The words “close” and “progress” have pervaded the Longhorns’ locker room this week.
Coming off a 24–20 loss to No. 14 West Virginia, head coach Charlie Strong’s team still believes it’s making strides after playing the Big 12’s top team to a tight game.
“You don’t ever want to say [it’s] a moral victory,” Strong said. “Overall you just like how competitive they are now and just how much pride — it’s all about pride — they have within themselves and within the program.”
But when does pride turn into results?
Texas enters this weekend’s game against Kansas sitting at 5–5, marking the third-straight year in which the program has reached five losses. Strong said after his first season, a 6–7 campaign, he’d never lose five games again in Austin. But the Longhorns are once again in a struggle to finish the season with a .500 record.
Strong admits the program isn’t where he envisioned, saying “there’s no excuses” and “the losses are mounting.” Now he’s banking on a big finish to the season to back up his talk of progress.
“I think that our [President Greg Fenves] will take a long look at [my job],” Strong said. “We’ve just got to still finish out. We still have two games left, so let’s go finish out those games and let’s see where we are at the end of the season.”
The Longhorns have shown flashes this year. The team knocked off two top-10 teams in then-No. 10 Notre Dame and then-No. 8 Baylor this year — though both have gone on to lose multiple games since. And Texas added to its resume after picking up a massive win on the road over Texas Tech two weeks ago.
Texas has also seen a big-time turnaround on defense; it’s forced multiple turnovers in five of six games since Strong took over the play-calling from defensive coordinator Vance Bedford in early October.
“I think we’re progressing,” sophomore tackle Connor Williams said. “We’re maturing, and we understand what we can produce, and we understand what we can be. We just need to come out and execute on all cylinders, and we know if we do that, we’ll be a very good team.”
Strong and his team have two regular season games left to turn progress into results. A win against Kansas on Saturday would clinch a bowl game for the first time since 2014. Strong and his players have said making the postseason is a major goal. But perhaps it more appropriately signals an averted disaster — Texas has missed consecutive bowl games just three times since 1942.
“They want to get to a bowl game [and] I think that’s a motivating factor for them,” Strong said. “When you sit home and you watch the other teams play and you feel like you’re good enough to be there and then you’re not there, but with these two games left, I think we’re going to find a way where we’re going to find a way to get us [there].”
The Longhorns still can finish 2016 with their best record under Strong with two wins the rest of the way. And the third-year coach likely needs that to happen to keep his job in Austin.
Texas’ players say they’re confident they will get the job done. And many believe the team is on the verge of something special.
“We’re right there, we’re just that much closer,” sophomore cornerback P.J. Locke III said. “We just got to kick the door down. Can we show flashes, but also stay consistent? We have to keep that light on.”
Longhorn fans — and Strong — will soon learn if close is good enough.