For Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger, each day of summer workouts and training camp felt like uneasy steps toward a season that might never come.
Even with his team's first kickoff coming Saturday night, Ehlinger holds his breath worrying that the coronavirus pandemic could still derail everything.
"I still have my fingers crossed until we get to Saturday. I know how quickly things can pop up," Ehlinger said ahead of the No. 14 Longhorns' season-opener against UTEP (1-0).
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A quick look around the Big 12 justifies his trepidation. Oklahoma State, TCU and Baylor have already had their first games delayed by a week or postponed indefinitely because of the virus. Until Texas and UTEP players pass their final Friday COVID-19 tests, their game will remain a question mark.
Get that far and Texas can at least start a season in pursuit of its first Big 12 championship since 2009. The program is in its longest conference title drought since 1931-1941. Texas' first Big 12 game is scheduled for Sept 26 at Texas Tech.
"The hunger level is through the roof," Texas cornerback Chris Brown said. "I know this is the team."
Across the country, there are fewer conference championships to be won. The Big Ten and Pac-12 scrapped their fall seasons while the Big 12, SEC ad ACC push ahead. If they finish, someone figures to be crowned a national champion.
Asked if the 2020 season should get an asterisk for the unusual circumstances, Texas coach Tom Herman said perhaps it should be used to note how hard it will be just to keep a team on the field.
"The more things pop up with different teams and different conferences, our guys are going to realize truly how special this season is," Herman said. "If there is an asterisk, it says this was really, really hard to accomplish. The things these young men are having to do just to play … is monumental."
The Miners have already played a game, beating Stephen F. Austin last week to match their win total for each of the past two seasons.
A change in formation for last season's Alamo Bowl made linebacker Joseph Ossai a threat as an outside pass rusher and he had three sacks. Texas has lacked a big-time edge rusher in the past and big things are expected of him.
"It's built for me to be more aggressive," Ossai said. "I love it."
Running back Bijan Robinson was a five-star recruit and joins a backfield that has experience but lacks consistency. His play in training camp drew praise from Ehlinger, and Herman and he could get significant playing time in his debut.
Herman and Longhorns players have praised graduate transfer wide receiver Tarik Black from Michigan and he quickly earned a starting position over Brennan Eagles, the Longhorns' leading returning pass-catcher. Black caught 25 passes with one touchdown at Michigan last season.
Texas mostly abandoned the huddle in its offense years ago, but new coordinator Mike Yurcich has turned up the tempo even further with a system of rapid play calling that could keep the Miners off balance.
EYES OF TEXAS
The team's traditional postgame singing of the "The Eyes of Texas" will be in the spotlight. A group of students and players had demanded over the summer that Texas drop the song because of its links to minstrel shows and use of blackface decades ago. The school refused.
Safety Caden Sterns said this week he won't sing it but didn't want to comment on whether any of his teammates would. Texas has said the Longhorn band, which normally plays the song after games, won't be at the stadium, which will be limited to about 20,000 fans.