No. 11 Texas travels to face No. 3 Alabama in one of the highest-profile matchups early on in the 2023 college football season. The Longhorns are 7-point underdogs but hope to become the first nonconference foe to knock off Alabama since Nick Saban's first season leading the Crimson Tide in 2007.
Since these two teams met in the 2010 BCS National Championship Game, the programs have diverged dramatically. Saban has led Alabama to one of the great runs in the history of sports, winning six national championships with 11 top-five finishes and a 162-19 record. To the contrary, Texas has more five-win seasons (3) than top-five finishes (0) since the 2010 title game.
However, Longhorns fans are counting on former Saban assistant Steve Sarkisian to right the ship. Texas enters the season picked atop the Big 12 for the first time since 2009, but the focus is on preparing for an SEC entrance in July 2024.
Amazingly, Texas was undefeated against the vaunted Tide until Nick Saban arrived, posting a 7-0-1 record with four major bowl wins. Three of the wins came against the great Paul "Bear" Bryant. However, Saban's Tide crushed Texas 37-21 in the 2010 BCS National Championship Game and edged the 'Horns 20-19 in Austin last season. Texas was moments away from stunning Alabama, but yet another magical Bryce Young drive ultimately cost them the game at the buzzer.
Here are five keys that could ultimately decide whether Texas can finish the job this time around.
1. Protect Quinn Ewers
Texas quarterback Quinn Ewers was the first perfect 1.0000 quarterback recruit in the 247 Composite Ratings coming out of high school since Vince Young, but his breakout moment came last year against the Tide. In one quarter of work, Ewers threw for 134 yards, not counting a perfectly thrown touchdown pass to wide receiver Xavier Worthy that was dropped.
After his superb start, Ewers had to leave the game with a major shoulder injury following a big hit from Alabama linebacker Dallas Turner. Outside of a strong performance against Oklahoma, Ewers struggled to ever get back to his first-quarter brilliance for the rest of the season.
Frustratingly, Texas struggled to block consistently in Week 1 against Rice; three of Texas' five starting linemen finished with offensive grades below 60, per Pro Football Focus. Ewers was pressured eight times and sacked thrice. With the All-American Turner back, Texas' line is going to be tested early and often.
2. Limit Jalen Milroe
Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young was one of the great passing playmakers in modern college football history. With Young off to the NFL, all eyes turn to his backup Jalen Milroe. A Texan by way of Katy (Texas) Tompkins, Milroe has some athletic traits that compare favorably to another Houstonian by way of Alabama: Jalen Hurts.
In two career starts, Milroe is completing 68% of his passes, averaging 5.4 yards per carry and has eight touchdowns to just one interception. In one notable play against Middle Tennessee last week, Milroe picked up a bad snap and somehow weaved through the entire defense for a 21-yard touchdown run.
Milroe is still an inexperienced passer and only threw 37 combined passes in his two starts. Texas' defense will have to remain disciplined and force Milroe into being a pocket passer. If Milroe escapes the pocket, all bets are off.
3. Lean on a running back
When Texas went on its second-half surge in 2022, the Longhorns leaned on first-round running back Bijan Robinson to carry them. With Robinson gone, Texas is spreading the wealth between three young, talented running backs.
Jonathon Brooks, CJ Baxter and Jayden Blue combined for 27 carries for 145 yards in the win over Rice. Brooks led the way with 12 carries, not including a 37-yard touchdown reception. Blue posted the most yards rushing with 55 on 10 carries, while Baxter broke off a 32-yard run, the longest of the day.
Ultimately, Texas has to find a running back that it trusts in the biggest moments against a physical Alabama defensive front. The running back room combined for 4.7 yards per carry against Rice, so someone needs to get into a rhythm.
4. Spread the field
Ahead of the season, Ohio State. That depth failed to show up much against Rice in the opener. Two of Texas' top four receiving leaders were running back Brooks and tight end Ja'Tavion Sanders, while Worthy, an All-American, was the only receiver to finish with more than 50 yards receiving.Texas as the No. 2 wide receiver room in the nation trailing only
Worthy was targeted 10 times, nearly double the amount of any other receiver. Georgia transfer AD Mitchell was second with six targets but came down with just three catches for 26 yards. Mitchell was the only receiver on the team with an average depth of target of more than 15 yards.
Alabama's secondary ranks among the top units on the team and held Middle Tennessee's Nicholas Vattiato to just 127 yards on 3.9 yards per attempt behind star defensive back trio Kool-Aid McKinstry, Malachi Moore and Terrion Arnold. Relying on intermediate possession throws won't create enough opportunities against this Alabama defense. Texas' receivers have to rise to the occasion and play like an elite unit.
5. Survive the moment
Needless to say, Texas is facing perhaps its most significant nonconference road matchup in nearly two decades. Alabama boasts one of the top home-field advantages in college football. The Tide have won 21 straight games at home, the longest active streak in college football. Before that loss to Joe Burrow's 2019 LSU squad, Alabama had a streak of 31 straight wins at home.
Texas has been notably poor playing in unfamiliar locales over the past decades. The Longhorns have lost five straight true road nonconference games, not even counting what was technically a "neutral-site" loss to 2017 Maryland at FedEx Field. Three of the losses -- Arkansas (2021), Notre Dame (2015) and BYU (2013) -- finished as three-score losses. The embarrassments came under three different coaches.
There's one piece of optimism, though. The last time Texas played a major blue blood on the road with expectations was in 2005 when Vince Young orchestrated a 25-22 takedown of No. 4 Ohio State in Columbus, Ohio. The win ultimately set up a run to the national championship. With great matchups comes great opportunity.