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Will this go down as the season in which No. 3 Texas, long at last, announces itself as "back" atop the college football world? 

Managing expectations hasn't been easy for the Longhorns since they last competed for a national championship during the 2009 season. Texas has repeatedly fallen short of even entering the contender conversation in that span, but a breakthrough has finally transpired in coach Steve Sarkisian's third season at the helm. After winning 12 games and the Big 12 championship for the first time that '09 campaign, the Longhorns are set to make their long-awaited College Football Playoff debut on New Year's Day against No. 2 Washington in the Sugar Bowl semifinal in New Orleans, Louisiana. 

Texas' journey to the CFP has been far from flawless, but rarely have any deficiencies been too much to overcome for a team that, when firing on all cylinders, has a clear national championship upside. The Longhorns displayed that as early as Week 2 when they won at fellow CFP participant Alabama by double digits for what is arguably the best victory by anybody in college football this season. Quarterback Quinn Ewers passed for 349 yards and three touchdowns in that win, ushering in what has been a season of tremendous growth for the second-year Longhorns starter. 

Two wins -- both against top-tier competition -- still separates Texas from what would be its first national title in 18 years. That's not an easy task, but the pieces are in place for Sarkisian and Co. to master their biggest test(s) yet and exit the 2023 campaign beating their chests as they prepare to move from the Big 12 to the SEC in July 2024. 

Here's a rundown of why Texas is poised to win it all. 

1. A strong culture has repeatedly conquered adversity 

Anybody who has followed Texas football closely for the past decade knows the narrative well: The Longhorns kick off the year amid hype and high rankings in the polls only to fall woefully short of conference title contention -- let alone national title contention -- by the season's end. It was as recently as two years ago in Sarkisian's Longhorns debut that Texas started 4-1 before a rash of one-score losses and blown second-half leads sunk the program to a six-game losing streak and 5-7 finish. 

Aside from a last-minute loss to Oklahoma in the Red River Rivalry, that version of Texas has notably been absent in 2023. In games which the Longhorns appeared to be reeling after jumping out to a big lead -- Kansas State, Houston and TCU among them -- Texas still made just enough plays on both sides of the ball to walk away with the victory. Injuries haven't deterred the Longhorns, either, whether it be Ewers missing two starts due to a shoulder injury or leading rusher Jonathon Brooks going down with an ACL injury in the closing weeks of the regular season.

The word "culture" has been a focal point of Sarkisian's messaging all season, and so far it has paid dividends. If the never-say-die version of Texas shows up against Washington, and subsequently Michigan or Alabama, a Longhorns roster that ranks among the most talented groups in the country may be hard for anybody to beat. Already, it's 1-0 against the Crimson Tide, and nobody else in the four-team field can claim a victory from the regular season against a CFP participant. As good teams do, Texas -- thanks to complementary football -- keeps finding ways to win.

2. Its offense has been firing on all cylinders 

College football -- or any sport -- can often come down to getting hot at the right time, and Texas fits that description entering its biggest stage since Colt McCoy was still QB1 on the Forty Acres. The Longhorns head to New Orleans having won three straight games by double digits, including a 57-7 demolition of Texas Tech in Week 13 and 49-21 rout of a 10-win Oklahoma State squad in the Big 12 Championship Game in which the offense stole the show both times. 

The wins over the Red Raiders and Cowboys all but embodied the "All Gas, No Brakes" mantra that Sarkisian brought with him to Texas back in 2021 after a championship-caliber stint as the offensive coordinator at Alabama. The former was the largest margin of victory of the season for the Longhorns, and the latter saw Ewers pass for a career-high 452 yards en route to being named Big 12 Championship Game MVP. Texas' 106 total points in those two victories were the most by the team in a two-game stretch in 2023 and more than the Longhorns had scored in their previous three games combined (88). 

With a stout offensive line and a wealth of skill weapons on that side of the ball -- tight end Ja'Tavion Sanders and wide receivers AD Mitchell and Xavier Worthy all have more than 600 yards receiving this season -- the Longhorns can cause issues for even college football's most stout defenses. In the immediate, Texas undoubtedly has the pieces needed to win a potential shootout with a Washington team that also prides itself offense. Expect Texas take plenty of shots through the air against a Huskies defense that ranks outside the top 100 nationally against the pass, allowing 263.2 yards through the air on average. 

3. Geography is playing into Texas' favor

There aren't any CFP games being contested in Austin, but the Longhorns have everything working in their favor when it comes to creating a home-field advantage this postseason. The trek from Austin to New Orleans (459 miles) for the Sugar Bowl is a mere fraction of the distance that Washington and much of its fanbase are making from Seattle (2,099 miles), so Texas can expect the crowd to lean heavily in its favor for that one. If the Longhorns advance to the CFP National Championship in Houston, it would be nothing short of a de facto home game. 

The CFP National Championship hasn't been contested in the home state of a participating team since the 2017 season when Alabama beat Georgia in Atlanta. The only other time the game was held in the Lone Star State came during the inaugural season of the CFP in 2014 when Ohio State beat Oregon in Arlington, Texas. If the Longhorns are part of this year's title tilt, get ready for a sea of burnt orange to invade NRG Stadium with all the marbles at stake. It won't decide the game, but it certainly won't hurt Texas.

Making a CFP case for ... No. 1 Michigan | No. 2 Washington | No. 4 Alabama