Last Chance Saloon: No. 7 Texas is chasing a final Big 12 title before leaving for the SEC in 2024

AUSTIN, TEXAS - SEPTEMBER 02: Ethan Burke #91 of the Texas Longhorns is congratulated by Byron Murphy II #90 after a sack in the second half against the Rice Owls at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium on September 02, 2023 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images) (Tim Warner, 2023 Getty Images)

AUSTIN, Texas – Jahdae Barron can still feel the sting from sweat dripping into his eyes when he looked toward the south end zone of Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium last summer and saw the years high on the wall: 1996, 2005 and 2009.

All signify Big 12 titles won by Texas. And in the 14 years since the last one? Nothing.

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For Barron and the Longhorns, it's time to add another.

“Throughout summer workouts and practice (and) when we warm up every day ... (coaches) tell us to face the side with all the national championships and Big 12," the senior defensive back said. "We've been looking at that, shoot, every day, in summer when it was 110 (degrees) and we were sweating and dying.”

Texas can close out its 28th and final Big 12 season with championship year 2023 for the stadium wall on Saturday when the No. 7 Longhorns (11-1, No. 7 CFP ) face No. 19 Oklahoma Sate (9-3, No. 18 CFP ) in the Big 12 championship game in Arlington, Texas.

The Longhorns will leave the league for the Southeastern Conference next year and a bookend title to go with the league's first in 1996 would be quite the sendoff.

Back in 2009, when the Longhorns were coming out of a decade of 10-win seasons, the program seemed primed for a run of Big 12 titles. Instead, the Longhorns fired or hired four head coaches while reaching the title game just twice in that span.

And just like his players, third-year Texas coach Steve Sarkisian has seen the numbers on the stadium wall every morning.

“I’m in (the stadium) every day, and my office looks right into it,” Sarkisian said. “And to think in the last 27 years there’s only been three conference championships and we’re playing for one on Saturday where we can put our year up in that stadium forever — that means a lot. That’s something that we don’t take lightly.”

Sarkisian is a bit of his own rebuilding project. The former Washington and Southern California coach who got fired mid-season at USC in 2015 saw his coaching career rebound as Nick Saban's offensive coordinator at Alabama. The Crimson Tide won a national championship with Sarkisian in 2020 and Texas pounced to hire him while pushing Tom Herman out the door.

In 10 years as a head coach, this is the first time Sarkisian has won more than nine games. Just two years ago, Texas was 5-7 in Sarkisian's first season in Austin.

There are many current Longhorns who remember the misery of that season.

“Battle wounds. Battle scars. Trauma forms bonds,” senior linebacker Jaylon Ford said. "When you go through a 5-7 season like we went through, five straight losses ... You have to really look around and find brothers. The people that stayed, we had to wrap our arms around each other and push through. We made it through and formed our way to the top."

Texas started its final season in the Big 12 with Sarkisian and his players rallying around an unofficial “embrace the hate” motto, and the Longhorns knew they would have to punch their way through some tough environments.

The season got a huge early bounce with a big road win at Alabama, a future SEC opponent. That 34-24 victory turned the Longhorns into potential national championship contenders.

A mid-season loss to Oklahoma stunted that a bit, but also sharpened the Longhorns for the rest of the Big 12 schedule. Sarkisian told them to approach every week like it was a league championship game, because if they lost again, they might not make it to Arlington.

Texas survived some close games against Houston, TCU and Kansas State, and won two games without starting quarterback Quinn Ewers. Standout running back Jonathon Brooks was lost for the season three weeks ago with a knee injury.

Texas finally clinched a final Big 12 title game berth with a 57-7 romp over Texas Tech.

There are even bigger prizes on the horizon if they beat Oklahoma State on Saturday. Texas has been hovering just outside the top four spots in the College Football Playoff. The Longhorns would still need help to get in, but it's possible.

Lose Saturday, however, and the Big 12 title honors in the stadium stop at 2009.


“We didn’t come this far just to come this far," Sarkisian said. “There’s more out there for us to accomplish.”


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