TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Matthew McConaughey walked toward the northeast corner of Bryant-Denny Stadium, two fingers held high as he approached a delirious crowd of Longhorns fans. Clad in boots, a cowboy hat and a freshly pressed white shirt, the laconic Texan didn’t speak. He didn’t need to. The scoreboard — Texas 34, Alabama 24 — said it all.
It’s been a long 13 years wandering in the wilderness for Texas, long years of plummeting from national championship contender to afterthought to entirely forgotten. Texas fans spent most of that time trying to convince themselves that even the smallest signs — a win over an FCS team, a first down, a day when Memorial Stadium doesn’t catch fire — were an indication that Texas was “back.”
Now, though, the sign is big enough to be seen from orbit. You walk into Bryant-Denny Stadium and punch Nick Saban’s team in the mouth, you hang two touchdowns on the Tide in the space of 15 seconds, you fight your way back into the top 10 … then you are most definitely back.
This was a program-defining victory for Texas, and for Alabama, a loss of historic proportions. The last time Alabama lost a game by double digits was the 2021-22 national championship to Georgia; the last time Alabama lost a home game by double digits was in 2004 — three years before Saban even arrived.
This was a game that Texas could have lost, and probably would have lost under a coach other than Steve Sarkisian. The Longhorns let Alabama hang around, settling for field goals and falling short on fourth-down conversions. Worse, Texas suffered through a scoreless third quarter as Alabama surged to take the lead. If, in that moment, the Longhorns rolled over and surrendered, well, nobody outside of Austin would’ve been all that surprised.
“A lot of people walk in this stadium and [feel] the mystique of Alabama, they’re beaten before the ball game begins,” Sarkisian said after the game, the relief evident on his face and in his rasping voice. “The moment doubt creeps in, that’s when you can start making the mistakes that can get you beat.”
Instead, the Longhorns found a new gear and turned the game inside out in just four plays. Texas quarterback Quinn Ewers slung a short pass that Ja’Tavion Mitchell turned into a 50-yard gain. One play later, Ewers found AD Mitchell in the end zone. One play after that, Jerrin Thompson picked off Alabama quarterback Jalen Milroe, and on the fourth play of the sequence that broke Alabama’s spirit, Jonathon Brooks punched in the touchdown that gave Texas an insurmountable lead.
“Even when we fell behind,” Sarkisian said, “I loved the response, the grit that our guys showed.”
Texas did the little things well, in a very un-Texas way. The team had no false-start penalties, committed no turnovers, allowed no sacks. Ewers, given time to work by a stout offensive line, completed 24 of 38 passes for 349 yards and three touchdowns. The Longhorns held the ball for the final seven minutes of the game, a sleeper hold that put Alabama down once and for all.
Those are the kinds of numbers, the kinds of playmaking, that bode well for the future. Texas was already the overwhelming favorite to win the Big 12, and now a playoff berth is a reasonable expectation, even if Sarkisian is still preaching one game at a time.
“This game’s not going to define our season. We’ve got 10 more regular season games to play,” Sarkisian said. ‘But I think it does serve as a good benchmark for us, what we’re capable of and the potential of who we can be as a team.”
As the game wound down, Texas players stood on their bench and waved goodbye to the departing Bama faithful. Along the sideline, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott shook hands with Longhorns players. Out on the field, Vince Young, who quarterbacked Texas to its most recent national championship in 2005, ran to shake Saban's hand. In the stands, the Texas fans that had found each other began chanting “S-E-C! S-E-C!”, a mocking testament to the conference’s suddenly wobbly superiority.
“Why are y’all saying ‘SEC’? You aren’t even in the conference!” an Alabama fan protested, a comeback as ineffectual as the Tide’s deep secondary.
Texas isn’t in the SEC yet. But in less than a year, the Longhorns will be. And suddenly, that seems less like a seven-win joke, and more like a serious threat.