MANHATTAN, Kan. – The end of Charlie Strong’s tenure at Texas was probably sealed with a late-season loss to lowly Kansas.
Four years later, Tom Herman's tenure could likewise be decided in the Sunflower State.
The Longhorns begin a two-game finishing stretch against Kansas State and the Jayhawks with a trip to Manhattan on Saturday, and the dominant storyline this week is whether Texas athletic director Chris Del Conte is counting down the days on Herman's time in Austin.
Recruiting is down. Rumblings about Urban Meyer taking over the Longhorns are pervasive. Players have continued to opt out, leaving Herman with a depleted roster for the finishing stretch. And perhaps most importantly, Texas likely will sitting out the Big 12 title game again, regardless of what happens against the Wildcats and Kansas.
“If you truly love the game of football and you love your teammates and you love this program, and you're doing it for the right reasons, every game matters,” Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger said. “It's another opportunity to play the game you love. I think every games matter, regardless of what you're playing for. Obviously it adds a little extra motivation when you have a championship within sight, but it will really show who loves the game of football for the game of football.”
Many of the same thoughts are probably running through the Kansas State program.
While the Longhorns (5-3, 4-3 Big 12) have lost all their games by a touchdown or less, the Wildcats (4-5, 4-4) will be trying to rebound from a last-second loss to Baylor in which they controlled the game almost the entire way. It was Kansas State's fourth consecutive loss, a stinging slide in which the team's youth and inexperience has been put on full display.
“It always wears on you, without question,” Wildcats coach Chris Klieman said. “If you’re a competitor or a winner like all those kids are and hate losing, it ticks you off. We have had opportunities. All that being said, you can’t let it linger.”
Especially when the Wildcats still have an opportunity to end the season in a bowl game.
“Absolutely. We need time and we need practice time. We need development time,” Klieman said. “We are a developmental program, and when we lose the time that we did with these guys, we have to find ways to get that back. If a bowl game allows us to get that extra time back, we definitely want to be a part of it.”
Texas had two key players opt of the final two games when left tackle Sam Cosmi and safety Caden Sterns, both of them team captains, announced this week they would enter the NFL draft. That could leave freshman Andrej Karic to protect Ehlinger’s backside and Montrell Estell to fill in the gaps in the deep secondary.
Ehling said he would “never do that” when asked about opting out with games left to play, and defensive lineman Ta’Quan Graham said: “I’m kind of disappointed (Sterns) won’t be with us to finish the ride, but I’m happy for him.”
MORE ON HERMAN
Herman, who has three seasons left on a contract paying him about $6 million per year, batted away questions about his future this week, saying he wants to focus on the players. Del Conte has been noticeably silent about the coach and the program in recent weeks.
Texas kicker Cameron Dicker, who booted the winning field against the Wildcats on the final play last season, is doing double duty as the punter for injured starter Ryan Bujcevski. Dicker averaged 40.5 yards on two punts against Iowa State, but his fake-punt pass attempt came up short of a first down and he barely missed a tying 58-yarder as time expired.
Kansas State will honor 20 seniors during its final home game, though Klieman said there's a good chance some of them will be back next season. He began having conversations with those players Monday, but he also encouraged them to enjoy what could be their last chance to play in Manhattan rather than worry about the future.
Kansas State has been outscored 35-0 in the third quarter of the last four games, but Klieman said there is no secret to the problems.
“It’s execution. That’s the bottom line,” he said. “Without question it’s hurt us this year in critical times, and we have to keep improving and keep shoring it up because we have to be good in all the quarters.”
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