AUSTIN, Texas -- Texas, a program that is afforded every opportunity, finally had a chance to show it was deserving of its standing.
The Longhorns, due to TCU, their own inept offensive play, quarterback indecision and the worst defense in program history, have instead been left with no leg to stand on for the third straight year.
That's not to say there has not been progress. (The Holiday Bowl is still getting a busy signal what with the Alamo and Buffalo Wild Wings bowls on lines 1 and 2.) But it is hard to spot any progress when peaking through parted fingers at all the horrors that Texas so frequently produces on the field.
Thursday was another one of those nights. It's not just that Texas lost to TCU (7-4, 4-4) for only the second time in 30 games. And the No. 16 Longhorns (8-3, 5-3) did just that, 20-13 in front of 99,950 fans at Darrell K Royal Memorial Stadium. It's how Texas lost much more than just a game.
This was a team that after two-plus years of fits and starts had almost grasped its identity. Four straight wins had eased the questions about head-scratching play calls by co-offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin. The piñata-batting of defensive coordinator Manny Diaz had almost grown tiresome and, egad, out of place. A BCS game was within reach thanks to the juggernaut that is Baylor taking down Kansas State. Oh, and Texas had almost two weeks to prepare for the TCU game -- a game that was set up to propel the program within a few steps of the national stage.
A pratfall ensued. Maybe it should have been expected. But everyone had been lured -- by one of the most convincing talkers in the history of college football in Mack Brown, mind you -- into believing this was not the same team that had lost by 42 to Oklahoma in October or by 38 to the Sooners last season.
"Our fans are smart. They know we are about to get good again." Brown said just a few days ago.
And the thing is, he is right. The fans believed. They believed because want and hope are the blessings and demons of every sports fan. Even with 1:30 left and Case McCoy furiously scrambling before throwing a pick, the fans believed. But it is time to sidestep the sucker punch that those beliefs continually have brought and instead take a step into reality: This team and this program is only slightly changed from the teams and program that has continually and embarrassingly lost in the only real measuring-stick game (OU) on Texas' schedule.
That these are all issues that continue to resurface is an indication of an underlying fundamental problem within this program. The problems and blame fall at the feet of Brown. What can be maddening is he so graciously accepts it, explains it and then is unable to do anything to change it. It's a pattern that has grown tiresome but one that has continued without abatement for three years.
Maybe this loss, with so much on the line and so little fundamental football played by Texas, will change things. After all, Brown is the one who continually says at Texas you are judged by wins. But he is now being judged more for his losses. And with this latest loss the jury has surely grown from 12 angry men into a swarm with lighted torches and pitchforks.
If Brown, who has boosters and cache from past wins in his corner, can win at Kansas State -- Texas has lost four straight to the Wildcats and Brown is 2-6 against KSU coach Bill Snyder -- this season will still be seen as one in which Texas progressed. It will certainly be painted that way by those who run the program. But because of what has happened against teams like TCU, OU and WVU, which has lost five straight after beating Texas, skepticism will be warranted.
So too will Texas' standing in the Big 12 -- behind Oklahoma and watching the Sooners play in a BCS bowl.