We’re going to start this celebration of Texas Longhorns football with a word about Charlie Strong. Counterintuitive, I know. But hang in there.

Strong, like so many football coaches, had a weird fixation with -isms, maybe because reaching a certain level of insanity is a prerequisite to being a college football coach. From his opening press conference in 2014, he had one particular favorite: “We’re going to put the ‘T’ back in Texas.” He repeated it over and over, said it on TV, to magazines, and printed it on t-shirts.

If you think about it, that little saying makes no sense. Put a ‘T’ where? What he was getting at, though, was that he was going to make Texas football tough again.

“You always look for a niche,” he told Texas Monthly before his first season in Austin. “The image at Texas has been a program that didn’t play physical. And when you talk about being physical, you talk about toughness. So when I say ‘put the T back in,’ I’m talking about toughness. I’m also talking about trust; I’m talking about togetherness as a team. I want to build the toughness back into the program.”

Strong was fixating on a problem that plagued the Horns since the loss to Alabama in the 2010 National Championship. Everyone from ESPN to opposing linebackers called the Longhorns soft. The Austin American-Statesman’s Kirk Bohls wrote, “It’s a program of cookies and rainbows now.” The descent had a large part to do with the coach, Mack Brown, whose greatest gift and biggest curse was that he was always too nice. When Texas Monthly put Brown on the cover with the headline, “Let’s go kick some O.U. butt,” he said, “There’s no way I’d ever say, ‘Let’s go kick some OU butt.’ That’s ridiculous.” Brown’s best teams always got their edge from their best players; during no-contact practices in 2005, Vince Young would lay out any player who dared intercept him, but by 2012, the Horns’ leader was the black sheep of the McCoy family, Case.

Strong tried to put the ‘T’ back with force. He went old-school, 1950’s football coach on the Horns. Players had to earn the right to throw up the Hook ‘em sign. No player could have the Longhorn decal on their helmets until they proved that they deserved it. If a player was injured, they went to “The Pit,” where strength coaches would design a grueling workout for the part of the player’s body that wasn’t injured.

It didn’t work, and when Tom Herman was introduced two years later, he was forced to repeat the same message. His Longhorns, he said, would be “the most physically and mentally tough team on the field.”

Yesterday, against fifth-ranked Georgia in the Sugar Bowl, they finally were.

What a game. There are so many sea change moments to pick from, starting with Bevo charging Uga before kickoff, but I’ll stick to two that came a little later. The first was early in the fourth quarter, the Horns up 20-7 in the red zone. They needed a touchdown, and when a third down play broke down, quarterback Sam Ehlinger scrambled for a first down, lowered his shoulder, and was dragged down at the one-yard-line. For four straight plays, the Horns hammered Ehlinger into Georgia’s front seven. Georgia stuffed him the first three times, but on fourth down, Ehlinger broke through. While I would have preferred a little more clever play calling, the message it sent was noticeable. Texas stood up to Georgia, and the Dawgs were the ones who backed down first.

“I am sure we wouldn’t have been able to do that at Week 1 or Week 2,” Herman said of the series after the game. “And I think it certainly provided us a validation of our confidence heading into the game that we could do that.”

Then there was a defensive possession two drives later when Texas was up 28-14. A stop would all but seal the game for the Longhorns, and they responded by forcing Georgia into a quick three and out. Texas brought pressure on every play, and Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm popped off the turf after each of the three plays with a look that all but suggested there were birds chirping above his head. It was the most physical a Texas team had looked in years. They literally knocked the stitching out of Fromm’s Sugar Bowl patch.

Toughness isn’t just about hitting hard, though. The Longhorns have hammered some opposing players over the last decade (remember this one from Deshon Elliot?), but the second they were even poked back, they’d fold. What made yesterday’s win all the more shocking was the season that preceded it. Texas looked so uninspired in the season opener against Maryland that, as I was walking out of the stadium, I wondered aloud to some friends, “Should we just fire Herman now? Why waste time?” The team that took the field at the Superdome had different DNA.

So, is the ‘T’ back in Texas? It was yesterday, but whether it stays there or not will be the story of the offseason. The next nine months will be a nonstop parade of magazine covers and Sportscenter segments about how next year’s Longhorn team could make the playoff. They’ll almost certainly be ranked in the preseason top-5. It’s easier to come into a game fired up when you’re an underdog than when you’re a big favorite; just ask Georgia. The good news for Texas is that, like those great teams of the Mack Brown era, they get their swagger from their quarterback who hits and is built like a linebacker. After the game, he stood on the podium and announced, “We’re baaaaaack.” Maybe so. But can he and the rest of the team have the same edge when there’s a whole lot less to prove?

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