Austin, Texas • On a cloudy weekend morning in late December, the University of Texas campus is quiet, except for the noise of heavy construction machinery in the south end zone of Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium.
In the southeast corner of the 100,119-seat facility's upper deck, overlooking the $175 million enhancement project, numbers celebrate Texas' Big 12 Conference football championships. The most recent title: 2009.
That partly explains why the construction work is so urgent. The Longhorns’ past success means they have some catching up to do.
Texas is next for Utah, in Tuesday’s Alamo Bowl, with the Longhorns owning a historic, brand name like no other school on that list. Not since they met Alabama in the 2009 Sugar Bowl have the Utes been paired in a bowl with one of college football’s blueblood programs.
The fact the contest occurs in San Antonio, apart from the New Year’s Six menu, is a commentary on the state of Texas’ program. The Longhorns finished in a four-way tie for third place in the Big 12. Even so, this is Texas — an opponent that comes complete with Bevo (the live mascot steer), the “Hook 'em horns” sign and the “Eyes of Texas” song.
NO. 12 UTAH VS. TEXAS
When • Tuesday, 5:30 p.m. MST
TV • ESPN
“If you know college football, then you know Texas,” said Utah receiver Jaylen Dixon, from the Dallas-Fort Worth area. “For a long time, that’s just how it’s been.”
The Longhorns “own the state,” said Ute tight end Brant Kuithe, from suburban Houston.
The Texas brand expands beyond the borders, giving the Alamo Bowl more cachet for Utah. The Utes could have played on a more glamorous stage in the Rose Bowl or the College Football Playoff, but they couldn't have asked for a more recognizable opponent. The Utes' only meeting with Texas (a 21-12 loss) came in 1982, when the school needed to play occasional money-driven games as a Western Athletic Conference member.
Thanks partly to Texas' presence, the Alamo Bowl is another sign of the Utes' ascent. The game is especially meaningful to Utah's Texans, having grown up amid the aura of the Longhorns. The statewide football culture is “a lifestyle, day in and day out,” Kuithe said. “You wake up, you eat and sleep and play football. It's just constant.”
That's why Kuithe, Dixon, offensive guard Braeden Daniels and others view the Alamo Bowl as the Utes' opportunity to “showcase what Texas guys can do in Texas,” Kuithe said. “I didn't get much [recruiting] look from Texas, so I'm going to come out with a little extra juice and just get the guys fired up.”
In that sense, Utah benefits from being motivated to play Texas, without having to deal with a vintage Texas team. The Longhorns’ Sugar Bowl victory in January season evoked quarterback Sam Ehlinger’s declaration that “We’re baaaack!” But with a 7-5 record in coach Tom Herman’s third season — even with seven-point losses to Playoff semifinalists LSU and Oklahoma — Texas has reverted to so-so status lately.
The Longhorns are 77-59 in this decade, after going 99-17 in the previous 10 seasons. Texas has gone 3-7 vs. rival Oklahoma, while losing twice to BYU and suffering embarrassing defeats in the Big 12. Former coach Charlie Strong was fired after three seasons (Mark Harlan, now Utah's athletic director, then hired Strong at South Florida, where he since has been fired). Herman has shaken up his staff this month, firing defensive coordinator Todd Orlando, a former Utah State assistant.
Orlando’s dismissal influenced Van Fillinger, a defensive end from Corner Canyon High School in Draper, to spurn Texas and sign with Utah last week. Utah also signed running back Ty Jordan, from the Dallas-Fort Worth, after he previously committed to Texas. He’s among four Texas products the Utes landed in the December signing period. The Longhorns grabbed a Utah commit, linebacker Jaylan Ford, who played at the same high school as Dixon and Jason Shelley.
That move fulfilled what Ute defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley said recently about Texas being “one of those programs that can step in at the last hour and [make an] offer and you may lose him.”
Yet the Utes have established themselves in the Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth areas. With roughly 400 FBS signees in the state annually, “They can't all go to [Texas],” Ute coach Kyle Whittingham said.
The state became one of Whittingham's targeted recruiting areas when he took the job in 2005, after former coach Ron McBride had made some in-roads. The Utes are well known among high school coaches in Houston, said Scalley, who has recruited that area since becoming a full-time coach in 2008.
Dixon, though, remembers the reaction from folks in Frisco, Texas, when they learned of his college choice: They're like, 'Utah?' They don't really get it.”
Maybe they’ll better understand, if Utah beats Texas.