For some reason, 2002 is not the most memorable season. In thinking about why that is, I had to spend some serious time reliving it, which we can thankfully do with ease in the internet age.
It's a pretty simple story, really. We've sadistically walked through the painful 2001 season in all its gory detail, so we're all well aware of the disappointment Horns fans felt after the Big 12 title game debacle. Nonetheless, Chris Simms had one last chance to bury all his demons and take that elusive step up from the Top 10 and into the national title picture.
Texas began the season ranked #3 and promptly rolled off five straight wins by a combined score of 186-47. With both teams 5-0, #3 Texas and #2 Oklahoma prepared to battle for one last time in the Chris Simms era.
And as we all know, Chris Simms and Top 10 teams - especially those named Oklahoma - were a bad, bad combination. Texas lost 35-24, Simms ran his stats down to 0 touchdowns and 8 interceptions against the Sooners. The Horns actually led this game 14-3 just before half-time before a series of stupid Texas penalties helped OU get a late touchdown and 2-point conversion. Again in the second half, with Texas still in the game, Texas racked up more bone-headed plays and penalties, making it that much easier for Quentin Griffin to do his thing (read: kick Texas' ass).
Could you graduate, already?
It's not really worth going over the detail of that game. What's interesting to look back on is how Texas fans knew it was "over" after that game. There would be no wishing to back our way into the title game with a series of miracles. We simply accepted that the Chris Simms-led Longhorns were not quite good enough to go all the way. The subsequent victories, and even the stupid loss at Lubbock to Texas Tech, were dulled by the roller coaster of hopes and disappointments that had defined the past three seasons.
Digging back through the 2002 statistics, it's pretty easy to see where Texas was flawed. Sure, Simms wasn't very good against the top teams, but this team had some pretty serious problems on the offensive line. Doane, Holloway, Glynn, Dockery, and Scott weren't very good. Cedric Benson managed only 4 yards per carry in 2002. In Texas' two losses, the Horns managed only 53 (OU) and 92 (Texas Tech) yards rushing, in each time on 30+ attempts. The line yielded 37 sacks, up 15 from 2001.
The defensive line was only marginally better. Rod Wright was a freshman, Marcus Tubbs was solid but not great, and the right defensive end slot was a giant game of musical chairs, with no one playing particularly well. The OU game pretty much summed it up: Texas' two leading tacklers were safeties Cedric Griffin and Drew Pearson.
The 2002 Longhorns were a strong team, but not nearly good enough on the lines to be a national title contender. Throw in Simms aversion to showing up for big games and "national title contender" was a farce. And we all knew it. After 2001, we knew that we'd know everything we needed to know by October 12th. And that was that.
The 10-2 record was still good enough to net Texas a #9 ranking and a trip to the Cotton Bowl to play LSU.
The 2002 Cotton Bowl: Texas 35 LSU 20
After starting 6-1, LSU fell off quickly, losing 3 of their final 5. Texas fell behind 17-7 early in the second quarter before exploding for the next 28 points. Roy Williams pretty much buried the Tigers by himself, scoring on 51 and 75 yard touchdown passes.
Texas managed 382 yards of offense, held the weak Tiger offense mostly in check, and left the Cotton Bowl victors. And Texas fans didn't care all that much. Sure, it was nice, but you just can't overstate how high expectations were for the Simms era. His decision to attend Texas defined Mack Brown's big arrival at Texas, and his subsequet failure equally defined Mack Brown's "failure" to deliver.
But sometimes expectations and reality don't quite mesh. Texas fans wanted a national title. Chris Simms wasn't a national title quarterback. But 99% of quarterbacks aren't. It takes a Matt Leinart or Vince Young to get your team to that next level. And when you place those kinds of expectations on a kid, and a program, and it doesn't happen, the successes get buried behind the stories of failure, however few they may be.
Here Mack Brown, Major Applewhite, and Chris Simms had brought Texas roaring back into the national title picture, into the Top 10 of the rankings, and right where you want your program to be... and all anyone could talk about was what Texas wasn't doing.
And that's life at Texas. Mack Brown knew it when he came here. Chris Simms knew it when he signed that letter of intent. And when he showed up on campus in a limousine. It didn't work out, but this wasn't the first case of potential champ falling short, and it certainly won't be the last.
And for all that it wasn't - and that story is so, so tired now - there was so much that it was. It firmly established us in the neighborhood of where we wanted to be. It got Texas back into the national storyline. It paved the way for year after year of terrific recruiting classes. And it helped bring the amazing young men that won the 2005 national championship of college football. When you look back on it, with a little bit of time and perspective - it was a lot more than it wasn't.
Hook `Em Horns.
Next Up: 2003 - Vince Young: The Arrival
Mack Brown's Record Against Oklahoma: 2-3
Mack Brown's Record In Bowl Games: 3-2