Storylines abound ahead of the Texas-Oklahoma Big 12 championship game Saturday at AT&T Stadium. There's College Football Playoff implications for the No. 5 Sooners, trash talk traded between quarterbacks and the widespread ramifications of a Red River rematch for the first time in 115 years.
Hidden among the headlines, an opportunity exists for Texas to accomplish something with its first Big 12 title since 2009 -- and by ejecting the Sooners from the national-title conversation -- that did not appear possible three months ago after its season-opening loss to Maryland.
The Longhorns can complete the kind of sudden jump under coach Tom Herman that even their impatient fan base struggled to envision as recently as three weeks ago. The kind of improvement in the second year of a regime that signaled the dawn of great eras at Oklahoma in 2000, USC and Ohio State in 2002, Florida in 2006, Alabama in 2008 and perhaps Georgia in 2017.
You want to know if Texas is back? The outcome Saturday in Arlington, Texas, will offer a huge clue.
"It's an opportunity," senior defensive end Charles Omenihu said, "to be where we need to be."
Yes, a 10th victory and a Sunday invitation to play in the Allstate Sugar Bowl as the Big 12 champion would stamp this season as a resounding success. Pending how they'll play on New Year's Day, a win Saturday may propel Texas among the favorites next year to make the College Football Playoff, in what would be their first appearance.
It would move the Longhorns a big step closer to claiming what they've often viewed as their rightful position in the hierarchy of the sport -- a position from which Texas has remained missing now for nearly a decade.
"The program is getting back to where it needs to be," senior tight end Andrew Beck said, "which has been our goal since this team got together in January."
That said, Herman has slowed some of the hype with talk that Texas is ahead of schedule in its progression after three straight losing seasons before his arrival in November 2016. The coach doubled down last week after a 24-17 win at Kansas to end the regular season, saying that his team is "overachieving right now."
No. 14 Texas has won six of nine games decided by one score this season. So yeah, it's margin for error is slim. But good luck convincing many around Austin that this program, which won 10 games or more for nine consecutive seasons under former coach Mack Brown, is playing over its head at 9-3.
Some seem to agree with Herman.
"What we've been through the past two years," linebacker Anthony Wheeler said, "if you'd have asked us if we had the chance to go to the Big 12 [title game], we'd have probably just brushed it off."
But more prevalent in Texas camp is a belief that the Longhorns are right on track as Herman's second season nears an end.
Quarterback Sam Ehlinger said Texas continues to stop itself.
"I don't think we're anywhere close to reaching our potential," Ehlinger said.
Safety Caden Sterns, the Big 12 defensive freshman of the year and a first-team all-league pick, said Herman and the Texas coaches sold him a year ago on the notion that Longhorns would quickly climb to the top.
"It was a matter of putting in the work, trusting one another," Sterns said. "But that's the goal."
It's always the goal. And that's the thing about Texas -- through all the low moments of the past few years, according to Omenihu, the Longhorns never lost sight of the lofty expectations.
"You come here to play for championships and do big things in life," he said.
The third winningest program in college football history, Texas has played in five of 16 Big 12 championship games and won three.
Brown, in his second season, coached in the Big 12 title game in 1999 and lost to Nebraska, then lost to Arkansas in the Cotton Bowl. His first league title at Texas came in 2005, his eighth year. But Bob Stoops at Oklahoma, Pete Carroll at USC, Jim Tressel at Ohio State, Urban Meyer at Florida and Kirby Smart at Georgia all won or shared conference championships in their second seasons.
Nick Saban at Alabama played for the SEC crown in his second year and lost to Meyer's Gators -- but Saban got them the next season.
Regardless of timing, the meaning of the message Texas can deliver on Saturday is clear.
"This is everything we worked for," junior receiver Collin Johnson said. "We worked to put ourselves in position to play in the championship game and win it."