Sark won't get a honeymoon at Texas

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I don't want to sound too hyperbolic and unfair considering the guy hasn't coached a game yet, so let's try this on for size and see how it fits: Steve Sarkisian is already on the hot seat at Texas.

Okay, okay, that's too strong. Way too strong. Let's dial it back a bit with this: To get Texas to the places he was hired to take the program, Sarkisian will have to do so against one of the nation's most consistently difficult schedules. The treadmill slopes straight upward from the beginning and never really lets up.

The challenge begins in Week 1.

Difficult as it may be to accept at face value, Louisiana represents the most difficult debut game for a new Longhorn head coach since David McWilliams opened with No. 5 Auburn in 1987. (The Horns lost that one 31-3 and finished 7-5.) Billy Napier's Ragin' Cajuns finished 2020 at 10-1 and a program-record AP No. 15 ranking, and they're ranked No. 16 in Mark Schlabach's preseason Top 25. (Texas is No. 22, behind not only ULL but Sun Belt bunk mate Coastal Carolina.) The Cajuns rank No. 1 in FBS in returning production, brining back 93 percent of an offense that scored 33.6 points a game and 98 percent of a defense that rated 13th nationally in yards per play last fall.

The following week, Texas visits what is probably the most difficult road environment a Longhorn team can face: at Arkansas. Sam Pittman's team did go just 3-7 in his all-SEC debut season, but that won't matter on the evening of Sept. 11. It'll be just Texas's second trip to Fayetteville since 1989. In the only visit since then, in 2004, a Texas team that would go on to win the Rose Bowl needed a late touchdown to eek out a 22-20 win over an Arkansas team that finished 5-6. Considering the circumstances -- the lingering new-car-smell of the Pittman era, that the stands should be full after the hell of last year -- we're talking about the most raucous atmosphere inside DWR Razorback Stadium since... LSU in 2010? Tennessee in 2006? Heck, maybe since that 2004 Texas game.

Moving on, Texas returns to Austin for home games with Rice and Texas Tech (if both aren't wins, we're having a different conversation) before a pre-Red River visit to TCU. Gary Patterson is 7-2 against Texas since joining the Big 12, winner of three straight in Fort Worth. TCU returns 87 percent of its offensive production (13th), including quarterback Max Duggan, and running back Zach Evans and wide receiver Quinton Johnston are among the most talented players at their position in the conference, if not the nation.

After that, the Longhorns jet across I-30 to face Oklahoma in Dallas. OU's strengths and UT's relative struggles need no explaining here. The Sooners have won three in a row; and five of six; and nine of 12; and 15 of 22. They're currently jostling with Alabama for preseason No. 1 honors, depending on which outlet you read.

With a home date opposite Oklahoma State following Red River, anything from 7-0 to 2-5 is on the table heading into the off week.

Texas will then visit Baylor before a trip to Iowa State -- No. 6 in Schlabach's rankings and No. 4 in Connelly's returning production ratings. It's safe to say this will be the best Iowa State team ever, a statement you can make of what you will. The Cyclones bring back 94 percent of an offense (fifth in the nation) that threw for 312 yards on 8.7 an attempt in their 23-20 win in Austin last November, the nail in the coffin of the Herman era.

From there, Texas closes with Kansas, West Virginia and Kansas State. The KU game may be a gimme, but a 3-0 sweep isn't. During this ongoing 11-year stretch through Death Valley, Texas has won three straight Big 12 games six times. Win enough games and Texas's reward will be a berth in the Big 12 Championship, which likely means a rematch with preseason No. 1 Oklahoma or No. 6 Iowa State.

For all the reasons stated above, no one actively expects Texas to reach, much less win, the Big 12 title this year. It's Year 1, after all, and the team has holes to fill at a number of key spots, most notably quarterback.

But Sark must win the Big 12 and reach the Playoff at some point, otherwise he wouldn't be in burnt orange in the first place.

