For two weeks in early September, there was a different air about the Longhorns’ locker room.
The team was coming off two-straight wins in early September, one against then-No. 10 Notre Dame and the other against UTEP. And for two weeks, Texas had confidence and direction.
“It’s so fun to watch because now on offense, the defense knows that the offense is going to take the ball and go score with it,” head coach Charlie Strong said in the wake of the UTEP win. “The offense feels good that the defense can go out there and stop them and get the ball back for them.”
But six weeks, five games and four losses later, the Longhorns are back to square one. The team is 3–4 after seven games for the third-straight season under Strong. And Texas’ offense and defense are yet to be on the same page, with one unit inevitably stumbling when it matters most.
The Longhorns are far from the promising team burnt orange fans saw storm the field after a walk-off win against the Fighting Irish just over a month ago. Strong’s aspirations have gone from reeling in Texas’ first Big 12 title since 2009 to simply getting the minimum six wins needed to qualify for a bowl game.
But the season isn’t completely lost yet. Texas has five games left, and it can still show progress — which is important for recruiting — especially with a remaining schedule full of opportunities against top-10 teams and explosive offenses.
“We can’t really harp on what’s done — what’s happened in the past,” senior defensive tackle Paul Boyette Jr. said. “We just got to move forward, go out here, hone in on these next five games. We can’t focus on what outside forces say. In the locker room, we have to keep banding together and keep this one heartbeat sound.”
Strong likely needs an impressive showing the rest of the way to keep his job in Austin. The team is in serious danger of finishing below .500 for the third-straight season since he took over in 2013. Inexperience and a lack of talent served as valid excuses the past two years.
But even Strong knows the fan base’s patience is dwindling.
“I’ve worn that cliche out where ‘we’re so close’,” Strong said. “It’s not so much we’re close, we need to capitalize and win those games.”
Texas can start capitalizing on Saturday as No. 8 Baylor heads to Austin. Strong managed to top a No. 10-ranked Baylor last December — though the team was missing its top-3 quarterbacks. And a big win could be the spark Texas needs with games against No. 10 West Virginia, Texas Tech and TCU remaining.
On the other hand, the season can just as easily spiral out of control. A poor showing against the Bears would force the Longhorns to win three out of four games against quality opponents to qualify for a bowl games — Texas has only won consecutive games three times during Strong’s tenure.
Missing back-to-back bowl games is a mostly unprecedented low for the program — it’s happened just three times since 1942. And Texas still feels the sting of missing out on bowl season last year.
“Not making one last year, that’s probably one of the worst feelings you can have,” senior safety Dylan Haines said. “Especially at a place like Texas.”
The Longhorns — and Strong — have just five games to turn the program around or lie down. Texas fans have heard the same calls or consistency and improvement throughout the last few years.
It’s time for the Longhorns to choose a direction.
“The season is not over yet,” Haines said. “I know a lot of people think it is. At least to me it’s not. However many games we have left, I’m not counting, but we have a chance to go out there and make a bowl. That’s something I would like to do. That’s what I’m going to prepare to do.”