AUSTIN (KXAN) — It’s the first game week of the 2023 season, and Texas head football coach Steve Sarkisian couldn’t stop smiling when he met with the media Monday morning to officially kick things off.

The Longhorns, ranked No. 11 in the Associated Press Top 25 to start the season, take on the Rice Owls at 2:30 p.m., Saturday, and Sarkisian said this is his favorite time of year for numerous reasons.

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“I love football, and this is the best time of year. The fall is awesome. It’s football time,” Sarkisian said. “I’m a fan of football. College, high school, NFL. That part always perks me up.”

Beyond the general idea that football season is here, Sarkisian feels the team knows him better than they ever had, and he knows the team in the same manner.

“This team is fun to be around and they’ve got to a point where they know me beyond being Coach Sark and who I am, and in turn, I’ve learned a lot about them,” he said. “This summer I’ve been really connected with them so I’ve been around them more than I have been in the last two seasons. This team genuinely understands when we practice we’re going to work, but when we work, we’re going to have fun.”

Sarkisian is hoping the work and fun will transfer to a win over the Owls, a program that Texas has had a lot of success over the years but certainly won’t take lightly. The Longhorns are 74-21-1 all-time and 44-8 at home against the Houston school. In 2021 when the schools last played, the Longhorns pummeled Rice 58-0 to make it 15 consecutive wins over the Owls.

Even with the success, Sarkisian isn’t looking ahead to Week 2’s marquee matchup with the Alabama Crimson Tide.

“Rice is a team that has a great deal of experience, they return a lot of starters, especially on defense, and a quarterback who has a ton of experience,” Sarkisian said. “They are hard-nosed and tough, have very intricate schemes, so we have our work cut out for us from a preparation standpoint.”

To say Rice’s quarterback is an experienced college signal-caller is perhaps the biggest understatement of the year so far. JT Daniels, who has played for Southern California, Georgia and West Virginia throughout his 6-year collegiate career, is the Owls’ starting quarterback. This will be his third game at DKR-Texas Memorial Stadium with his third different team, having played in Austin with the Trojans and Mountaineers. At the very least, he’ll know what it’s like going into the triple-digit decibel environment of more than 100,000 football-hungry fans that will probably remind him how long he’s been in college.

Quinn Ewers was named the starting quarterback for Texas in the spring, and with the entire offensive line for last year returning along with the receiving corps, Sarkisian said he’s most excited to see how the running backs perform. With Bijan Robinson and Roschon Johnson moving on to the NFL, more than 85% of the Longhorns’ rushing output from last season went with them.

“Naturally, when you lose two players who carried such a bulk of the load for us last year, what’s that going to look like? How is it going to feel?” he said. “That’s going to be a little bit of a process for us, and that’s OK. They have great players around them and they don’t have to have some superhuman effort, they just need to do what they’ve done in practice. Having a spring, summer and training camp to get ready, I’m looking forward to watching them play.”

Sarkisian said the coaching staff will use all the time they have available to figure out the depth chart for Saturday’s game, including where the running backs and quarterbacks will be. He’s not set on who will back up Ewers yet, either Maalik Murphy or Arch Manning, but said the running backs “have a pretty good idea now,” about the lineup.

How his team reacts during game situations is something Sarkisian has yet to find out even after two scrimmages and a mock game last Saturday. He’ll learn more about his team as the season goes on, but there are a few things he already knows about the team.

“We’ve got really good playmakers on this team,” he said. “We have explosive playmaking ability and guys that will find the football on defense. The character of the team — I think I know — but we need to play like it with fanatical effort.”