Any anxiety the Texas Longhorns experienced over whether they would be included in the College Football Playoff lifted Sunday when the selection committee matched them against Washington at the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1, creating a scene of pure joy at the team watch party in Austin.
"Our players kind of exuded all the emotions we had," coach Steve Sarkisian said minutes later on ESPN. "When you don’t know — which is always the most difficult part when there’s a committee and you’re not an undefeated team — there’s always going to be that bit of nervousness, anxiety because you don’t know what the discussions are in that room."
Texas’ only loss this season was to Oklahoma in October. The Longhorns’ best win was 34-24 at Alabama in September.
Linebacker Jaylan Ford had a range of emotions as he watched two of the conference championship games that followed the Longhorns’ 49-21 win over Oklahoma State for the Big 12 title. Alabama beat Georgia in the SEC and Florida State beat Louisville in the ACC.
"We watched the ‘Bama game on the bus ... We were like ‘Ok, we’ve got a chance,’ " Ford said. "I watched the Florida State game at home. That kind of gave me a little doubt, because you never know. When we saw that third spot go up, everybody erupted."
The third-seeded Longhorns (12-1) are in the CFP for the first time and will play the Pac-12 champion Huskies (13-0) in a bowl for the second straight year. Washington held off Texas 27-20 in the Alamo Bowl last year.
The Huskies, seeded No. 2, are in the playoff for the second time. The Huskies lost 24-7 to Alabama in the 2016 semifinal at the Peach Bowl in Atlanta. They all but locked up their playoff spot in New Orleans with Friday’s 34-31 win over Oregon in the Pac-12 championship game.
"I’m sure it was a little different for me than it was for Coach Sark," Washington coach Kalen DeBoer said of the hours leading to the announcement. "We knew we needed to win that football game. Hat’s off to our coaching staff and players for grinding through the week and putting together a great game plan. It did allow for a very enjoyable day (Saturday)."
No. 1 seed Michigan (13-0) will play No. 4 Alabama (12-1) in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1. The national championship game is Jan. 8 in Houston.
EWERS VS. PENIX II
The game will be a rematch of 2022 Alamo Bowl quarterbacks Ewers of Texas and Heisman Trophy candidate Michael Penix Jr. of Washington.
Penix threw for 287 yards and two touchdowns against the Longhorns, who were without star running back Bijon Robinson and two other players who opted to sit out.
Ewers was 31 of 47 for 369 yards and led Texas back from a 17-point deficit. The Longhorns had a final chance to win when they got the ball with 32 seconds left, but the game ended with Texas at the Huskies’ 40.
WINNING THE CLOSE ONES
Eight of Washington’s last nine games have been decided by single digits. The last four wins have been by a total of 15 points.
Sarkisian again will be facing his old school. Sarkisian was the Huskies’ coach from 2009-13, going 34-29 with three bowl appearances.
"Washington still holds a special place to me," Sarkisian said. "I got my first head coaching opportunity there and had five just tremendous years in trying to rebuild that program."
TEXAS’ STEADY RISE
The Longhorns have made a steady rise since going 5-7 in 2021, Sarkisian’s first season.
"We knew there would be way better times," Ford said. "After that season, everyone was more motivated than ever."
SUGAR IS JUST FINE
DeBoer acknowledged an argument could have been made for Washington to be the No. 1 seed and play closer to home at the Rose Bowl.
"But here’s the deal," he said. "We’re in the final four and we’re going to go play in an exciting venue against a very good football team. We’re breaking into new territory here with the first U-Dub team to go play in the Sugar Bowl."