COLUMBIA - It began.
Last Saturday, Dallas' sun smiled upon the pool of burnt orange that rippled throughout the crowd. Brass blared "Texas Fight" in a victorious waltz. Fans stretched their index and pinkie fingers and swayed "Hook'em ‘Horns" hand signals.
Texas had cracked then-No. 1 Oklahoma. The Longhorns' half of the Cotton Bowl pumped life into the grand old stadium nestled within the Texas State Fairgrounds long after its game clocks ran down.
A day later, fifth-ranked Texas vaulted to college football's summit. For the first time since their 2005 national championship, the Longhorns were ranked No. 1.
And there's no guarantee they will remain there for long.
Texas' victory over Oklahoma meant the Longhorns tiptoed past their first landmine during a four-game grind. On Saturday, Texas plays Missouri, then Oklahoma State and Texas Tech in the following weeks - all currently ranked No. 12 or higher. Coach Mack Brown and his team face the most daunting Big 12 Conference stretch of anyone this season, but a spotless record three weeks from now would solidify Texas as a national-title favorite.
"I believe our team is very confident in doing that," said defensive end Brian Orakpo, who leads the Longhorns with eight sacks. "That's why our team is doing so well. You can't look at it as a three-game series. You just have to take it game-by-game. Right now, we have (MU quarterback) Chase (Daniel) first. They have a high-power offense. We're going to be putting together a game plan this week getting ready to handle it."
Any game plan will include an attempt to squeeze Daniel in the Texas defensive line's vice grips. In the loss to Oklahoma State, MU tailback Derrick Washington was contained to 11 yards on eight carries. The Cowboys' defensive front stunted and mixed pressure schemes, causing confusion among the Tigers' young offensive line. An abbreviated running threat forced Daniel into scrambling situations, which contributed to his sporadic decision-making and three interceptions. He was also sacked twice for a loss of 17 yards.
If Daniel establishes himself within the pocket, the Longhorns remain vulnerable against the pass. They rank No. 109 in pass defense, allowing an average of 267.83 yards per game. Last week against Oklahoma, quarterback Sam Bradford threw for 387 yards and five touchdowns. In addition, Texas starts two redshirt freshmen (safeties Earl Thomas and Blake Gideon) in the secondary.
"It's exciting to ... watch them grow," defensive tackle Roy Miller said of the unit's youth. "Definitely with our defense, we've been doubted a lot. But we still have a lot to prove."
Quarterback Colt McCoy does too. Injuries interrupted the early part of his career. In 2006, he suffered a right shoulder stinger in a loss to Kansas State and a concussion in a loss to Texas A&M. Last year, in a loss to Kansas State, he suffered another concussion.
But in 2008, he has quieted critics with a career-best start. He has thrown for 1,557 yards and 17 touchdowns. He has jumped to the forefront of Heisman Trophy discussion, following losses by Bradford and Daniel.
He enjoys a close relationship with Daniel. They have known each other since high school, and the two talk weekly. Both have said topics usually stray far from football, and the trend won't waver this week.
"It's going to be a competition," McCoy said. "It's going to be fun. We both are going to enjoy it. This is a time we're going to look back on some day and remember.
"It's awesome. It's a great feeling, but this team is focused. We have our head on our shoulders. We know being No. 1 is way more important at the end than what it is now. We know the challenges we face, starting this week against Missouri. We know it's fine. We like it. But we know we'd rather be No. 1 at the end instead of now."
It's a goal Brown and his staff work toward, despite the gauntlet before them. Facing four ranked teams in four consecutive weeks and escaping without a scratch would be the most impressive accomplishment of any team this season. If these Longhorns wish to become as decorated as the 2005 team, much remains to be done.
Starting Saturday with MU.
"Every young man who comes to Texas wants to win a national championship now," Brown said.
"After we won it, I'm passionate about winning again. Every young man who comes here sees that crystal ball in the office and walks by it, and they want to do the same thing. That's what's so exciting for them about being No. 1.
"If we had not been No. 1 in 2005, this might be a huge thing for these kids today."