So how about in 2022 or '23? Texas plays a home-and-home with Alabama in those years (in Austin in '22, in Tuscaloosa in '23), and we all know how Nick Saban treats his former assistants. He's 23-0 with an average margin of 26 points. The backbone of those Crimson Tide teams will be the 2021 recruiting class, an all-time record-breaking haul that includes the No. 1 quarterback, No. 1 running back, No. 1 receiver, No. 1 offensive tackle, No. 1 center and No. 1 linebacker in the state of Texas. Included in that group are the Brockermeyer twins -- tackle Tommy, in the running for the No. 1 overall player in the '21 class, and center James -- whose father and grandfather are former Horns, whose parents met at Texas, and whose older brother Luke is currently vying for snaps as a Texas linebacker. Saban and Sarkisian are currently locking horns over a number of players in the 2022 class, most notably Houston corner Denver Harris and Frisco receiver Evan Stewart.

Truth be told, any player anywhere is fair game for Saban, he's just happened to take a particular interest in Lone Star prospects due to all the reasons Sarkisian was hired to fix.

Texas plays Michigan in 2024, and then Ohio State cycles on the schedule in 2025-26. It's possible the Buckeyes are quarterbacked by Quinn Ewers in that '25 game, a Southlake, Texas, product who's listed as the No. 1 overall prospect in the class of 2022 -- a player so highly regarded that his de-commitment from Texas and subsequent flip to Ohio State signaled the unofficial end of the Tom Herman regime.

We're a long, long way from the end of the 2021 season, much less the beginning of the 2025 campaign, but the point is this: Texas will likely have to go 2-1 against Oklahoma and Alabama/Ohio State to reach the College Football Playoff (as it's presently constituted) and undefeated against everyone else. It's a high bar to clear.

The Buckeyes have joined Alabama in pillaging Texas's top talent over the previous decade and into the current one. JT Barrett, JK Dobbins, Jeff Okudah, Baron Browning are all former Texans, as are current Buckeye wideouts Garrett Wilson and Jaxon Smith-Njigba, with Ewers and another 5-star receiver in Austin's Caleb Burton slated to join them next year.

Texas isn't going to beat OU, Alabama and Ohio State on the field until it does so in the living room, and it's going to be really hard to beat the nation's elite in the living room if they're consistently losing on the field. Such is life in college football's dog-eat-dog ecosystem, where Texas has been the eaten for a decade and counting now.

If Texas is not among the nation's absolute elite almost immediately, we'll all be in for another round of "Will Texas ever be back?" and "Is Sark the guy?" stories in 2022, '23 and beyond. Playing Alabama and Ohio State is a double-edged sword. Either Sark plunges the blade directly into the crimson and scarlet giants, or they dive it through his own burnt orange chainmail.

It would be a false assumption to say Texas is running out of patience. It's already out. Charlie Strong's 3-year tenure was the shortest of any head Horn since the Great Depression. Tom Herman's 4-year run was simultaneously A) the program's high point since Colt McCoy hit the Rose Bowl grass in January of 2010 and B) not up to the school's standards. Three AP Top 25 finishes in four years -- including 2020 -- were not enough to buy him a fifth season.

Sarkisian didn't create any problems, but it's now his job to fix them.

For his part, Sarkisian recognizes this. "I think there's championship talent on this team. Clearly, there's work to be done or a change wouldn't be made," he said at his Jan. 2 introductory press conference. "Now it's it's my responsibility to make the perception become a reality that Texas is a perennial powerhouse, that we are always in the discussion year in and year out for the College Football Playoff and a Big 12 championship."

“I firmly believe it’s not going to take us as long as maybe some of the outsiders think,” he said in a call with boosters, via Inside Texas. “I think we’ve got a good, young roster to work with. I think we’re going to recruit really well. At the end of the day, we’ve got to find a way to win those close games in the end, which clearly has snake bitten this program here a little bit the last couple of years.”

The challenge begins in the very first game and never really lets up from there. All gas, no brakes, indeed.