Texas football still isn't quite yet 'back'

Chris Dukes

Tom Herman, Sam Ehlinger, Brandon Jones and Zach Shackelford all answered questions with a somber look in their eyes.

It was a look likely matched by many wearing burnt orange watching from the Cotton Bowl or at home.

"Obviously this one hurts," Herman said. "It hurts the most for our seniors."

While the 34–27 rivalry loss stings, it's not the worst of it for Texas fans. That worst of it right now is the program isn't quite yet elite, despite plenty of hype indicating otherwise through the offseason.

Don't get me wrong, Texas is a good program. The Longhorns will probably finish the season right around the top 15 teams in the country and with good reason. Heck, they almost found a way to back door their way to a win against the Sooners despite being dominated in nearly every major statistical category.

"It was a one-score game against a top-five team in the country that we had held to 10 points in a half," Herman pointed out.

All of that shows that Texas is a really good program right now. But really good isn't what a blue-blood program's fans, players or coaches expect to be.

"Really good" almost got Mack Brown run out of Austin before he finally broke through in 2005.

The hard numbers for Texas right now show a team that still has more work to do before it’s ready to take the next step.

It was on display against LSU, when Texas couldn't get its defense off the field for one final stop on a third-and-17. It was on display again in the Cotton Bowl against Oklahoma when Jalen Hurts put the game away with a 3-yard touchdown run with 4:19 to play in the game.

“Our goal is to not just belong. Our goal is to win those things,” Herman said after the Longhorns' loss earlier this year to LSU. “I get there is a bit of PTSD around here for the prior decade or so, but I told our team, in three years we have come this far, and we’ve got this far to go to be elite, and that last bit is the hardest part.”

The Longhorns are knocking on the door, but what's it going to take to kick it down? 

It will start with a close look at the offensive line, which looked overmatched for the first time this season against an aggressive Oklahoma front. It will involve examining the Texas offensive game plan, which looked eerily similar to some of the old Greg Davis strategies against the Sooners in the early 2000s that turned the term "tunnel screen" into a meme in Austin.

In will involve a look at the defensive line, which has gobbled up lesser opponents, but got pushed around at times against an Oklahoma group that came in nursing several injuries.

“We didn't play well, and we've got to figure out—everybody knows the ‘what,’ right?" Herman said. "The 'what' is we didn't play well and we pressed and we've got to figure out why. That's our job as coaches is to get to the root of the issue and make sure that we correct those things and they don't happen again."

The season is far from a wash. Texas probably can't make the College Football Playoff, but the Longhorns can still win the conference.

Should they run the table, there's probably another meeting with Oklahoma waiting for them in the conference title game. Should that happen, we will see what steps the program has taken between now and then.

Texas fans knew it was going to be a complicated journey to get back to get this program back where most feel it belongs, but just like it's hard to fault them for channeling their inner 8-year-old from the back seat with the occasional "are we there yet?"