As much as we'd all like to forget the 2001 season, it was an important one for Texas, and we'd might as well get it over with.
Let's open this boldly: the 2001 Longhorns should have won the national championship. And now let's get realistic: the 2001 Longhorns were a great, but not elite, team. Because of the way the season so disastrously ended against Colorado, where we almost backdoored our way into the title game, the (mis)perception was that Texas a national title contender.
They were nominally, but not quite realistically. Miami, LSU, Nebraska, and Oregon, just to name four teams, were all better than Texas. You could easily argue that Tennessee and Oklahoma were, too. The Sooners weren't a great offensive team in 2001, but they had a tremendous defense. Anyway, the point is that Texas was "merely" a Top 10 team, and even had we beaten Colorado in the Big 12 title game, we had no business playing in the Rose Bowl. So let's just agree on that before we move on.
The strength of the 2001 team was a reasonably balanced offensive attack coupled with a stingy defense, especially in the secondary. Statistically, the 2001 Longhorn defense was a touch better than the 2005 national championship squad, though part of that is because the 2005 title winners blew everyone out and gave up garbage yards in half their games. Regardless, the secondary of Ahmad Brooks, Quentin Jammer, Nathan Vasher, and Roderick Babers, was a solid group. Vasher, especially, had terrific instincts at strong safety and led the team with 7 interceptions.
While statistically strong, the 2001 defense was not without flaws. Babers was wildly overrated as a cover corner, and the defensive line was adjusting to life without Hampton and Rogers. Derek Johnson was strong his freshman year at linebacker, but the unit as a whole was only slightly above average. The last two games against Colorado and Washington, as we saw, exposed the weaknesses in the Horns defense.
The real story of 2001 was the offense, though. The big story - the one that dominated every angle of every story - was that freaking quarterback controversy. Now, this isn't going to be popular, but I think Mack Brown was right to go to Simms. Hear me out on this one.
Major Applewhite had a God-like reputation among Texas fans, some of which he deserved, some of which he did not. Major was a better than average quarterback who played above his natural abilities, and deserves lots of credit for his guts and heart. But his ceiling was nowhere near Chris Simms'.
And his track record wasn't without blemish to begin with. Applewhite had passed for a middle of the road 135.9 passer rating in 2000. That year he was a problem against Stanford, and ineffective against Oklahoma. Pure and simple, his reputation as a gamer exceeded his ability to be a national title quarterback, no matter what the fans may have thought.
(Parenthetically, in the long-term, it was probably best for Major to have events unfold as they did. The blame for 2001's losses fell squarely on Simms and cemented Applewhite's legacy as Hero. His odds of becoming the head coach of the University of Texas Longhorns are somewhere between 90% and 100%. Don't feel too bad for the kid.)
The problem was that Simms wasn't a national title quarterback, either. In part because of his own limitations, and in part because our coaches didn't do a great job with him, he consistently had his worst games in the most important contests of the season. Some of that you have to be born with, but some of it can be coached. Simms definitely lacked the natural leadership abilities and killer instinct, and it can be argued that the coaches didn't do a good job teaching him, either. The excessively conservative game plans against Oklahoma doomed Simms, and the team, in both 2001 and 2002.
The 2001 season in a play.
In the end, the offense wasn't quite good enough, the defense was just porous enough, and the coaching was just conservative enough to keep this team from reaching its full potential. We'll break down each of the two disastrous losses in Part 2 of this series.
To come in Part 2: the Oklahoma and Colorado losses.
To come in Part 3: the 2001 Holiday Bowl.