Is it finally time to have this conversation? Quarterback Sam Ehlinger thinks so. After Texas whipped Georgia 28–21 in the Sugar Bowl on Tuesday night, in a game that was not nearly as close as the final score indicated, Ehlinger stood on the trophy presentation stage with a smirk on his face and declared, “Longhorn nation…we’re baaaack!”
College football is fixated on answering the question, “Is Texas back?” While that’s difficult to answer, one thing is clear: Tom Herman has made significant progress in two years and has the program moving in the right direction.
“We pride ourselves in our physicality,” Herman said on the broadcast after the game. “They played hard early and they played hard late.”
Texas’s victory might have been preordained during pregame when the team’s respective mascots, Bevo XV and Uga X, had a little showdown. The mascots’ handlers attempted to create a cute photo op, but Bevo wasn’t interested. The steer charged toward the bulldog, knocking down the makeshift pen surrounding him, causing a brief moment of mayhem. Uga’s handler quickly moved the little dog out of the way and photographers scattered. The normally gentle Bevo quickly calmed down.
Turns out, that was a preview of what was to come.
With this victory, the Longhorns finished 10–4, earning their first 10-win season since 2009 when Colt McCoy was the quarterback and they played for a national championship. It could be true that Georgia wasn’t as motivated after being left out of the College Football Playoff. The Bulldogs were also missing a few players, including star defensive back Deandre Baker, a potential first-round draft pick who decided to sit out. And former defensive coordinator Mel Tucker recently left to become the head coach at Colorado. But that’s no excuse for getting outplayed and outcoached. Texas won the line of scrimmage, held Georgia’s running game that was averaging 251.6 yards per game to a season-low 72 yards, and Ehlinger torched the nation’s No. 14 defense with his arms and his legs.
“[This senior class is] going to go down as the most influential senior class because of the culture that they have instilled and upheld,” Herman said. “That locker room has finally become a player-led team instead of a coach-led team.”
Texas started 2018 with a season-opening road loss to Maryland, then proceeded to win its next six games, including a shootout against Oklahoma, and shot into the top 10. The Longhorns finished the regular season as the second-best team in the Big 12, and played OU in the conference championship game. Ending the season with a Sugar Bowl win as a 12.5 underdog will serve as momentum moving into 2019.
Ehlinger went 19-of-27 for 169 yards passing and rushed 21 times for 64 yards and scored all three of Texas’ touchdowns by trucking Georgia’s stout defensive line all night. The sophomore quarterback finished the year with 16 rushing scores, setting a new single-season record for the most by a Texas quarterback. He was previously tied with Vince Young with 14.
The Longhorns got off to a fast and impressive start, scoring on four of six drives in the first half. Ehlinger led a 10-play, 75-yard drive on the first possession, which included three big pass plays of more than 14 yards each, and was capped by a two-yard Ehlinger touchdown run.
By the end of the first half, Georgia had amassed just 108 total yards, a season low for the first half, while Texas had 178. Georgia made too many mistakes it ultimately couldn’t overcome, including an unfortunate kneel-down on a punt, a shanked punt and a fumble that resulted in a touchdown to put Texas up 17–0 early.
Georgia trailed 20–7 at halftime, but made a run in the fourth quarter. After Ehlinger scored his third rushing touchdown and completed the two-point conversion with 11:49 to play, the Bulldogs responded on the next drive to cut the score, 28–14. UGA scored again with 14 seconds left to make it a one-possession game, but ultimately ran out of time after a failed onside kick.
The biggest story line surrounding Georgia heading into this matchup was how motivated the players would be after getting left out of the playoff. After losing to Alabama in the SEC championship game, Kirby Smart and other supporters like Nick Saban stumped for the Bulldogs in hopes that the selection committee would view them as one of the four best teams, despite having two losses. Notre Dame got in the four-team field instead. And after Clemson crushed the Irish 30–3 in the Cotton Bowl, UGA players questioned the committee’s decision on Twitter.
Texas made sure that argument didn’t matter. The Longhorns outgained the Bulldogs 355–284 and held the running game in check. Top tailback D’Andre Swift had 12 yards on eight carries, plus a first half fumble that resulted in a Texas touchdown.
After dismantling a team that many felt deserved to be in the playoff, Texas’ relevancy will be one of the hottest topics this offseason. Ehlinger just made sure of it.