When Longhorns fans tuned into Texas-Notre Dame game Saturday night, they had reason to be proud. A sea of burnt orange was visible atop the home of Touchdown Jesus, showcasing the devotion of the fan base despite the program's recent struggles.
Those in attendance and those watching were ready for their team to upset the Fighting Irish and restore Texas to the power program it long claimed to be.
Boy, were they wrong. In its 38–3 drubbing by Notre Dame, Texas racked up just 163 total yards of offense and eight first downs and suffered 11 third-and-outs.
As the game inched along—time seemed to slow as the Horns made the same mistakes on repeat—the fan consensus was clear: This is humiliating.
The 52,000 Texas students didn't anticipate that the school may not be a powerhouse when enrolling. Many watched the Longhorns lose a heartbreaking 2010 BCS Championship when starting quarterback Colt McCoy sustained a game-ending shoulder injury. Mack Brown's name alone evoked reverence. The anticipated school spirit only exaggerated the hype.
But here Texas is, at 0-1 on the season. It's gained 740 fewer offensive yards than its opponents the last three contests, which included an embarrassing 31–7 loss to Arkansas in the Texas Bowl. Fans still respect head coach Charlie Strong's demeanor, accountability and implementation of core values. But without the wins, they don't want him sticking around.
The program received its first hints of relief on Tuesday night, when Strong demoted offensive coaches Shawn Watson and Joe Wickline to position roles and promoted wide receivers coach Jay Norvell to play-calling duties for Texas hoping to kick into gear its supposedly new up-tempo offense.
Fans, boosters and players wanted to see a change. Norvell's appointment tempered the fan base, recharging the waning hopes for Texas' home opener against Rice. After the Notre Dame matchup, tensions have risen before Rice arrives in Austin for the home opener. If Texas loses this weekend, anger and resignation will only mount further.
Strong knows he is under significant pressure. He wouldn't talk to his coaches Sunday for fear he'd say something he'd regret. He joked he couldn't sleep on the coaching staff decision because with the pressure, he can't sleep at all. He said the football team is better than it showed – but as the head coach, he must take responsibility and will his team to improvement.
Against Rice on Saturday, apathy will lie below a thin veneer. Rabid fans will clash with cynical brothers, ready to credit strong play to a weak opponent while criticizing any Longhorn misstep. At Texas, every fan thinks he's a football expert. And when the experts themselves—the players, coaches and athletic staff—can't figure it out, the perceived expertise level among UT students and fans only rises.
The Charlie Strong era is at a pivotal moment. Without a burnt orange destruction against Rice and win against Cal, Strong's job could easily be on the line. Fans, at least, will recommend such a move.
Fans flocked to Notre Dame last week to show their support for the new era. If the players and Strong can't return the energy soon, that trust will dwindle. They won't leave quietly.
Jori Epstein is SI's campus correspondent for the University of Texas. Follow her on Twitter.