Way back in the second week of the 2023 college football season, when at least a dozen schools believed this would be their year of destiny—and long before we could have known that Steve Sarkisian had constructed one of the best teams in the land—the Texas Longhorns trailed the Alabama Crimson Tide by three points in the fourth quarter in Tuscaloosa.

We can now look back on that single quarter of football and see that this is when everything changed for Texas football. Or at least that’s when the change became apparent.

Sarkisian would later describe how his disappointing first two seasons as head coach at Texas had been part of a rebuilding process for a program that had slid out of the title conversation. Since the Longhorns’ 2009 trip to the national championship game, Texas had churned through four head coaches and got almost nothing for it, finishing a season ranked better than nineteenth in the Associated Press Top 25 just once.

This had been a stunning downward spiral for a school that considers itself one of college football’s blue-blood programs—an institution that lets the world know its pockets are the deepest, its facilities the snazziest, and its recruits the finest. Sarkisian arrived in 2021 as the next coach tasked with relighting the Longhorn flame since Mack Brown’s ouster in 2013. Sarkisian had taken an unusual path to one of the most high-profile coaching jobs in the country, having spent five seasons as the head coach at Washington and two at Southern California before being fired for drinking on the job in 2015. His career was in shambles when Alabama’s Nick Saban added him to the Crimson Tide coaching staff and gave Sarkisian a chance to reestablish his reputation.

UT athletic director Chris Del Conte hired Sarkisian in 2021 in a widely second-guessed decision that might turn out to be the defining move of his tenure. “I took this job with the mindset we’re going to go here and win championships,” Sarkisian recently told reporters. “I said that in the opening press conference. I said it to these [players] in my very first meeting. I’ve said it to them in some nicer ways. I’ve said it to them in other ways.”

But this fall in Tuscaloosa, with the Longhorns down three and the lukewarm outcomes in Sarkisian’s first two seasons, there was still plenty of doubt that the coach could improve the program’s fortunes. Texas had a combined record of 13–12 in his first two years on the job, and had opened his third with an uneven 37–10 victory over Rice. Now here they were in the Deep South, trailing 16–13 with almost all the 100,077 screaming fans expecting the home team to finish the job.

These are the kind of games Alabama has almost never lost since Saban took over as coach in 2007. For Texas, it seemed, the writing was on the wall. Only this time, it played out another way. Texas dominated Alabama in that fourth quarter, scoring 21 points on two 75-yard touchdown drives and one shorter drive after forcing a turnover. Texas won 34–24, and television cameras caught stunned Alabama fans as the Longhorns danced joyfully off their field.

After all the talk of building a new culture and establishing a team built on talent, toughness, and accountability, this was the first time that Sarkisian’s Longhorns had delivered. “A lot of people walk into the stadium, and the mystique of Alabama—they’re beat before the ball gets kicked off,” Sarkisian said that night. “I had to make sure that our players understood that we’re good enough to come in here and win.

“But the moment doubt creeps in,” he said, “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.”

Texas answered almost every other challenge on its way to a 12–1 record that landed them in the four-team College Football Playoff for the first time. The Longhorns will play Washington on New Year’s Day in the Sugar Bowl for a chance to take on the Alabama-Michigan winner for the national championship on January 8 in Houston.

Heading into the Playoff, the Longhorns look capable of beating anyone. Quarterback Quinn Ewers is every bit as good as he was advertised to be when he left Southlake Carroll High in the Dallas suburbs in 2021 before his senior season to collect buckets of NIL money at Ohio State. His decision to transfer back to his home state for the 2022 season has become the most important addition for the resurgent Longhorns.

After an inconsistent first season in Austin, Ewers rededicated himself to his craft and his conditioning, and his 21 touchdown passes and 70.5 percent completion percentage this season are at the center of an offense that has averaged 36 points and 476 yards per game. Texas returned all five of its offensive line starters from 2022, and with four- and five-star talent dotted up and down the roster, the Longhorns have looked unstoppable at times.

Wide receiver and return specialist Xavier Worthy might be the fastest player in college football, with 73 catches for 969 yards and five touchdowns. Four other Longhorns have at least 25 receptions, including Adonai Mitchell, who transferred from Georgia and caught ten scoring passes. When star running back Jonathon Brooks (1,139 yards and ten touchdowns) suffered a season-ending knee injury against TCU, freshman CJ Baxter and others filled in nicely. Defensively, it’s the same story. Linebacker Jaylan Ford and defensive tackle T’Vondre Sweat are two of the best in Longhorns history, but Texas has playmakers all over the field.

