- Carter Strickland, Reporter, HornsNation
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AUSTIN, Texas -- Even in the randomness of a single college football season, patterns can emerge: something familiar in what is rightly construed as a daily, weekly and yearly chaos of collisions.
After the final game of his final season, Blaine Irby sat where he had been before and realized those around him might yet do what he had done before.
"The Holiday Bowl, it's kind of like the first step," the former Texas tight end said.
That's how it had been for Irby. Five years earlier, as a freshman, he had been part of a Holiday Bowl-winning team. The next year, in 2008, Texas earned a trip to the Fiesta Bowl. The following season resulted in a berth in the national championship game.
Now, one year removed from a 5-7 season, surrounded by a team that played 18 true freshmen, Irby sat beneath Snapdragon Stadium and wondered if the pattern could repeat itself.
"It's weird, but when you see that team [in 2007] you could sense the confidence those guys had," Irby said. "We should've won a couple more games than we did. Then I'm sitting there in the locker room [in 2011] and you could see it again."
Just steps down the interior corridor beneath the stadium, in a way-too-small room with a way-too-big crowd, Texas coach Mack Brown saw it too. Only his perspective was more broad and his memory much longer. Brown was able to look back, see what he had built and how he had built it. The pattern stretched back further than Irby knew.
"We played in the Holiday Bowl in '03, won a BCS [bowl game] in '04 and won a championship in '05," Brown said minutes after the bowl game ended. "So hopefully this is a step forward."
Or maybe just a stepping stone, as it has been twice before in Brown's 14 seasons at Texas.
"He's talked about that a lot," wide receiver John Harris said.
So much so that Harris doesn't remember the first time or even the last, just that building on the past has been a part of Brown's mantra for the past eight months.
The players, and perhaps even the media, are buying into it. Texas, a 13-12 team over the past two years, was ranked No. 15 in the preseason poll.
"We're on the right track," junior guard Trey Hopkins said.
The mode of transportation and scenery might be slightly different now from what they were in either of the previous climbs to the national stage.
In the years following '03 and '07, Texas' ascension was at the hands of quarterbacks. Vince Young became the full-time starter after his Holiday Bowl and ended his career with one of the most memorable title games in the short history of the BCS. Colt McCoy shook off what many had said was a bad sophomore year in 2007 to become the nation's most accurate passer in his final two seasons.
That is what they became. Not who they were when they went to the Holiday Bowl. In 2003, Young split time at quarterback and went 6-of-14 for 15 yards in the Holiday Bowl. In 2007, McCoy was criticized for his play and his arm was questioned. He also threw 18 interceptions.
"That year  I think what you had was leadership in training," Irby said.
That leadership grew up. The same maturation is expected in 2012. Not at quarterback, though; there Texas remains unsettled.
But it has more than compensated for its issues at quarterback and built a team that features many of the same characteristics as Texas' last two BCS bowl teams in 2004 and 2008.
The run game of Malcolm Brown, Joe Bergeron and Johnathan Gray could be poised to exceed Cedric Benson's 1,834 yards in 2004. And, by the way, the run game -- aided by Young's feet -- accounted for 64 percent of the offense in 2004.
On defense, middle linebacker Steve Edmond has drawn early comparisons to Derrick Johnson. The secondary features at least three future NFL players, much as the 2004 and 2008 defenses did. The defensive line has Jackson Jeffcoat and Alex Okafor, two players expected to impact the game in much the same manner Sergio Kindle and Brian Orakpo did in 2008.
On top of all that is the plethora of young players -- the two-deep roster should feature only four seniors, providing quality depth to each side of the line -- that led Brown to take the stage at the annual team banquet and declare this team two or three years away from a national title.
"I didn't think it was bold," Brown said when asked about the comment at Big 12 media days. "I thought it was fact.
"Two years ago we were in the national championship game," he said. "Last year, we were much better and could have won 10 or 11 just as easily as we won eight. The year before, it didn't work. The pieces are working again. I can feel it, and I can see it."
What Brown sees is Texas' history laid out right there before him.