By nearly any measure, the Texas Longhorns are one of the most historically successful programs in college football. Top ten in all-time wins and winning percentage, weeks in the AP poll, consensus All-Americans, bowl appearances - they’re a titan in the sport. It hasn’t shown in recent history, though.
Since the whistle blew on the Longhorns’ loss to Alabama in 2010 BCS National Championship Game, they’ve touched 9 wins only once in eight seasons - and they’ve had four losing seasons in that span. After Mack Brown departed, Charlie Strong failed to live up to expectations, and boosters failed in their fever dreams of luring Nick Saban or Urban Meyer to Austin - former Ohio State offensive coordinator and Houston head coach Tom Herman was brought in as the new hope. A 7-6 record in 2017 showed signs of promise, but left the question unanswered.
Now, with the Longhorns sitting at 3-1 - on a three-game winning streak that included handy dismantlings of USC and TCU - they’re back in the polls and we have to ask:
IS TEXAS BACK?
Assessing college football teams is an art and a science, but as an experienced data journalist, I’m prepared to address this question through a complex, multi-factor formula.
FACTOR: ON-FIELD SUCCESS
Texas won’t fully be back until a loss to a team like Maryland is unthinkable, rather than something that happens every season, but at the same time, early-season losses are forgivable. Things happen, teams stumble. Ohio State lost to a thoroughly mediocre Virginia Tech team in Week 2 in 2014, then recovered to win the inaugural College Football Playoff. Texas’s wins over ranked-but-inconsistent USC and TCU show promise; upcoming games against Kansas State and Oklahoma could be the truer test.
FACTOR: WORD ON THE STREET
Ask Central Florida - wins aren’t everything in college football. For your program to truly be “back”, you need the casual fan to recognize it. This is proven every time a Florida State or Notre Dame team jumps an on-paper-more-qualified team with less brand presence for a bowl slot. So we headed out onto the streets of Austin and asked random fans what they thought of the Longhorns’ early success.
Haha, oops. Sorry, guy.
She’s got a point, you know.
Uhh, hey, that’s great, uh, I gotta go-
No, that was definitely a different guy.
Well, Texas must be back if all these clearly different people are pretending to be Tom Herman.
[fakes phone call] “What? A fire!?” I’m sorry sir, I have to run-
Well, there you have it. This guy says they’re back, whoever he is.
VERDICT: TEXAS BACK.
FACTOR: SOCIAL MEDIA BUZZ
Fans may have long memories of glory - when I think of Texas, I think of Ricky Williams setting records, of Vince Young playing one of the greatest games ever, of Colt McCoy’s pluck and grit - but I’m in my mid-30s. Current college football recruits - the ones you’re going to need to impress if you’re going to continue to rebuild your program - were in second or third grade the last time Texas was relevant. What are they saying?
We hopped on Bing and - using some Gen-Z slang - searched “Is Texas Back?” or, as the kids would say, “ITB?”
Hmm. Interesting. The teens think Texas makes them weak in the knees. Or maybe they’re saying the weak knees are Texas? There’s some stuff in here about stretching. I think they’re saying it’s a stretch that Texas is back? It’s also possible I’m being roasted.
VERDICT: TEENS FRIGHTEN ME
FACTOR: JE NE SAIS QUOI
I don’t actually have anything to add here, I just want you to think of Mack Brown saying “je ne sais quoi”. Wait, you’re thinking of Spencer’s impression of Mack Brown saying it now, aren’t you? Mesmerizing.
VERDICT: Jenny said what? Aw, heck, I used to work with a lady named Jenny. Nice lady, real pistol. She had this sign over her desk, it said “you don’t have to be crazy to work here, but it helps!” [five minutes of chuckling] So, anyways, the 1973 Bluebonnet Bowl-
FACTOR: CELEBRITY FANS
When USC was lighting up college football in the early aughts, celebrities lined the sidelines. That’s how you know a program’s truly got buzz - is it something the glitterati want to associate with? Let’s examine the Q-Rating.
TEXAS SCHOOL: TCU
FAMOUS FANS: According to Wikipedia, Professor Roy Hinckley on Gilligan’s Island held a Ph.D from TCU.
TEXAS SCHOOL: TEXAS TECH
FAMOUS FANS: Space Shuttle Astronaut Rick Husband.
TEXAS SCHOOL: TEXAS
FAMOUS FANS: There’s a long list of famous alumni of Texas, but when I think of the school, I think of one person, as I imagine you do.
That’s right: Peri Gilpin from Frasier, who attended but did not graduate.
TEXAS SCHOOL: BAYLOR
VERDICT: SORRY, TEXAS, BAYLOR WINS THIS ONE, I GOTTA HAVE MY BRANDED DECORATIVE METAL MILK JUGS
CONCLUSION: The Longhorns have improved, but until you seize the open-plan kitchens of America, you’ll never have the hearts and minds. You’ve still got a climb ahead of you.