TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Jaylan Ford couldn't have been blamed. Doubt had crept into his mind as a win for the ages was slipping away like they always seem to recently when Texas is on the big stage. The Longhorns' star linebacker had just watched Alabama quarterback Jalen Milroe throw his second touchdown pass.
To that point, the Crimson Tide had mostly stunk it up. But they were somehow in it, down 27-24 with 11 minutes left.
"My heart was racing a bit," Ford said. "We were up by three, but it felt like we were losing the way the crowd was cheering."
But a funny thing happened on the way to another Texas clunker. In beating No. 3 Alabama, 34-24, the process was so anti-Texas.
'Horns QB Quinn Ewers was suddenly able to throw the deep ball. There was a fourth-quarter, 21-point burst to pull away. Texas, which usually folds like a bad tent in these situations, held the ball for the last 7:14 of the game -- 12 agonizing plays at the end that choked off any signs of another choke.
For once, that national stage wavered but didn't crack under the weight of massive expectations.
"It's about time Texas has won these types of games," said offensive lineman Christian Jones.
No. 11 Texas may not be "back." This season and the migration to the SEC in subsequent years will prove if the 'Horns can win consistently at this high level.
For now, though? It's damn close to "back."
Saturday night sent a massive signal that Texas can at least play in the SEC.
For one night in Nick Saban's house -- in front of the usual bloodthirsty fans -- that much was evident.
"At the end of the day, I walked up to one my coaches and said, 'This is what you live for. Backs against the wall. To prove everybody wrong. To prove that we belong,'" Ford recalled.
Judging by Saturday night, formal introductions into the SEC won't be needed next year. In fact, by the end, the Texas cheering section was chanting "S-E-C, S-E0C." Texas Gov. Greg Abbott was hugging, slapping hands, smiling.
The Longhorns left a calling card on the Bryant-Denny Stadium turf.
It read something to the effect: If Texas isn't back, it will be back under these bright lights for more of these big moments.
"I told the team before the game -- and we didn't waver from it -- we were going to be aggressive," said Texas coach Steve Sarkisian, who became just the third Saban assistant to defeat his former boss. "We were going to stay aggressive. … You have to try to win the game. I didn't feel like it was slipping away. I felt like it was our turn."
It was Texas' turn because Ewers hit long touchdown passes to Xavier Worthy and Adonai "AD" Mitchell. It was Texas' turn because the offensive line played incredibly clean -- no sacks of Ewers allowed. It was Texas' turn because an underrated defensive line turned Alabama's offensive line into a jittery mess. At least three of the five Bama starters got slapped with crippling penalties.
Milroe was both impressive ... and a goat. His two interceptions led directly to 10 Texas points. His legs weren't enough to save the Tide, and he was sacked five times. Saban admitted after the game that he considered a quarterback change.
But what was left? Backup Tyler Buchner has thrown four touchdown passes total since the middle of 2021. What happened Saturday night was as much of an indictment how much Bama has slipped as how much Texas has improved.
"Hats off to him, he's a great athlete, heck of an arm, but I know he's a one-read [quarterback]," Texas defensive back Jahdae Barron said of Milroe.
Twice now in a five-day span we've seen existing dynasties get beaten, and it's hard to tell which is more damaged at this point. Clemson got bullied by Duke's defense. Alabama traded a Heisman Trophy QB (Bryce Young) for what looks like some sort of version of Blake Sims.
If you've forgotten, Sims was the converted running back who helmed Alabama in 2014, the year Saban committed to both the spread offense and Lane Kiffin as its Bama steward. Saban was prescient for adapting his attack on the fly. Kiffin was brilliant for executing it. That year, Sims became Bama's single-season total offense leader.
So far, Milroe is not even Sims.
Gone now is Alabama's 21-game home winning streak and an incredible 57-game winning streak against nonconference opponents in regular-season play, the latter of which dated back to Saban's first season at Bama in 2007.
There will be enough wailing and gnashing of teeth in these parts to fill Paul Finebaum's show from now until Christmas ... if the Tide's College Football Playoff chances last that long.
Alabama is now a pedestrian 6-3 in its last nine games.
For Texas, you can draw a direct line between the 2010 BCS Championship Game and last year's Bama game. In between, there has been a lot of anguish. On that January night 13 years ago, Alabama defensive lineman Marcell Dareus hit Texas quarterback Colt McCoy and shredded his right shoulder.
Texas was never the same, ultimately defeated 37-21 that night. The Longhorns never recovered, that night or last season when Texas had Alabama beaten at home until a late rally orchestrated by Young.
In that game, Ewers was knocked out in the first quarter with his own shoulder injury after a hot start. On Saturday, he tossed three touchdown passes, two to Mitchell in the fourth quarter.
"I've been in the locker room," Sarkisian said of Alabama where he was offensive coordinator in 2019-20. "A lot of [opponents] walk in this stadium. The mystique of Alabama, [opponents are] beat before the ball gets kicked off. I had to make sure our players understood that we're good enough to come in here and win. The moment doubt creeps in, that's when you can start making the mistakes that get you beat."
A lot of this was literally about the heart of Sark. The coach told CBS Sports on Friday that Saban had "saved my life" -- not only for hiring him after getting fired at USC. After a subsequent physical mandated by Saban of all his assistants in 2020, it was found Sarkisian had a congenital heart condition that could have killed him, as first reported by Yahoo Sports.
Sarkisian underwent major surgery, recovered in time for camp and helped win that year's national championship. Now, he joins Jimbo Fisher and Kirby Smarts as Saban assistants that have toppled the master in 31 such opportunities (28-3).
In two seasons-plus, Steve Sarkisian has assembled a squad that is capable of a championship more than at any point since that 2010 Rose Bowl crash. He has stacked recruiting classes. The Big 12? The 'Horns were overwhelming favorites going in, but Saturday allows Texas to dream bigger without barriers and without shame.
SEC? That's for the future, but that's what this was about, too. Texas fans were chanting the name of their new conference into the night.
"University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, Nick Saban changed my life," Sarkisian said. "At a moment in my life where things were not going great, Coach Saban extended me an olive branch. … These people here mean a lot to me. To come here and to play the way that we played is humbling. Life kind of goes full circle."