Austin, Texas Garrett Gilbert was still walking off the field after losing the national championship game when Texas fans starting looking to the future.
They were pointing all the way to this Saturday and No. 8 Oklahoma.
Gilbert, then a freshman, had been forced to take the field when Colt McCoy got hurt early in the championship game against Alabama and Texas lost, 37-21.
If he could play well under that kind of pressure, Texas fans figured, playing the Sooners in the circus of the Cotton Bowl would be easy.
It’s time to find out: Gilbert will lead struggling No. 21 Texas (3-1) into one of college football’s nastiest rivalries, one that has made Longhorns legends out of quarterbacks who win and sent some who lost straight into palookaville.
Earlier this week, Gilbert shrugged off the pressure of the game, then made a rookie mistake when he called Oklahoma’s crimson color “maroon.”
“That atmosphere is unbelievable and that’s why it is one of the best rivalries in college football,” he said.
Beating — and losing — to Oklahoma, can leave a permanent legacy for Texas quarterbacks.
Texas was a mediocre 26-19 from 1989-1992, but Peter Gardere earned the nickname “Peter the Great” with four wins over the Sooners. Chris Simms, whose 26 career victories rank fourth in Texas history, is still vilified by some Texas fans after he was part of three straight losses from 2000-2002.
Even Vince Young struggled against Oklahoma. Young was 1-1 as a starter and a 12-0 loss in 2004 snapped a Texas scoring streak that dated to 1980.
Some Longhorns fan even suggested Young move to wide receiver. It was the last game Young lost.
McCoy was 3-1 against the Sooners, winning in 2006, 2008 and 2009.
Gilbert was standing on the sideline and wearing a baseball cap in last season’s 16-13 Texas win, taking in the atmosphere of the Cotton Bowl and the intensity of the game.
Texas coach Mack Brown says what Gilbert will face is similar to the national title game. Fans of both teams jam the stadium for a four-hour frenzy, with howls even during time-outs for television. Texas players say the game is the fastest, hardest-hitting contest of the season.
“Growing up watching that game, I know how cool it is,” Gilbert said.
Brown has seen it get the best of first-timers. Tight end Bo Scaife, now in his sixth season with the Tennessee Titans, was an awe-struck freshman in 1999 when Brown approached him before the game.
“He said, ‘Coach, I think I’m going to hyperventilate. I’ve never seen anything like this before,”’ Brown said. “I said, ‘Great. The less information you can give me, the better.”’
Some have excelled in their first time in the Cotton Bowl.
McCoy beat Oklahoma as a freshman in 2006. Former Sooners quarterback Sam Bradford beat Texas in his first try in 2007.
Last season, Texas knocked Bradford out of the game with an early injury, forcing freshman Landry Jones into the game. Jones said that experience was tough, but probably not on the same scale as what Gilbert faced in the Rose Bowl against the swarming Crimson Tide defense.
“It’s still a pressure cooker, but it’s not the national championship game,” Jones said. “I felt for him ... I’m sure it’s a little comparison but his was on a way bigger scale than mine was.”
Gilbert’s first four games have not been as smooth as some expected. He has four touchdowns and four interceptions with 885 yards passing. His completion rate is a respectable 63 percent.
If Texas wins Saturday, it could be the first step in the making of Longhorn legend. Lose and Gilbert will hear a year’s worth of “He’s no Colt.”