Each year, there’s typically a two-to-three game stretch — sometimes more — that you can circle and say it will define the season. Last year, it was the TCU and Oklahoma games, in which Texas went 0-2 to drop to 2-2. That stretch effectively marked the beginning of the end for Tom Herman with the Horns, and thus, opened the door for the Steve Sarkisian era.
Now, that defining stretch is set to begin for Sark and his first Longhorns team, and in familiar fashion, it begins with the Horned Frogs and Sooners. Only this time around, it’s not a two-to-three game stretch. Given how the first third of the season played out with a few Big 12 foes enjoying fast starts, Texas is facing a five-game stretch that could see the Longhorns emerge as the Big 12 frontrunners, completely fall apart, or anything in between.
So, in short, what happens between now and early November may very well define Year 1 of the Steve Sarkisian era.
On paper, the five games come against TCU, No. 6 Oklahoma, No. 19 Oklahoma State, No. 21 Baylor, and Iowa State. All five are losable and ESPN’s FPI projects Texas to do so in two of the five looming games — against Oklahoma and Iowa State.
- @ TCU — 69.8%
- No. 6 Oklahoma — 40.5%
- No. 19 Oklahoma State — 80.0%
- @ No. 21 Baylor — 65.8%
- @ Iowa State — 48.0%
One could easily talk themselves into Texas, escaping this stretch with just one loss, or possibly even running the table to enter the final quarter of the season in the Big 12 driver’s seat at 8-1 (6-0) considering how impressive they’ve looked in all but the Arkansas loss. What happens on Saturday in Fort Worth, where Texas hasn’t won since 2013 — and only won a single game against TCU since then — could easily shift any expectations in another, less optimistic direction.
So, on the surface, Texas could emerge as a legitimate Big 12 contender, or even the frontrunner, between now and early November, and that alone will be a measuring stick for success in Sark’s first season.
But it won’t be the only one.
Maybe more importantly during this five-game gauntlet is how Texas responds.
Following the loss to Arkansas, Sark wanted to see how his team would respond to the disappointing blowout. A week later, Texas shut out Rice, 58-0, and again, he wanted to see how his team responded to winning. Another week later and Texas hung 70 points on Texas Tech in a contest that was never really close.
Two weeks, two blowout wins, and now it’s time for Texas to respond to winning again, and they’ll need to do so against a team that’s dominated the Longhorns since joining the Big 12.
Then, win or lose, they’ll need to immediately respond again with the No. 6 Sooners waiting at the Cotton Bowl the following weekend for what’s typically the biggest game on both program’s schedules.
And again, Texas will need to respond.
With a win, how will Sark’s team respond to the predictable praise they’ll start hearing as the Big 12 frontrunners with an entire half of the seasoning remaining? With a loss, how well can Texas bounce back from a high-emotion rivalry game with a currently-undefeated Oklahoma State squad waiting to meet them in Austin the following weekend?
Then, following a timely bye week, however great, average, or underwhelming their record is, Texas will, yet again, need to respond with a two-game road trip to No. 19 Baylor and then Iowa State to cap the challenging five-game stretch.
Of course, Texas won’t be crowned Big 12 champs if they emerge from this stretch at 8-1 (5-1), nor would they necessarily be removed from that opportunity if they drop a game or two. An entire quarter of the season will remain when Texas returns home from Ames on Nov. 6, but when they do, we’ll have an excellent idea of what this team is and will ultimately become during the opening campaign of the Sarkisian era.
How will Texas respond if they continue to improve and excel, winning game after game along the way? If they catch another haymaker loss like they did in Fayetteville, how does Sark’s team punch back this time around against heightened competition? Furthermore, how well will an offense that’s been among the best in the nation fare when it’s required to produce in a shootout, or when a defense is throwing punches of its own and things aren’t flowing so easily? What does Pete Kwiatkowski’s defense look like when they aren’t playing with a massive cushion and need to come up with key stops to keep Texas in the game?
Between now and early November, we’ll pretty much see it all. Texas will be tested. They’ll win a few games, and possibly drop a game or two or perhaps even more.
If the Longhorns can respond well, to both success and any speed bumps, they’ll have a chance to do in Sark’s first season what Tom Herman did just once — compete for a Big 12 title.
“One game doesn’t win you a Big 12 Championship,” Sarkisian said. “It’s a body of work that we have to continue to put together. We’ve got challenges ahead and the biggest one is [this week] going up to TCU.”