What's next for Longhorns after Texas-sized triumph?

AUSTIN, Texas -- In the aftermath of Texas' biggest victory this decade, Chris Nelson slapped on the Golden Hat Trophy and repeatedly rubbed his lineman-sized belly.

Defensive end Breckyn Hager rocked a burnt orange-banded white cowboy hat atop his flowing golden locks like he was auditioning for some Quentin Tarantino Western.

And just outside the Cotton Bowl elevators leading down to a boisterous Longhorns locker room, fellow end Charles Omenihu engulfed Cameron Dicker "The Kicker" with a bear hug.

This is what "Texas is back" actually looked like.

After so many false alarms that turned ESPN play-by-play man Joe Tessitore's famous phrase into a punchline, this felt different than anything before.

The Longhorns didn't just beat some overhyped big-name opponent primed to plummet. They took down an Oklahoma team coming off two College Football Playoff appearances in the past three years and armed with one of the country's most devastating playmakers in quarterback Kyler Murray.

Texas didn't just defeat the Sooners, either. The Longhorns dominated, thoroughly. Sure, they needed Dicker's last-second field goal from 40 yards out to secure the 48-45 win. But after taking a 21-point lead into the fourth quarter, Texas left no doubt as to who the better side was.

This was no upset. And no accident.

And though Murray would ignite OU's improbable comeback with a series of electric plays late, the thousands of empty seats on the crimson side of the Cotton Bowl midway through the fourth quarter told the real story.

Texas -- off to its best start since 2009 and ranked in the top 10 for the first time since 2010 -- is finally on its way back to national relevance in coach Tom Herman's second season.

"We've taken some really big steps here the last few weeks, I'm not going to deny that," Herman said. "I'm not going to downplay that for these players. They have taken some very important steps in this program's development and its progress. ... It would be foolish for me to not understand the big picture."

Herman has been steadfast in keeping the big picture in mind. That's why his message Saturday in the locker room differed little from the one he gave to his team following its disheartening season-opening loss at Maryland.

"I said to them (at Maryland) this game will not define us -- how we respond to it will," Herman said Monday. "I told them that about this Oklahoma game. That game won't define us. How we respond to it will.

"This is not the ultimate goal."

As well as the Longhorns played Saturday, their ultimate goal -- a fifth national championship -- still remains a ways out. Even Herman had to scoff at the notion Texas was suddenly ready to contend for the playoff after one Red River victory.

"Have you seen the last four years?" he said, referencing the program's streak of non-winning regular seasons. "I don't think we're at the place where we can say winning is expected -- and that's OK. Just that word in my mind reads entitlement, reads arrogance.

"Hopefully one day our 'C game' will be good enough to beat some people. Right now, we have to play our best to win. But if we do play our best, we have a great chance."

Herman is right. After all, both the Maryland and OU performances underscored that in opposite ways. The margin for error still is nowhere close to where it used to be during the Mack Brown heyday.

Herman, in particular, lamented the lack of game-breaking speed the Longhorns have on offense compared to OU, which, in addition to Murray, boasts a pair of burners on the outside in wideouts Marquise Brown and CeeDee Lamb.

"We're fast on the defense. Those guys are faster," Herman said. "We had a long conversation in our recruiting department about finding those guys for our team. We're not elite fast on offense right now.

"But we're playing to our strengths."

That has included tailoring a ball-control offense built around a bulldozing quarterback who just delivered the finest performance of his career.

One year after going toe-to-toe against OU Heisman winner Baker Mayfield as a true freshman, sophomore Sam Ehlinger passed for 314 yards, rushed for another 72 and totaled 5 touchdowns against the Sooners.

Ehlinger wasn't always perfect. But he was always in command, down to the final drive when he calmly drove the Longhorns into range for Dicker's game-winning field goal when OU had the momentum.

"Our team really believes in him right now," Herman said. "And there's a psychology to that."

Above all, that's what Texas has missed the most this decade. A quarterback to rally around.

That could've been fleeting in the wake of the Maryland game, when Ehlinger tossed the game-ending interception. Herman made sure that it wasn't.

"I told him, 'You don't need to look over your shoulder. I'll tell you when you do. You didn't lose the Maryland game for your team. We all lost that game,'" Herman said. "Having the head coach believe you allows you a little more confidence."

That unwavering has paid off, as Ehlinger has yet to throw an interception since.

"We made the decision for him to be our starting quarterback," said Herman, who called Ehlinger on the way home last week to remind him to just "grip and rip" against the Sooners.

"One game wasn't going to deter us."

To that end, one game alone doesn't mean Texas is back, either. But the Longhorns are in new waters. They sure seem to be on their way.