The great unknown arrives in Tuscaloosa with a vengeance on Saturday night.

It’ll be dressed in burnt orange and white, and it’ll be hell bent on finishing what it couldn’t almost a year ago to the day.

It’s Texas. It’s old friend Steve Sarkisian. And it’s quarterback Quinn Ewers.

The Longhorns, their offensive architect of a head coach and their talented signal-caller were left wondering what might have been on that blazing September Saturday in Austin, when Alabama slipped town with a 1-point win after a late field goal while an injured Ewers watched — and probably seethed.

What could’ve launched Texas football back toward its rightful place in the college football stratosphere instead sank the Horns, and they weren’t the same for the rest of 2022. Four more losses were piled on to Sarkisian’s 2nd season, as Texas finished an entirely forgettable 8-5, capped by a bowl game loss in its home state.

Listen, it’s impossible to predict what the Horns’ season would’ve morphed into had Ewers not gotten knocked out of last year’s showdown after a hit by linebacker Dallas Turner in the final moments of the 1st quarter. It’s impossible to say if Texas would’ve done the deed and taken down Bama that day, if having Ewers out there for 4 quarters instead of 1 would’ve prevented the Tide from escaping with a 20-19 victory on Will Reichard’s 33-yard field goal with 10 seconds left.

But the Longhorns did tie the game at 10 on the 1st play of the 2nd quarter, just 2 plays after Ewers exited with the ball at the Bama 1-yard line. Before Turner’s hit that drew a roughing-the-passer penalty and took Ewers out of the equation, the 1st-year starter was kind of carving up the Tide defense, going 9-of-12 for 134 yards. He wasn’t intimidated in the least by the Bama brand, by a defense that featured Will Anderson Jr. and supporting stalwarts like Turner.

He was doing just fine, until fate got in the way and a left clavicle sprain sidelined him for the rest of the afternoon and the 3 games that followed. Hudson Card did OK in relief of Ewers, throwing for 158 yards without an interception. But he wasn’t as accurate as Ewers, going 14-of-22 passing, and, ultimately, he wasn’t able to lead the Longhorns to enough points during those final 3 quarters to outlast a Bama team that entered as the top-ranked squad in the country.

It was the ultimate almost, for a program desperate for a signature victory on a national-TV stage.

The Horns had it.

Until it was ripped away, in agonizing fashion.

Bama rolled on to yet another double-digit win season, even if it didn’t make the Playoff, while Texas’ season slipped into the aforementioned abyss.

It’s been a long wait for Texas, Sarkisian and Ewers. A long 12 months to have the chance to set things right against the Crimson Tide machine.

But the moment has arrived for the boys in burnt orange, and specifically for Ewers, who transferred from Ohio State a few years ago for a shot at glory with a legendary program that hasn’t lived up to its legendary billing for a while.

So, on Saturday night, under the bright Bryant-Denny lights, in front of another national-TV audience like the one last year, Ewers will run through that Tuscaloosa tunnel into hostile territory, out for payback, determined to play 4 quarters and not a paltry 1. He’ll go under center on that 1st possession and take aim at a Tide secondary that seems to be more well-equipped than ever to deal with whatever he and Sarkisian have up their sleeve.

Ewers will gaze out and see Turner again, the guy who took him out 12 months ago. It must be noted that Turner took ownership of the fateful play right after the game, said he wasn’t trying to injure Ewers, that he wished him a speedy recovery, that it was just a quarterback hit, nothing dirty and nothing to overanalyze. Assuming lightning doesn’t strike twice and Ewers goes the distance on Saturday night, Turner won’t have Anderson by his side to stop the Horns offense.

Turner will, however, have that restocked secondary lurking behind him, a position group with a star cornerback in Kool-Aid McKinstry, a heck of a cornerback sidekick in Terrion Arnold, and a brand-new safety pair that on paper gives Kevin Steele’s defense the best chance to prevent Ewers from picking apart the Tide like he did during that 1st quarter in Austin.

Gone to the NFL are safety stalwarts Jordan Battle, Brian Branch and DeMarcco Hellams, and in their place in the fall of 2023 is a most unlikely combination. You have a 5-star stud freshman in strong safety Caleb Downs, who picked Bama over Georgia even though he hails from Georgia. And you have a graduate transfer, from UAB of all places, in free safety Jaylen Key, who was the top-ranked safety in the transfer portal and chose to come to T-Town over the likes of Florida State and Ole Miss.

