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Will Texas improve its record in one-score games? Will the Horns even play as many?

Joe Cookby:Joe Cook07/09/24

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Many of the growing pains in the first two years of Steve Sarkisian‘s tenure as head coach of the Texas Longhorns were made even more painful by the close margins in 10 of the program’s 12 losses. But Texas is likely better equipped to win in those types of games entering year four of Sarkisian’s tenure.

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Sarkisian and company were 13-12 during his first two seasons with 14 of those 25 games being decided by eight or fewer points. Texas was 2-5 in 2021 in one-score battles and repeated that record in 2022. Some of the hardest to swallow losses during the Sarkisian era were by less than a touchdown and a two-point conversion, including 2021 setbacks against Oklahoma and Kansas and the 2022 thriller against Alabama.

2021: 2-5

  • W: Texas 32, TCU 27
  • L: No. 6 Oklahoma 55, No. 21 Texas 48
  • L: No. 12 Oklahoma State 32, No. 25 Texas 24
  • L: No. 16 Baylor 31, Texas 24
  • L: Kansas 57, Texas 56
  • L: West Virginia 31, Texas 23
  • W: Texas 22, Kansas State 17

2022: 2-5

  • L: No. 1 Alabama 20, Texas 19
  • L: Texas Tech 37, No. 22 Texas 34
  • W: No. 22 Texas 24, Iowa State 21
  • L: No. 11 Oklahoma State 41, No. 20 Texas 34
  • W: Texas 34, No. 13 Kansas State 27
  • L: No. 4 TCU 17, No. 18 Texas 10
  • L: No. 12 Washington 27, No. 21 Texas 20

Texas played fewer one-score games in 2023 as a result of having a better culture and team. The Longhorns had more games where they prevailed by 21 or more points (7) than games decided by eight or fewer (5).

But even in those one-score contests during the regular season, the Longhorns found a way to win in all but the Red River Shootout against Oklahoma. That 34-30 defeat happened to be their only regular season loss. Outside of that mistake-laden loss, Longhorn battle scars built up from two years of agonizing losses were leaned on to earn victories in games that came down to the wire.

Texas survived at Houston thanks to Jahdae Barron, eked out an overtime win over Kansas State because of Byron Murphy, Barryn Sorrell, and Ryan Watts, and left Fort Worth with one more win due to heroics from Adonai Mitchell, Xavier Worthy, and Jordan Whittington.

The other one-score loss, however, was painful. Texas’ battle scars weren’t enough to overcome a team that had traversed a path to the national championship game filled with one-score losses. Texas finished 12 yards short of playing for the national championship in the Sugar Bowl versus Washington, who finished 8-0 in one-score games.

2023: 3-2

  • L: No. 12 Oklahoma 34, No. 3 Texas 30
  • W: No. 8 Texas 31, Houston 24
  • W: No. 7 Texas 33, No. 25 Kansas State 30
  • W: No. 7 Texas 29, TCU 26
  • L: No. 2 Washington 37, No. 3 Texas 31

Is there further room for improvement for improvement for the Longhorns? Looking at the two losses from last season, one that ended the year and another that stood alone as the glaring regular season blemish, and it’s reasonable for Sarkisian, his team, and fans of the Longhorns to believe those should have gone the other way.

Will the Longhorns play more one-possession games this year? That’s a question that’s currently difficult to answer.

The Longhorns have the No. 10 toughest strength of schedule entering the year according to ESPN’s FPI. Last year, the final season for the program in the Big 12, Texas’ final strength of schedule was No. 12 and first among Big 12 teams. In 2022, the final SOS was No. 24, good for third in the league. Sarkisian’s first season in 2021 saw UT finish No. 31 in strength of schedule.

As the Longhorns have seen their slate increase in difficulty, they’ve also seen the program improve and require fewer one-possession battles.

But football is played with an oblong shaped object that bounces in weird ways. The way those bounces go can dictate how games finish.

Plus, Texas is heading to the SEC, where the depth of the league is considerably greater than that of the Big 12. Teams on Texas’ schedule like Georgia, Oklahoma, Texas A&M, and Florida are all in the top 25 of FPI, as are the Michigan Wolverines who Texas will see in non-conference play.

How good were those teams in one-possession games? Power Four opponents on UT’s 2024 schedule combined to go 13-19 in one-score games last season. Michigan, Mississippi State, Oklahoma, and Georgia were above .500. Vanderbilt was 1-1 in one-possession games. Everyone else remaining on the Longhorns’ schedule were under .500. Arkansas was 1-5 in one score games. Texas A&M was 0-4.

Adding in the Group of Five teams on Texas’ schedule of Louisiana-Monroe, UTSA, and Colorado State, three teams that combined to go 6-6 in such games, and Texas’ 2024 opponents were 19-25 in close contests last season.

Texas may not play in a mere two games decided by eight or fewer points like Michigan did during its march to the national title last year. It’s also unlikely to play six frustrating affairs like Arkansas did in 2023, losing five of them.

Also, past results are not a guarantee of future performance. The bounces Washington received against Oregon twice might not go that way in other instances. Similar applies for the breaks Texas caught against Houston, TCU, and Kansas-State.

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But no matter how many one-score games the Longhorns find themselves in, they’re better equipped to emerge victorious and overcome anything from bad turnovers to odd bounces of the football than they were last season, and even more so than in the two years prior to 2023.

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