Texas' Steve Sarkisian targets Big 12 title, 'great send-off'

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Not since 2009 have expectations been so high for the Texas Longhorns.

The Longhorns are an overwhelming preseason favorite to win the Big 12, and coach Steve Sarkisian said he hopes a league title will be "a great send-off" in Texas' final season before heading to the SEC in 2024.

"I'd be lying if I wasn't saying that I want to win a championship," Sarkisian told ESPN when asked if this could be a career-defining season for him. "There's no question, and I feel like I've had good teams in the past. I haven't been able to do it. When you get into coaching, I'm a highly competitive guy. I would love to win a championship. I would love to win a championship our last year in the Big 12."

Texas hasn't won a Big 12 title since 2009, and the 13-year drought is the longest in school history dating to when it joined a conference in 1915. This year, regardless of model -- computers, betting markets or media polls -- Texas is the favorite.

For the first time since the Big 12 conference went to a division-less format, the media chose the Longhorns to win the title. First-place votes were spread among six teams with Texas receiving 41 and a total of 886 points. Reigning Big 12 champion Kansas State placed second with 14 and 858 points.

ESPN's Football Power Index gives the Longhorns a 54% chance to win the Big 12. The only FBS team with a higher chance to win its respective conference entering this season is Ohio State in the Big Ten (71%).

Sarkisian, who is entering his third season leading the Longhorns, finished 8-5 last year with all five losses coming by seven points or fewer. It was only the second time in the past nine years that Texas reached eight wins in the regular season. In 2021, Sarkisian went 5-7 in his first season.

He said the difference this season is that those within the program are "not just feeling it, they're taking action."

"It'd be a great send-off," Sarkisian said. "The Big 12 and Texas have been great partners for decades. For us to try to get into that game at the end of the year as a send-off would be awesome."

If the Longhorns are going to take the leap, they'll have to evolve on offense after their two star tailbacks left for the NFL. Bijan Robinson was taken No. 8 overall in the NFL draft by the Atlanta Falcons, while Roschon Johnson went to the Chicago Bears in the fourth round.

Sarkisian hinted to ESPN on Wednesday that the offense will likely feature the passing game more, as the absence of those two stars collides with the maturation of quarterback Quinn Ewers. The Texas wide receiver room is also teeming with talent, including first-team All-Big 12 wide receiver Xavier Worthy and Georgia transfer AD Mitchell.

"I felt like last year we almost became too one-dimensional, too [reliant] on Bijan and Roschon for what they were able to do running the ball," Sarkisian said. "We felt like we had to evolve our passing game to get back to where I'm accustomed to doing it. ...

"Our ability to throw the football now is going to be able to be back to where we like it to be."

Ewers brings an evolution both physically and mentally, as he brings a greater awareness to the line of scrimmage. Ewers joked with ESPN that when he went to the line last season, he was concerned about remembering the play. This season, he's focused on identifying fronts and tendencies of opposing defenses and then picking them apart.

"Generally and historically, Year 2 in our system is where you take that big step," Sarkisian said. "And we're seeing it out of him. We're seeing it in his preparation. He's in great physical condition, and his understanding of what we're doing is at a high level."

ESPN's Pete Thamel contributed to this report.