How a close loss to Alabama is inspiring Steve Sarkisian and Texas football for the future

Bryce Young's clutch run leads to Alabama's winning field goal (0:37)

Bryce Young escapes the blitz for a big first down, leading to Alabama's game-winning field goal. (0:37)

AUSTIN -- In the past, any celebration of moral victories for the Texas Longhorns would be met with a syrupy "bless your heart," in Austin, dripping with the kind of disdain generally reserved for a newly arrived Californian who complains about the heat.

Not at Texas, the program with the fourth-most victories -- and not the moral kind -- in college football history.

But a funny thing happened on Saturday, after a 20-19 loss to No. 1 Alabama in Game 14 of the Steve Sarkisian era. The burnt orange faithful were imbued with the rarest of gifts: perspective.

Consider that the Longhorns lost starting quarterback Quinn Ewers in the first quarter, an injury that conjured up haunting images for Longhorns fans of quarterback Colt McCoy's injury on the sixth play of the 2010 national title game against the Crimson Tide. Consider that Hudson Card, who came on in relief of Ewers, ended up hobbling around on a bad ankle, so much so that Sarkisian said the game plan had to be changed to protect him. Consider that Alabama took away stellar running back Bijan Robinson for much of the day.

Quinn Ewers exits game after big hit

Quinn Ewers exits in the first quarter vs. Alabama after taking a big hit.

And still, at the end, the Longhorns went to the wire against Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide, foiled perhaps only by what Sarkisian called a "Houdini act" by Bryce Young. Last year's Heisman winner escaped a sack when he ducked under a blitzing defensive back and ran 20 yards to the Longhorns' 17-yard line, setting up the game-winning field goal four plays later with 10 seconds left on the clock.

The end result was a loss, and nobody was happy about it, to be clear. It felt like Texas was the best team on the field on Saturday and still came up short. But there weren't a lot of heads hanging by those in burnt orange -- players or fans.

A vast majority of the record crowd of 105,213 that packed Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium stayed behind afterward to sing "The Eyes of Texas" with the players. They, too, deserved to take a bow. DKR was raucous, defying an ages-old reputation that Texas crowds don't get rowdy. The fans earned a chunk of credit for Alabama's 15 penalties for 100 yards that were the most in Saban's Tide tenure.

A Texas team that closed as a 21.5-point underdog -- the largest point spread for a game in Austin since the 1978 FBS/FCS split -- ended up being just the second team ever to lose by a single point to a Saban-coached Alabama team (Arkansas was the first, with a 14-13 loss in 2014).

Could this be the rare loss that actually gives a team confidence and a springboard moving forward?

"That's the best team in the country," Sarkisian said. "In a weird way, we kind of feel pretty good about ourselves, kind of where we're at in the state of our program."

Obviously, after Sarkisian's first season, a 5-7 campaign filled with calamities, beginning with snatching defeat from the jaws of victory against Oklahoma, to a shocking home loss to Kansas, there were plenty of questions on whether Texas was ready for a move to the SEC.

On this day, however, even Saban was a believer.

"This is like playing an SEC game on the road," he said. "If they were in the SEC now, they'd probably be in the top half of the league."

Chalk it up to coachspeak, perhaps, a coach complimenting a former assistant. But Sarkisian spent three seasons in Tuscaloosa, two as Saban's offensive coordinator, and said he thought the performance was a preview of a Texas SEC game.

"That's kind of what it looks like," Sarkisian said. "You know, there's a lot of big people, a lot of fast people that run in it. And that's kind of what it takes."

A much-maligned Texas defense that finished 99th nationally last season instead put those big people to use, with the Longhorns' defensive line pushing the Alabama offensive line around all day. Alabama running backs carried the ball 17 times for just 123 yards, with 81 of those coming on a touchdown run by Jase McClellan in the first quarter. Following McClellan's score, Alabama punted on six straight drives and didn't score again until a fourth-quarter flurry.

"Throughout the game, our big boys up front were giving their big boys hell," linebacker DeMarvion Overshown said.

Robinson, the focus of Alabama's defense, was held to 57 yards on 21 carries, an average of just 2.7 yards per rush, but added a career-high 73 receiving yards and said he felt a new mentality in Austin.

"I know we didn't come out with a win, but it just showed in people's eyes," Robinson said. "We're not the team that'll back down anymore. We're gonna bring the fight the whole game, throughout the whole season. And we're ready to go against anybody."

Still, the Longhorns came unwound after losing a double-digit lead to Oklahoma at the Cotton Bowl last season, losing their next five games, the longest losing streak at Texas since 1956. Sarkisian has said all offseason that he felt this team was different.

Fifth-year senior defensive lineman Keondre Coburn draws a lot of attention on and off the field at 6-foot-3 and 344 pounds, and as one of the Longhorns' best quote machines. After starting 34 games for the Longhorns over his career, he's able to see the big picture.

"The past five years I've been here I've never seen the team just grind as hard throughout the whole game," he said. "We played our butts off. Obviously I'm frustrated we didn't get the job done. But there's so much we can look forward to."

Senior defensive back Anthony Cook echoed Coburn's sentiments.

"We definitely learned something about ourselves," he said. "We're going to use this as a springboard, a catapult for the rest of the season."

The first step will be Saturday, when a tough, motivated UTSA team will come to Austin to test the Longhorns' mettle. That mettle will be tested further with Ewers out at least a month with a shoulder injury.

Coburn stressed that UTSA was next on his list, promising he is zeroed in on the one-week-at-a-time mantra that has been drilled into him by his coaches. But he still couldn't help but think bigger after helping to push around an Alabama team that suddenly didn't look like world-beaters.

He cited another team that lost to Alabama last season and how they were able to avenge it.

"I just preached to the boys after the game that this was just one game," Coburn said. "Georgia won a national championship with one loss. ... We've got a chance to still see those guys again.

"All we have to do is do everything right."