At Texas, progress is a difficult thing to measure.
Eight wins into the season the Longhorns’ players and coaches are preaching progression. It hasn’t been perfect, but they claim this year’s product is significantly ahead of last year’s 8-5 pedestrian performance.
“We’ve made great progress,” head coach Mack Brown said. “We had a chance to compete for a championship as of Thursday night, but we didn’t finish it right ... . It’s still a whole lot ahead of where we were last year.”
The Longhorns still have one game remaining to make a statement for their progress: a showdown with No. 6 Kansas State.
A win against the Wildcats would allow Texas a chance at its first 10-win season since 2009, and its first victory over a Top 10 team since the Longhorns upset then No. 5 Nebraska in 2010.
The game is in primetime with the Big 12 title on the line — at least for Kansas State. With a victory, Texas could thrust itself back into the national picture for the remainder of the season, while cementing its place among the conferences’ best heading into next season. More importantly, however, it would be a large step towards restoring the Texas program to the level of success that has defined the Mack Brown era. He led the Longhorns to 12 straight seasons of nine wins or more from 1998-2009 before the swoon the last two seasons.
“If we win over in Kansas State it would open a lot of doors for us,” safety Adrian Phillips said. “It would take us in the right step to where Texas needs to be.”
That place, according to the coaches and players, is winning Big 12 championships and competing for national titles.
A win over Kansas State wouldn’t jump this group immediately into next year’s national championship discussion, but it would be a huge momentum boost for the returning players, which will likely be all but seven starters. Plus, it would give this 2012 team the signature win it has lacked for confidence and statement purposes.
“I don’t think I would describe any signature moments,” offensive guard Trey Hopkins said. “It’s time for us to step back up and have some games where we put it all together.”
It will take a total effort for Texas to put a halt to Kansas State’s march towards a Big 12 crown. The Wildcats are one of the most balanced teams in college football. They’re 11th in the nation in scoring offense, 22nd in scoring defense, and are No. 1 in the nation in turnover differential. They don’t beat themselves, forcing teams to play an almost perfect game to exploit their system.
If that wasn’t enough, Kansas State features a Heisman candidate, Collin Klein, who is perhaps the toughest quarterback in the entire country. He takes hit after hit and continues to pound the opposition. His outstanding numbers — 2,306 yards passing, 14 touchdowns, six interceptions and 20 rushing touchdowns — have led the Wildcats to their best season in school history them on the cusp of their first BCS bowl appearance since the 2003 season.
They’ve achieved this success with a combination of talented junior college transfers and under-the-radar recruits like Klein. It’s a blueprint forced by Kansas State’s inability to pull in huge recruits, and their lineup is almost the antithesis of the Longhorns’ roster, which is chock-full of four- and five-star recruits.
“These guys still have something to prove,” Hopkins said of the Kansas State players. “They’re saying ‘Okay, I wasn’t good enough for you to recruit me, I’ll show you I’m good enough.’”
Perhaps that’s an edge the Longhorns have lacked the past few seasons, but a win over a hard-nosed group like the Wildcats would do a lot to erase any of those thoughts.
But for now, the Longhorns are focused on their final regular season game. They failed to deliver the seniors a win on Senior Night, so they want to pay homage and send them off right in the finale.
“Let’s go out and just pull together,” offensive guard Mason Walters said. “And no matter what will come, and what this means on a bigger scale, let’s take it for what it is and play football together for four quarters, because we don’t have the chance to do that together many more times.”