HOUSTON — The Texas Longhorns have not been to a bowl game since 2014. They have not won a bowl game since 2012. Both of these are substantial gaps for a program that boasts four national championships and more than thirty conference championships.
While a bowl win is the minimum standard at Texas, it still is a standard that has not been reached in several years. Just because the team meets that standard, it doesn’t mean they did so in a premier game. Though it is important that the Longhorns reached a bowl game, a Texas Bowl appearance does not do a lot to drum up excitement for fans who have been waiting for a return to success like that seen under Mack Brown.
Tom Herman and his assistants do not want that same apathy toward the bowl game to set in for the players.
“We haven’t been in a bowl game in three years,” Herman said at the bowl luncheon on Tuesday. “If that doesn’t excite you as a player, then you probably need to quit football and go do something else. Go join a club or something like that.”
Through the bowl practices, with several occurring at the University of Houston’s practice facility, Herman has been able to keep tabs on the emotions of his team while also preparing for a tough opponent in the Missouri Tigers.
“We have had some really, really spirited practices and that’s been really fun to watch, especially some of these young guys,” Herman said. “We’ve gotten better. We’ve gotten 17 practices, something like that. Will it manifest itself in the game tomorrow? I hope.”
If those 17 practices prove to be as successful as they possibly can, Texas will show up tomorrow at NRG Stadium and defeat the Missouri Tigers to win its first bowl game in five years.
If they end up losing to a former Big 12 foe, Herman does not see that as a sign that the team did not improve during bowl practices, despite the season’s 6-7 record.
“If it doesn’t, that doesn’t mean that we didn’t get better, because we did,” Herman said. “This is a team, if you’re an older guy on this team, you’ve had somewhere around 35 less practices than your opponents in Norman, Oklahoma, or Stillwater, or Lubbock, or whatever. You’ve missed that. That is crucial for the development of the student-athlete.
“I’m just excited that we had that opportunity.”
While the extra practices are extremely important, especially for a first-year head coach, a win is even more important. A win can sell an upward trajectory to prospects who have not yet signed that Texas is still recruiting. A win can show that despite several suspensions, injuries, and departures for the NFL draft, Texas still has talent on the roster that the staff will be able to work with in 2018.
“I think winning this game will be important for us in terms of momentum,” Herman said. “It’s not life or death, but we sure as heck could use this to springboard us into the offseason for 2018.”
A loss would mean a fourth consecutive losing season, something that has only happened one other time in Texas history, occurring between 1935 and 1938.
That’s something that Herman wants to avoid at all costs. That said, losing repeatedly is something he understands can negatively affect a program and the players in it.
“Three straight losing seasons takes its toll on kids,” Herman said. ‘It really does. It’s difficult for them, especially when you deal with adversity. It can be a ‘here we go again’ syndrome, so that has been an ongoing challenge, reestablishing the right way to handle adversity and the right way to compete, and the right way to go about our daily business.”
Herman noted his players want to “be great” and “compete,” but that it has been challenging to reprogram his players to avoid that losing, down in the dumps feeling. His new culture, as well as an established tradition at Texas, have been trying to combat that.
“We got reacquainted with a quote that’s around our building in a bunch of different spots that says ‘The pride and winning tradition of the Texas Longhorns will not be entrusted to the weak nor the timid,’” Herman said. “You can’t play timid. If we go out and we play with our hair on fire, figuratively of course, if we play with our hair on fire and we’re flying around, and we’re hitting people, and we’re playing aggressively, then I think one, hopefully the result will be positive based on that level of play.”
Herman will need to see his team respond despite missing several key contributors, including Connor Williams, Holton Hill, DeShon Elliott, Lil’Jordan Humphrey, and Toneil Carter to name a few. He also is likely without Malik Jefferson, who he doesn’t expect to play but said he is still holding out hope for a “miracle.” He’ll go into the game with just one available scholarship tight end.
“We don’t blink,” Herman said. “If there are guys that are still here and still playing, then they’re tough dudes. It’s just another day at the office, so to speak.”
It will be difficult not to blink against Drew Lock, Missouri’s quarterback. When asked about what he saw on film from Lock, at first Herman simply responded “touchdowns.” Lock leads FBS in touchdown passes this season with 43.
“I see a guy that is comfortable in the offense,” Herman said. “He’s playing with a lot of confidence. He’s getting the ball out of his hands quickly and accurately. I also see guys in the supporting cast that are making plays for him, too. That is a very, very talented receiving corps that they have.”
As far as his own QB room, Herman said that all Texas quarterbacks, including incoming early enrollees Casey Thompson and Cameron Rising, will have a “clean slate” when spring practices begin.
“Neither of these quarterbacks have done anything so egregious that you would say that guy is behind the other one,” Herman said. “But neither of them have done anything really to take the bull by the horns.”
Shane Buechele will get the start in the Texas Bowl, though Herman admitted that Sam Ehlinger will see the field. “(Buechele) hasn’t done a whole lot to lose our trust, nor has Sam,” Herman added.
Overall, it’s an opportunity for Herman to see where his team stands, all while trying to avoid a historical mark nobody wants to be associated with.
“We are excited about the game tomorrow,” Herman said. “Excited to be representing the University of Texas in a bowl game once again. We’re going to have our hands full though with a really, really good Missouri team.”