Meme no more: Texas is back and playing for a national championship with Huskies on deck in CFP semi

FILE - Texas quarterback Quinn Ewers throws a pass against TCU during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Nov. 11, 2023, in Fort Worth, Texas. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez, File) (Julio Cortez, Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

AUSTIN, Texas – Texas is back, and not just as a punchline.

Fourteen years after last playing for a national championship, Texas (12-1) is in the College Football Playoff as Big 12 champion and one win away from another title shot. Since the end of that 2009 season when the future looked so bright, there had been five losing seasons and, until this year, zero conference titles.

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For nearly a decade, the “Texas is back” catchphrase has been an ongoing source of angst for the Longhorns. It is an easy way for rivals to mock the 'Horns, including with social media memes poking fun at a program that did so little with so much.

Only these Longhorns are no joke. An explosive offense led by quarterback Quinn Ewers and a defense led by All-American defensive tackle T'Vondre Sweat, have Texas as one of the last four teams standing. Texas (12-1) plays Washington (13-0) on Monday night in the Sugar Bowl in a CFP semifinal. The winner goes on to the Jan. 8 title game against either Alabama or Michigan.

“We didn't come this far just to come this far,” senior linebacker David Gbenda said. “We want to go all the way ... We have one goal, and that's the championship ring."

The coach leading them out of the wilderness, Steve Sarkisian, spent his own time wandering through personal struggles before finding his way back to the top.

How long will it last? Hard to tell. Texas leaves the Big 12 for the cauldron of the Southeastern Conference next season along with bitter rival Oklahoma. But for one more week, maybe two, it's all about the present and being “back” to where Texas believes it belongs every year.

“We have a chance to be legends,” Gbenda said. “So why not go be great?”

Continued excellence was expected for a program that had a run of 10-win seasons from 2001-2009. That run included a national championship in 2005 and ended with a title game loss to Alabama after the 2009 season.

A 5-7 slide in 2010 and a run of mediocrity followed. National championship-winning coach Mack Brown was fired. His replacement Charlie Strong had three consecutive losing seasons.

The “Texas is back!” meme has hung like a yoke on the Bevo steer mascot since 2016. It came from ESPN's Joe Tessitore and his excited call of the game-winning touchdown in a season-opening overtime thriller against Notre Dame. Texas looked ready to launch before Strong's final season spiraled into another 5-7 finish.

Two seasons later, Longhorns quarterback Sam Ehlinger pumped it up again with his exuberant “We're baaaack!” after Texas thumped Georgia in the 2019 Sugar Bowl.

Texas safety Michael Taaffe was at that game. He ate it up at the time.

“He (Ehlinger) always talked about that. It wasn't to jinx it," Taffe said. “I thought it was awesome. I thought it was funny.”

So did Texas rivals.

Another five-loss season followed, and coach Tom Herman was fired after the pandemic-interrupted 2020 season. Texas then handed the program to Sarkisian, who had spent that season as offensive coordinator for Alabama's national championship run.

Sarkisian had earned the dubious nickname “Seven-win-Sark” during five seasons as head coach at Washington, and was then fired midway through his second season at Southern California before going into alcohol rehabilitation treatment.

Sarkisian's first season at Texas was another 5-7 disappointment. Athletic director Chris Del Conte, school President Jay Hartzell and Board of Regents Chairman Kevin Eltife stuck with Sarkisian.

Year two was an 8-5 finish. Then came the spark that lit national title talk: a 34-24 win at Alabama in September. The Longhorns were the first non-conference opponent to win at Alabama since 2007.

If Texas beats Washington and Alabama (12-1) beats Michigan (13-0) in the Rose Bowl, the Longhorns and Crimson Tide would meet again for the national championship.

Sarkisian appears to have laid the foundation to keep Texas “back" once the program moves to the SEC. Texas signed another top 10 recruiting class and is finding top players in the transfer portal.

Texas also has been one of the most aggressive programs in the new era of name, image and likeness financial deals for college players.

“There became at point at Alabama when, ”Alright, I'm gonna be a head coach again and I want to go somewhere I have a legitimate chance to win championships," Sarkisian said. “When this opportunity came, to me this was the no-brainer because I know what this place can be ... I wasn't naive to think I just get to be a head coach and ho-hum win eight games and everything's going to be great.”

Senior linebacker Jaylan Ford remembers the 5-7 showing of 2021 all too well. And he thinks only Sarkisian could have turned Texas around so quickly.

“I personally don’t think we would have done it if Sark didn’t come here and change the culture,” Ford said.

Ford is so ready to shed the “Texas is back” memes, jokes and sneers.

“I’ve been here so long, you get used to blocking out the naysayers,” Ford said. “We've proved a lot ... If we are lucky enough to hoist that trophy at the end of the season, there’s not much more to say after that.”


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