The University of Texas played with such toughness, confidence, and poise on Saturday that the national story line was low-hanging fruit. This was a level of play the Longhorns hadn’t reached very often in the past dozen seasons, a level that’ll remind some UT faithful of former coach Mack Brown’s best days on the Forty Acres.

Never mind that one close loss doesn’t erase all the mediocrity in the program’s recent history, and that there are still questions about UT’s ability to sustain success. Or even if a close loss qualifies as success. Texas football has been so pitiful that fans should have learned a thing or two about overreacting to one impressive performance. But old habits die hard, and the true believers have been celebrating the Longhorns’ 20–19 loss to Alabama as if Vince Young had just taken it to the house against USC. Isn’t that why we love this stuff?

The Longhorns, twenty-point underdogs against the top-ranked team in the nation, pushed the Crimson Tide to the edge in the 100-plus-degree heat of Austin’s Darrell K Royal–Texas Memorial Stadium. Saturday had the makings of a magical day, with students lining up at 5 a.m. to get into the game. The gates opened three hours before the 11 a.m. kickoff, and the 14,000-seat student section filled quickly. If this wasn’t the loudest crowd ever for a Longhorns home game, it was plenty good enough. The team responded nicely, and the Longhorns got a standing ovation from the 105,213 in attendance after the loss.

After all the contests in recent years that have highlighted the problems with UT football, Saturday’s result delivered a different kind of message. Maybe, just maybe, possibly, who the heck knows, this is a first step back toward respectability. “Let’s just call it like it is—nobody gave us a chance in this game,” Texas coach Sarkisian said defiantly. “None of you [state media]. None of the national media. . . . But we believed in our locker room that we could go win this game. And we played like a team that believed they could win this game.”

In another era of Texas football, victory laps were for—checks notes—victories. Now the Longhorns take their wins where they can find them. “I don’t look at this as, you know, ‘We lost,’ ” Sarkisian said. “We ran out of time.”

Okay, deep breath, coach. But after Sarkisian led UT to a 5–7 record in his first season, he earned the right to take pride in the way his team finally looked like—well, a team.

And then it happened. The Aggies stole the Texas thunder. Before the UT boosters would have had time to finish their scotch, steaks, and moral-victory backslapping, the news started trickling in from College Station. On the best day Longhorns football has had in a long while, Texas A&M found a creative way to hijack the narrative. Instead of an entire nation of football fans nodding knowingly and uttering three magic words—Texas is back!—the Aggies undermined the tea-sips in both the happiest and cruelest way possible. They lost.

Coach Jimbo Fisher’s sixth-ranked Aggies went out and got dominated by Appalachian State. Amid all the Aggie strutting over Jimbo taking A&M to the promised land, the team still hasn’t even reached the College Football Playoff, and Saturday’s shocking upset probably means 2022 won’t be its year either.

This season—Fisher’s fifth in College Station—was supposed to be different. Instead, this: Appalachian State 17, Texas A&M 14. The Houston Chronicle’s Brent Zwerneman called it “one of the biggest humiliations in history on [A&M’s] home field.” The Athletic’s Sam Khan Jr. pointed out that Fisher’s record (35–15) is no better than that of his predecessor, Kevin Sumlin, at the same point (36–14) in their respective tenures.

Aggies should not even think of going down that road. Firing Sumlin, Mike Sherman, and Dennis Franchione was one thing. To fire Fisher would cost around $95.6 million, according to USA Today.

If 17–14 doesn’t sound that bad, it was. A&M’s loss was a physical and mental beatdown. App State had the football for 41 minutes, 29 seconds. The Aggies had it for 18 minutes, 17 seconds. App State ran 82 plays, the Aggies 38. The Aggies, with all those dazzling recruiting classes, mustered 186 yards of offense and turned the ball over twice.

A&M quarterback Haynes King had a tough day, completing 13 of 20 passes for just 97 yards. But Fisher, either because he’s stubborn or because he knows something about his other quarterback options that the public doesn’t, stuck with his starter through an afternoon of missed receivers and booing fans.

Fisher put the proper spin on the loss, saying: “It’s one day. Depends on what we do. How we accept this and what we do from here and how the things will go forward. And we still have a chance to have a very good football team.” But Saturday was supposed to be a relatively easy win, the final warm-up before a brutal stretch of games that begins next Saturday when thirteenth-ranked Miami visits Kyle Field. If that one goes south, things will get ugly.

As for Texas, never mind that Alabama got the win. Never mind that Alabama looked beyond inept by being flagged for fifteen penalties and struggling to crack a Texas defense that held the Crimson Tide to five consecutive possessions without a first down during one stretch of the second and third quarters. After the game, Alabama coach Nick Saban channeled a combination of fury at his team’s play and relief that it hadn’t been worse. Sarkisian, on the other hand, held court almost as if he were the winning coach—but allowing himself and his team to bask for too long in the satisfaction of a hard-fought loss could turn out to be a huge mistake. 

Alabama’s visit to Austin was never going to be more than a barometer game for Texas. If UT got blown out, as the oddsmakers predicted, the season’s ultimate success or failure would rest on the weeks ahead against Oklahoma, Baylor, and other Big 12 foes. That’s still the case even after Saturday’s impressive outing. It would have been the case even if Texas had beaten Alabama. If Sarkisian allows his team to forget that, the rosy memory of week two’s moral victory won’t last long.

Finally, is there a quarterback in the house? Texas fans based a lot of their optimism on Quinn Ewers, the Ohio State transfer who was ranked the number one high school signal-caller in the nation last year before leaving Southlake Carroll High School a year early. Sarkisian has upgraded the talent level in every corner of his locker room, but the key position on the field is the one that can turn defeats into victories and make up for weaknesses in other areas.

Ewers was off to a fine start on Saturday when he suffered what Texas officials are calling a sprained clavicle late in the first quarter by being driven into the turf by Alabama’s Dallas Turner. He’ll be sidelined four to six weeks, with Hudson Card, who started two games last season, taking over. Card played well through the rest of Saturday’s game and hobbled through the fourth quarter after suffering an ankle injury. At one point, Sarkisian had his third-string quarterback, Charles Wright, warming up just in case.

Anyway, the Longhorns did themselves proud, sort of, and amid all the praise and “Texas is back!” talk, they’ll be dealing with what Saban calls “rat poison” in preparing for next Saturday against UTSA. That’s the Alabama coach’s description of effusive praise for a team or a player, and he teaches his players to deal with it by ignoring the noise and focusing on executing their roles on every down they play. Texas better learn that lesson quick. The Longhorns haven’t heard the kind of praise they’re receiving this week for years—and they’ve made a rare jump into the Associated Press Top 25 coming off a loss—so getting the team in the right frame of mind before facing UTSA will be Sarkisian’s challenge.

For Jimbo Fisher, the challenge is ten times greater. As he sorts through a multitude of personnel issues—particularly at quarterback and on the Aggies’ offensive and defensive lines—he finds the ground shifting beneath him at Texas A&M.

Shouldn’t the Aggies be getting more for the $9 million they’re paying him this season? How will his team hold up against Miami, and then on the four straight tough games away from Kyle Field after that? By the time A&M returns home to play Ole Miss on October 29, the Aggies will either have bounced back from Saturday’s App State loss or be facing an avalanche of discontent.

“From this loss, you’ll see if you really want to play football or not,” running back Devon Achane said. “Everybody has to lock in, starting tomorrow.”