Texas gets its 'Welcome to the SEC' moment this weekend at Alabama

One year ago, Nick Saban stood on the sideline at Darrell K Royal Memorial Stadium, patiently answering Fox Sports sideline reporter Jenny Taft’s pregame question about Alabama’s readiness to play the University of Texas in Austin. As Saban spoke softly of embracing challenges and overcoming adversity, a rowdy crowd of Longhorn fans chanted “F— you, Saban!” Over his right shoulder, a Longhorn fan held up a neon orange sign that read, “I was going to make a funny sign but I remembered Alabama fans can’t read!”

The game marked Alabama’s first time playing Texas since the Tide defeated the Longhorns in the 2009-10 national championship game, and the first time Alabama had played in Austin since 1922. This was also Texas’ first matchup against one of the SEC’s blue bloods (sorry, Arkansas) since the Longhorns and Oklahoma announced they would be jumping from the Big 12 to the SEC in the 2024 season. Even by Texas’ outsize standards, this game was a Big F****** Deal.

You probably remember what happened next. After a strong first quarter, Texas QB Quinn Ewers departed with a shoulder injury, but the Longhorns still managed to take the game down to the final seconds. Only a 33-yard field goal from Alabama’s Will Reichard allowed the Tide to escape — and yes, “escape” is the right word — with a 20-19 win.

Last year showed that Texas could catch up to the SEC’s best. Saturday will show whether the Longhorns can keep up with them.

Back in that 2009-10 championship game, held at the Rose Bowl, Texas posted two first-quarter field goals to edge out to a 6-0 lead. The Tide then proceeded to drop 24 straight points right onto Bevo’s skull, and that was pretty much the ballgame. The Longhorns lost quarterback Colt McCoy to injury on their first drive of the game — sound familiar? — and never mounted a serious threat thereafter.

AUSTIN, TEXAS - SEPTEMBER 10: Head coach Steve Sarkisian of the Texas Longhorns talks with head coach Nick Saban of the Alabama Crimson Tide before the game at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium on September 10, 2022 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images)

Those QB what-ifs haunt Texas, but head coach Steve Sarkisian has no patience for what-ifs, whether before, during or after a game.

“The moment you start focusing on what the outcome could be and what the result could be, the game hits you in the mouth and you lose,” Sarkisian said earlier this week at his media conference. “We’ve got to focus on what we need to do.”

Focus has been a sparse commodity in Austin over the last decade. Since that national championship loss, the Longhorns have cycled through four coaches while having exactly zero top-three Heisman finalists. They’ve played in more Alamo Bowls (5) than they’ve had top-10 finishes (1) or nine-plus-win seasons (2). All this despite landing multiple top-five recruiting classes over that stretch, per Rivals.

Sarkisian is in the process of changing that culture from the ground up. His 2022 and ‘23 classes rank fifth and third in the country, respectively. His Longhorns climbed from five wins in 2021 to eight last season, and this season they’re -110 favorites to win the Big 12 on their way out the door.

The Longhorns’ arrival in the SEC next season will represent another cultural level-up for the program. No matter how highly the Longhorns think of themselves, they’ll start out as supporting actors, not leading ones. Texas has exactly one national title since 1970; seven of their future conference brethren have matched or exceeded that.

“We can’t get caught up thinking we’re going to play all 17 teams that Coach Saban has had the last 17 years,” he said. “We’re playing the 2023 Alabama football team, which is very good and they’re very well coached.”

Staying on task is going to be a challenge for Texas. The awe-inspiring spectacle of a night game at Bryant-Denny — 100,000-plus fans, seizure-inducing crimson LED lights, Bear Bryant speeches and “Dixieland Delight” at ear-bleeding volumes — is enough to give even the toughest squads pause. The trick, Sarkisian said, is keeping things in perspective.

“People always want us to talk about the opponent. We’ve got a good opponent. We understand that they’re well coached and they’re a good team,” he said. “But for us to be at our best we need to focus on what we need to do, not worry so much about what they’re going to do, or what they might do.”

It’s a good message, the right message, the message that Texas and its fans need to hear right now. Soon enough, though, the time for messages will be over, and the time for hitting will begin.

Texas will play under its brightest lights of the past decade on Saturday night. But if the Longhorns can’t come out of Tuscaloosa with their heads held high, the lights will get a whole lot brighter — and hotter — when they return to Austin.