answer after they beat Oklahoma in Dallas. Or maybe not, after they eked out a win over Baylor and then dropped two straight to Oklahoma State and West Virginia. They seemed back again after handling Tech and a good Iowa State team, but then they were not back once more after squeaking by Kansas and losing to Oklahoma in the conference championship. (When Texas is not back, are they forth? My brain hurts.)
Now, after taking down number five Georgia, a team that almost certainly have been picked for the playoff over Notre Dame, Texas is again in BACK mode. Or make that BAAA-AAA-CKKK, as Ehlinger put it during the postgame festivities.
5. Next year is still uncertain, though
What’s up for next year? Well, that depends. Will receivers Lil’Jordan Humphrey and Collin Johnson stick around? For the second straight year, the defense is losing its best players at every level in linemen Chris Nelson and Charles Omenihu, linebacker Gary Johnson, and defensive back Kris Boyd. (As SB Nation’s Bill Connelly points out, eight of the top eleven tacklers on the Longhorn defense are seniors.) The offensive line loses three starters, and Tre Watson won’t be running behind them either. There are lots of holes to fill: juniors, underclassmen, and new recruits will need to be coached and conditioned up, and what rough patches remain will have to be spackled over with a transfer or two. The expectations for next year might exceed what’s on hand for Tom Herman and company. My personal opinion is that next year’s team is a viable contender for a Big 12 title and ten or eleven wins, but not a national championship by any means. 2020 is another story.
But for now, in the afterglow of last night’s win, with “The March Grandioso” still ringing in my head, the future is as bright as it’s been since 2010, the year the program went into hibernation. And the dang ol’ Maryland Terrapins are not on the schedule, even if LSU is.
On January 2, 2019, this story was updated to correct an error. The game played between the Texas Longhorns and the Georgia Bulldogs took place on Tuesday, January 1, 2019, and was called the Sugar Bowl. Texas Monthly regrets this error.