The distance between Texas' two extremes has never been more apparent.
For today's Longhorns, national title contention feels like both a birthright and an impossibility. Especially this week.
It's been almost 12 years since the Longhorns took down USC's Team of the Century, snapping Pete Carroll, Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart's 34-game winning streak to capture the school's first national title since 1970.
Texas pushed Mack Brown out after the 2013 season, tired of the eight- and nine-win seasons that became his new normal after an astounding streak of nine consecutive 10-win seasons. Hoping for an upgrade with Charlie Strong, it instead got three consecutive losing seasons, the first such streak since before World War II.
"The cake has been baked," Strong infamously said on his way out of town. "The only thing you need to do now is put the icing on it and slice it. That's what this team is. The cake has been baked. Now, it's just ready to be sliced."
Despite finishing 5-7 and sealing his exit with a late-season loss to cellar-dwelling Kansas, Strong fed into sky-high expectations for his replacement, Tom Herman. Herman's overnight success at Houston -- turning the Cougars from an 8-5 team into a 13-1 juggernaut in his first season as a head coach -- further inflated the balloon of expectation.
Then came the Maryland Misadventure.
Giving up 51 points in an ugly home loss to a middle of the road Big Ten team has a way of popping any balloons and making any cake taste stale. Two weeks after the frustrating opener, Herman is uninterested in looking back.
"That wasn't us. We can't replay that game, so why dwell on it?" Herman said.
On Saturday, Texas travels back to Los Angeles to face USC for the first time since the two played the best game in college football history. In college football, 12 years is at least two lifetimes. Maybe three. It feels like forever for recruits, but even longer for fans.
It's impossible to watch that game and not be reminded of what Texas once was while also being confronted with what Texas is today. That is to say, a long way from being back in national title contention.
The Longhorns' Week 1 loss raises a key question: Was Texas as primed for success as Charlie Strong wanted his detractors to believe? When he said it, Texas' loss to Kansas had sealed his fate, but he was still technically an employee at the University of Texas. A last-ditch effort at making a case for his own fourth year in Austin inadvertently applied pressure to his successor.
But it's looking more and more like it wasn't an accurate assessment of where Texas stood.
"If we all thought that we were going to come in here and in nine months sprinkle some fairy dust on this team and think that we've arrived," Herman said after the Maryland loss, "then we're wrong."
That comment drew criticism from Herman's mentor, Urban Meyer, who took it as a shot at Herman's current players and Strong. He felt the need to call out his protégé for what he deemed an excuse.
"It's like a new generation of excuse," Meyer said. "He said, 'I can't rub pixie dust on this thing.' He got a dose of reality. Maryland just scored 51 points on you. It drives me insane."
But there's a relatively defined line between blaming players and recognizing reality. Despite Strong's strength in recruiting and bold proclamation of glory days right around the corner, a simple look at the standings offers a rather convincing rebuttal. In Strong's third year, when many new coaches start to hit full stride, Texas finished six games behind Big 12 champion Oklahoma. That's not bad if you're chasing an American League East title in a 162-game baseball season. It's another stratosphere in college football, with a nine-game conference schedule.
In July, Herman said he had just "three corners" he was comfortable putting in a game. When Andrew Beck broke his foot early in preseason camp, Texas essentially had no one with any experience at tight end. The Longhorns also lost a 2,000-yard rusher, D'Onta Foreman, from last year's team. And of course, the eight-year question that's hounded the program and gotten two coaches fired still doesn't have an answer: When will Texas find another quarterback? Sophomore Shane Buechele showed promise last year, but he's dealing with an injury and is trying to hold onto the job over freshman Sam Ehlinger, creating uncertainty Saturday and beyond.
Texas doesn't have any excuses for letting Maryland embarrass it on the Longhorns' home field, but becoming a contender for a conference title won't be as simple as combining milk, butter and powdered sugar.
"We're still trying to figure out who we are a little bit, especially on defense," Herman said.
When Texas takes the field on Saturday against No. 4 USC, it'll be confronted with the school's brightest days. How far away is college football from "Texas is back" becoming more reality and less of a meme?
The simplest answer is this: A lot further than Charlie Strong thought. And USC, a bona fide national title contender after last week's beatdown of Stanford, will provide an indicator of just how far Texas is from the promised land it once enjoyed.