Alabama appears to have struck gold — again — at the safety position at the precise time when it needed to replace 2 NFL-caliber talents in Battle and Branch. A potential freshman phenom just beginning his collegiate career paired with a savvy veteran who’s entering his 5th fall of college football and has just about seen it all. It’s a surreal confluence of “young” and “old,” of potential stardom in Downs and calming presence in Key.

If Alabama is going to get back to its rightful place in the College Football Playoff and play for Nick Saban’s 7th national title in T-Town, this pair will need to show up on Saturdays like this one, when there’s a dynamic passing game on the other side that’s directed by someone like Ewers and coached by someone like Sarkisian, who Tide fans need absolutely no introduction to.

The warmup act last Saturday against Middle Tennessee went incredibly well for Downs and Key, as Downs led the entire defense with 8 total tackles and 6 solo, while Key’s 2nd-quarter interception sent Bama’s social-media universe into a frenzy and helped spark the Tide to 14 more points before halftime. It seemed to be all fun and games on a feel-good opening night, until it wasn’t, as Key was injured during a kickoff return in the 2nd quarter and left the game not long after his interception.

Suddenly, Key’s thrilling 1st night in crimson and white was over, and he was replaced by senior Kristian Story. If that wasn’t enough of a concern with Texas’ aerial show coming to T-Town (along with the ESPN College GameDay crew for the sexy showdown), all-everything senior Malachi Moore, a starter at the STAR position, was also injured on a special teams play and left the game. Moore went down during a McKinstry punt return early in the 3rd quarter and had to enter the injury tent after the play. Redshirt freshman Earl Little replaced Moore as the starter at the STAR position.

Steele’s secondary was already missing junior safety DeVonta Smith (yeah, the other one), who was getting some 1st-team reps during fall camp but has been hampered by a foot injury. He couldn’t play in the opener, and that’s another depth piece who could help contain the Sark-Ewers Show this Saturday night.

Key and Moore were to undergo further evaluation on Sunday, and everything regarding their status was very much up in the air as Texas Week dawned on Labor Day.

“I don’t know the extent of their injuries. We’ll see how that goes,” Saban said after Saturday night’s 56-7 victory. “They’ll get evaluated (Sunday) and probably know more soon.”

If all that wasn’t enough of a collective red flag, Saban provided a little gloom and doom on the SEC Network after Saturday’s game, saying the injuries “might be a problem for us.”

Maybe he was just being cautious in the moment.

Maybe it was a measured, precautionary statement because, really, everything a guy like Saban does is measured with a meaning behind it.

Or maybe he knew something everyone else didn’t about his new starting free safety and Moore, his valued veteran of many battles through the past several years.

Fortunately for Tide fans, Saban finally knew a little bit more on Monday, announcing that Key and Moore are day-to-day and that it’s probably too early to speculate on their immediate status going forward. Saban did add that he doesn’t think either player will have long-term problems and that, as you would expect, neither player would practice on Monday, at the very least.

The update was a bit of a sigh of relief but not a complete one. Saban and Steele will proceed with caution this week, but there are no guarantees that all the caution will translate into Key and Moore suiting up to slow down the likes of Xavier Worthy — who had a team-leading 7 catches for 90 yards in Texas’ Week 1 beatdown of Rice — Jordan Whittington, Georgia transfer Adonai Mitchell and tight end Ja’Tavion Sanders.

Ewers started slowly in the 37-10 victory but came around just fine, throwing for 260 yards, 3 touchdowns and 0 interceptions. He doesn’t have star Bijan Robinson in his backfield anymore, but he has Jaydon Blue and Jonathon Brooks, he has that dazzling stable of pass catchers, and he has himself and the intense motivation that comes along when you’re trying to erase a memory that leaves you seething.

Worthy and Whittington piled up a combined 12 catches for 161 yards in last year’s meeting, and they didn’t even have Ewers throwing to them for the final 3 quarters. On Saturday night, Ewers is counting on being out there for all 4 quarters, until the Horns’ payback is complete.

Will Alabama’s talented but banged-up secondary be fully stocked to prevent that payback from happening?

“Probably be a couple of days and then we figure it out,” said Saban on Monday.

Week 1 wasn’t hard to figure out for the Crimson Tide secondary, which stifled Middle Tennessee all night, holding the Blue Raiders to 133 yards passing. Ewers managed that exact total plus 1 in just that 1 quarter against Bama last year before his afternoon and Texas’ season were altered.

On Saturday night, in front of the college football world, Ewers won’t be able to change history, but he will finally be able to put his own storyline on the whole Texas vs. Alabama dynamic.

For a full 4 quarters this time.

Then he can live with the result, because at least he won’t be left wondering what might have been.