University of Texas fans hung around the Cotton Bowl until the very end on Saturday, soaking in every last laser throw from this new kid playing quarterback for the Longhorns, this new kid who looks like he could be as good as advertised and who in one afternoon infused an entire program with the kind of optimism that calls back to the days when the Longhorns were one of the programs every other college football team measured itself against.

Quinn Ewers threw four touchdown passes in a 49–0 beatdown of the Sooners and showed off a lightning-quick release, a flick of the wrist that may remind some of Patrick Mahomes. Whoa! Pump the brakes on the comparisons to likely Hall of Famers, right? No way. What fun is college football without a completely over-the-top reaction after a big win?

Ewers’s first touchdown, a ten-yarder to Xavier Worthy early in the second quarter, was a thing of beauty, a tight spiral thrown between defenders and into his receiver’s hands. This is not a throw many quarterbacks will even attempt. That Ewers flung it without hesitation speaks volumes about his confidence, which can be contagious in a way that reaches every corner of the locker room.

Before halftime, Ewers threw two more scoring passes to extend the Longhorns’ lead to 28–0. First, he dumped a 15-yarder to running back Keilan Robinson, and that was followed by a 24-yarder lofted just beyond two OU defenders to Ja’Tavion Sanders.

He led touchdown drives of 90, 92, and 80 yards in the first half, and at one stretch completed twelve of fourteen throws as the Longhorns crushed a diminished OU program that was coming off a 31-point loss to TCU and has not recovered from former head coach Lincoln Riley’s abrupt departure for USC (along with a chunk of the roster) at the end of last season.

Even with the caveats about the state of Oklahoma Sooners football, the Longhorns’ performance felt different from anything Texas fans had seen from their team in years. It represented hope for a program that exited the national stage more than a decade ago and at times seemed to have lost the way back.

There’s no position in sports quite like quarterback. In the team game where cohesive strategy and execution matter most, the signal-caller is the lone player whose greatness can mask all sorts of deficiencies in other areas. It’s the position that can make an entire program believe in itself. That’s what Texas has been missing. As the past four Texas head coaches raked in four- and five-star running backs and wide receivers and tight ends, they were unable to find the right athlete to play under center. Ewers, projected to be the number one high school player in the country last year, before he left high school to spend a redshirt freshman season at Ohio State, may be the most significant Texas player since Colt McCoy—and before him, Vince Young.

To even breathe the name of those two Longhorn quarterbacks, who went a combined 75–10 from 2003 through 2009, who led UT to one national championship and played for another, and who notched wins in Rose Bowl and Fiesta Bowl games and lots more, is probably a step too far for some.

All that success seemed to go up in smoke the moment an injured McCoy trotted off the field early in the 2010 national championship game against Alabama. In twelve seasons since, Texas has cycled through several head coaches and an assortment of quarterbacks to try to recapture what was lost that day. Over that span, the Longhorns have finished their season ranked higher than nineteenth in the Associated Press Top 25 only once, in 2018.

That season, then head coach Tom Herman appeared to have gotten the train back on track. Then Texas lost eight games over the next two seasons, Herman was relieved of his duties, and the Longhorns’ descent into mediocrity extended through last season, coach Steve Sarkisian’s first on the job. That debut campaign was nothing to write home about—a 5–7 finish that included a historic six-game losing streak along the way.

And then a quarterback arrived on the Forty Acres: Ewers, with his name, image, and likeness (NIL) millions and his baby face and whisper of a voice and a long, flowing mullet that will make him one of the most recognizable players in college football.

What happens to a college football program when it can surround the nation’s best running back, Bijan Robinson, with multiple NFL-caliber wide receivers and a quarterback capable of making the whole thing go? An offense like we saw on Saturday, including Robinson’s 130 rushing yards and two touchdowns.

Does that mean Texas is back? Could it be? This year’s roster may or may not have more overall talent than those groups that won all those accolades and finished five seasons ranked in the AP poll’s top five in the middle and late aughts. What drove those teams was the leadership, production, and intangibles of quarterbacks Young and McCoy.

Is Ewers on their level? The heralded quarterback transferred to Texas to prove it. After taking only two snaps at Ohio State last year and spending the rest of the season getting practice reps as a redshirt, he decided to join the Longhorns rather than spend another year stuck behind projected number one NFL draft pick C.J. Stroud on the Buckeyes’ depth chart. “I’m grateful for the opportunity [Sarkisian] gave me,” Ewers said after the Oklahoma win. “To finally play in this game is really exciting for me. Growing up a fan, I always wanted to play in this one, so it’s pretty special.”

The quarterback hadn’t thrown a pass in a game in nearly two years when the Longhorns beat the University of Louisiana at Monroe 52–10 in this season’s opener. Ewers was solid in that game, but he also showed some rust, missing wide-open receivers on a handful of plays that were magnified, considering the expectations.

That was a warm-up for top-ranked Alabama, which came to Austin a week later. At the start of that game, Ewers was excellent, completing nine of twelve passes until an Alabama defender drove his right shoulder into the ground early in the second quarter. Ewers suffered a sprained clavicle, and early estimates were that he would miss four to six weeks. His replacement, Hudson Card, led the Longhorns to victories over UTSA and West Virginia sandwiched around an overtime loss to Texas Tech.

“It’s hard to say what I thought—if I felt like I would be rusty or not,” Ewers told reporters after returning to the field Saturday. “What was going through my mind was really just, ‘It’s time to go,’ and that’s pretty much it.”

Sarkisian added: “The hardest part about not playing at quarterback is not the physical part, but it’s the mental part and the nuances in our system. We change tempos quite a bit. We huddle, we shift, we motion, and we go fast. We do a lot of different things that don’t seem like much outside. But in our world, they are a big deal. Those the hardest things to get mastered when you’re coming back”

With two losses already, Texas is almost certainly not going to the College Football Playoff this season, but winning its first Big 12 championship since 2009 suddenly seems on the table. “In the end, we played a really complete football game,” Sarkisian said. “I felt like [at] all three phases, guys executed at a high level. The result was the result. . . . You never know the path exactly that you’re going to go on. You’re always looking for [a] positive trajectory. You’re always looking for your program taking the necessary steps. The hard part is the outside world looks at wins and losses. . . . We look at it every day. I see these guys every day. I see the way they work in the weight room, I see the way the work they put in [work] in the off-season conditioning program. I see the attention to detail at practice. I see the competitiveness and the physicality in practice.”

Now the 4–2 Texas Longhorns will face a different kind of test as they prepare to host Iowa State in Austin on Saturday. Can the Longhorns deal with success? That’s something they don’t know about themselves, since there’s been so little of it since Sarkisian’s arrival.

“You get a great win like this,” wide receiver Jordan Whittington said, “you want to build on it.”