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For the Texas Longhorns, an Agonizingly Familiar Feeling of “What If?”

The Longhorns’ 20-19 loss to Alabama had eerie similarities to the two teams’ previous meeting in 2010. There were positives to be taken, but the loss had the unresolved feeling that torments college football fans, even those who are used to the feeling.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Texas is back, folks. The problem is, the Longhorns aren’t back on top. They’re back in the place they were on January 7, 2010.

That night, as you may remember, Texas played Alabama for the national championship. The Longhorns lost their quarterback in the first quarter. Then they lost the game. On Saturday, playing the Crimson Tide for the first time since that night, the Longhorns lost their quarterback in the first quarter. They lost. Once again, Texas had stumbled into a what-if game. It’s one of the weirder experiences a fan can have.

Saturday’s Alabama-Texas game was billed as a matchup of bluebloods. This was mostly true on the Crimson Tide side. As Austin American-Statesman columnist Cedric Golden put it, no. 1 Alabama is like college football’s version of the final boxer in Punch-Out!! Texas (5-7 last season) is still trying to find itself under second-year coach Steve Sarkisian. The Tide were favored by more than 20 points.

As a University of Texas alum and message-board subscriber, I live among irrationally confident Longhorns fans. But this may have been the first time I had trouble finding somebody who was picking the Longhorns. Roger Clemens, who pitched for Texas in college, appeared on the set of Fox’s Big Noon Kickoff before the game. Clemens’s reputation would hardly have taken a hit if he indulged in a little homerism, but he demurred. “I want the game to be close at halftime,” he said.

The press box, which was loaded with national college football writers, wasn’t more hopeful. The writerly consensus went like this: Maybe Texas can hang with Bama—here the writers flashed jaded smiles—for a while. Fox’s Joel Klatt brought a motherlode of material to talk about in case of a blowout.

Then a funny thing happened. Texas played like an SEC school. A lot of this had to do with Quinn Ewers, the redshift freshman quarterback.

Some people may think of Arch Manning, the no. 1 2023 recruit who recently committed to Texas, as the savior of Longhorns football. Ewers is the savior who’s on the roster right now. He has everything a Longhorns quarterback needs: a lawyerly name, a Dallas-Fort Worth pedigree, and a blonde mullet.

In the first quarter, Ewers looked like he could keep up with Heisman winner Bryce Young. On his first drive, Ewers followed a Longhorns’ penalty with a 22-yard pass to receiver Xavier Worthy. Texas got a field goal.

On the Longhorns’ second drive, Ewers threw a 46-yard bomb to Worthy—one of many first-down deep shots Sarkisian called to keep Alabama’s pass rushers off-balance. Worthy made a diving catch at the three-yard line. First and goal.

Then the demon of 2010 stuck its hand through the FieldTurf. On the next play, Alabama linebacker Dallas Turner planted Ewers into the ground. Ewers didn’t move for a while. Sarkisian would later say he sprained his clavicle. When we next saw Ewers, he and his mullet were standing on the sidelines in a polo shirt and shorts.

This injury is eerily similar to what happened to Texas 12 years ago. In that game, Longhorns quarterback Colt McCoy got hurt when he was hit by Alabama defender Marcell Dareus. He never went back in the game.

I was sitting in the Rose Bowl stands that night. McCoy’s hit left me with the weirdest feeling. It wasn’t hopelessness, exactly. Texas played pretty well after McCoy’s injury. It was more like a feeling that the game had gotten screwed up in a cosmic sense, that Texas fans would never get to see the game we had been meant to see.

With such injuries, the obvious coping mechanism is for fans to reach for a what-if. What if he hadn’t gotten hurt … But it’s not much fun to be the message-board poster in the high castle. So you just sit there in a daze and watch.

There are some differences between 2010 and Saturday’s game. Back then, Alabama and Texas were almost peers, even if the former went on to dominate the next decade of college football and the latter fell off the map. Saturday’s game didn’t have anything like the stakes of a national title.

And yet the What-If Game, Part 2 turned out to be pretty magical. Two plays after Ewers got hurt, Texas scored a touchdown to tie the game at 10-10. Texas’s justly-maligned defense made Alabama’s offense punt six times in a row. Alabama committed some atrocious penalties (15 for 100 yards) and dropped a bunch of passes.

The Little Mac-vs.-Iron Mike dynamic a lot of writers expected never really showed itself. I caught 344-pound Texas nose tackle Keondre “Snacks” Coburn jawing at an Alabama player and pointing at the scoreboard. It was like Coburn was saying, “Can you believe this?”

The second half of the game was exciting, for sure, but also kind of weird. I’m not sure I’ve seen a moment of home-crowd whiplash like the one caused by Young’s third-quarter play in his own end zone. In real time, it looked like Young held the ball too long and the Longhorns sacked him for a safety. But the referees called Texas for targeting and roughing the passer.

Both calls were overturned on replay (even though roughing the passer can’t be overturned, by rule). And Young’s pass was called incomplete (when Young might have been called for intentional grounding). The upshot was that instead of giving up two points and kicking the ball, Alabama got to punt.

The fourth quarter was when Bama finally started to look like its old self. Or at least Young did. Down 16-10, Young was being chased by the aforementioned Snacks but managed to lean backward and throw a touchdown pass to Jahmyr Gibbs.

Texas regained the lead, 19-17, with a field goal. Then Bama got the ball one last time. With 35 seconds left, Texas called a corner blitz. Young somehow bowed his body forward and ducked under Texas’s Ryan Watts. Young ran 20 yards up the sideline. The Tide kicked the winning field goal four plays later.

How does a what-if game feel? “In a weird way, we can kind of feel pretty good about ourselves,” Sarkisian said afterward.

This is true. But these sorts of games also feel kind of strange. They feel unresolved. They feel like the start of an argument instead of the end of one, as football games should. Texas is back, folks, back in the place between hypothetical victories and real ones.