The one Texas hiccup was allowing Oklahoma to drive 75 yards late in the fourth quarter of the Longhorns’ lone defeat this season, a 34–30 Sooner victory. Otherwise, UT took care of business in the end game. Texas was tied with Houston in the fourth quarter before winning 31–24. They survived Kansas State 33–30 in overtime, and held on to beat TCU 29–26 after leading by twenty.

Texas finished the regular season with a 57–7 rout of Texas Tech, and then on Saturday in Arlington, UT won its first Big 12 Championship in fourteen years with a 49–21 beatdown of Oklahoma State. With Michigan, Washington and Florida State all unbeaten, style points mattered as the College Football Playoff committee picked its final four teams. In the end, it passed over 13–0 Florida State, which lost its Heisman candidate quarterback Jordan Travis to a season-ending injury in November, as Texas and Alabama received the final two semifinal berths.

“I told these guys to come out here and play like no one’s seen us play before,” Ewers said Saturday. “Show them what Texas football is really about. There’s no better feeling, honestly, especially for the guys who just dreamed of playing here and coming to their state. Accomplishing something to this magnitude has been just nothing but a blessing.”

He threw three of his four touchdown passes in the first quarter of the Big 12 title game and finished with a career-high 452 yards. Six different Longhorns caught at least three passes, but the highlight may have been his two-yard touchdown toss to Sweat, the 362-pound defensive tackle.

Sarkisian began the week by telling his players that Oklahoma State would test them in all sorts of ways, and that they had to respond in kind. “He didn’t want us coming out throwing jabs,” running back Keilan Robinson said. “We gotta come out throwing haymakers and uppercuts. We wanted to end it from the jump. And that’s what we did.”

Last month, as Texas closed in on its best season since 2009, Sarkisian gave reporters a detailed, five-minute breakdown of how the Longhorns have rebuilt the program’s culture since 2021. “Culture is organic,” he said. “It is not a sign up in your building. It’s not a T-shirt you wear. It’s not breaking the team down and saying, ‘Hey, culture on three.’ ”

He said it “manifests itself with the relationships that you build” and went through a checklist of qualities that teams with strong cultures possess: commitment, discipline, accountability, mental and physical toughness, love, vulnerability, and transparency. “I can’t just say those things,” he said. “We have to live those things, and then we have to have teachable moments along the way, A) to celebrate the guys that are doing those things, [and] B) point out when maybe we’re not.”

He continued, “who you are some of the time is who you are all of the time. And so if you want to be a disciplined football team when you take the field each weekend, you have to be disciplined when you’re off the field. How are we in school? How are we in community service? . . . That becomes your culture. Because that is who you are. That’s how we go about everyday life.”

Sarkisian said culture could be seen in some of the smallest things, like when former UT running backs Bijan Robinson and Roschon Johnson began tidying up meeting rooms after meetings. “When those guys were gone, the running backs [were] the ones that cleaned up the team room,” he said. “Now, when we break a team meeting, everybody looks around [to pick up after themselves].

“I know those sound like little things. But in the end, those are really big things to me, because that means that’s the way we’re thinking all of the time,” he said. “I think those actions and that behavior leads to the big victories, leads to first-and-goal on the five and your defense has got to get four stops, leads to third-and-twelve backed up on the road and you convert a first down. I think it leads to those guys counting on one another, relying on one another, because they’re doing the right things on a daily basis. And we’re not perfect and I don’t expect our guys to be perfect, but if they can be coachable on and off the field and they can learn from one another, then we will continue to grow and our culture will continue to grow. 

“But it takes being vulnerable,” Sarkisian said. “It takes being transparent with one another. It takes getting to know one another so that you can have some empathy for what a guy’s going through—not just on the field, but off the field.”   

“We invest a lot in that,” he said toward the end of the monologue. “And I think obviously, to me, it’s paying dividends. Because I think culture beats talent if your culture is really strong. Culture and talent together is a pretty powerful force. And that’s something that we’ve tried to create here.”

With a chance to compete for Texas’s first national championship since the 2005 season, Sarkisian’s investment in culture has paid off.