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Longhorns-Aggies Game Week: Preview Part 1 - Setting The Stage

No matter the postseason stakes, the Texas-Texas A&M football game is always meaningful. Though we're more like siblings who fight something fierce than, say, neighbors who want to kill one another (here's lookin' at you, Oklahoma), it's an intense rivalry of deep importance to each fanbase. For its part, Aggieland often seems like it exists almost entirely as an oppositional force to the University of Texas at Austin. Meanwhile, nothing gives the burnt orange faithful greater joy than feeling superior to Texas A&M. So when we lose, it hurts.

Last year, Longhorn fans suffered a particularly bitter loss. Though Texas A&M left Austin with a narrow 12-7 victory, Mack Brown's Longhorns were outplayed, looking listless throughout. After that game, more than a few fans told me they felt it was the most disappointing loss during the Mack Brown era.

Heading into 2007, many - myself included - thought A&M was well positioned to be a very solid, offensively dangerous football team. Persisting questions on defense tempered overall expectations, but the consensus among more than a few was that this was a team which had potential to be in very good position heading into November. The Aggies had an experienced offensive line, a returning quarterback, and both parts of their tailback tandem.

Fast forward 11 weeks and Frantana's Aggies have made no such steps forward. Mired in mediocrity, with a lame duck coach leading a team that's now lost four of its last five games - including its last three - the 2007 season will be remembered as yet another disappointment... unless they beat the Longhorns on Friday afternoon.

Though nothing could save Frandullah's job at this point, the difference between leaving College Station with a few pats on the back and leaving drowned in an emphatic chorus of spiteful jeers will be the outcome on Friday. There is nothing A&M fans live for more than beating the Texas Longhorns.

What's that mean for Texas? As always, prepare for battle. Disappointing as A&M's season has been, there is little chance they won't fight hard for this win - sinking ship or not. If Texas assumes victory will come easily, the Aggies will be happy to try to take it away.

More importantly, as disappointing as the A&M season has been, the book is more or less closed on their '07 campaign. Win or lose on Friday, the conclusion of this season will mark the end of the Franchione era.

For Texas, however, the ending of the 2007 story could take on any number of different shapes - some good, some bad. The Longhorns have fought relentlessly to rebound from an 0-2 start in Big 12 play and won five straight games. Offensive centerpieces Jamaal Charles and Colt McCoy - each of whom bottomed out mid-season - have refused failure, continued fighting, and rebounded in extraordinary fashion. A win over the Aggies would give Texas 10 on the season and a guaranteed spot in the Cotton or Holiday Bowl, with a reasonable shot at a BCS Bowl at-large invitation. After Oklahoma’s loss in Lubbock last night, the door is still open to play for the conference title. This story can end well. Very well.

Without a win on Friday over A&M, that feel good story would evaporate. Much like the 2006 season unraveled in Manhattan before fans could figure out what happened, so too could the '07 season. Though dreams of a BCS Bowl, a Cotton Bowl matchup against a top-tier SEC team, or a Holiday Bowl clash with the #2 team from a strong Pac 10 have Texas fans excited heading into the week, a loss to A&M would immediately trigger a wave of massive disappointment: Two straight losses to Frannypants. A 9-3 record pushing us down to a who-cares bowl. And all those doubts which peaked during the first three quarters of the Nebraska and Oklahoma State games would once again dominate the mood among the faithful, fueling an impossibly long three weeks of handwringing about the state of the program as fans wait for the bowl game. A loss would leave Texas fans in the same position as last year – watching helplessly on Saturday afternoon, hoping for Oklahoma to choke against Oklahoma State.

Success Comes At A Price

Looking beyond the mere implications for this postseason, one could argue Friday's contest with A&M is the most important Texas football game since the national title nearly two years ago.

There were two important consequences of Vince Young leaving Texas after his junior year as king of the college football universe. First and foremost, he'd elevated the Mack Brown-brand Longhorns to a level never seen in this state during the modern (scholarship-reduced) football era. Texas' 25-1 ledger over Vince Young's sophomore and junior seasons at Texas - culminating in an unforgettable national championship - created a perfect storm in Austin, with Mack Brown hand picking recruits he wanted - all of whom wanted Texas.

VY's early departure also left Texas with a quarterback quandary heading into 2006. Under-the-radar recruit Colt McCoy had a redshirt year in the system, while more highly touted Jevan Snead entered fall camp a true freshman. McCoy won the job in August, but fans weren't sure what to expect from a baby-faced, redshirt freshman trying to follow the incomparable Vince Young. They had their answer in the season's second week, when a 17-point defeat to Ohio State seemingly killed any hopes of a title defense.

But by November 11th, the Longhorns - playing a night game in Manhattan - improbably found themselves back in the driver's seat to the national title game after a wild Saturday of upsets across the country. Already ranked #4 in the polls, by the time Texas received the game's opening kickoff, fans and players knew that wins over K-State and A&M would give the team an excellent chance at a second straight BCS Title Game appearance.

Just ten plays after Texas received that opening kickoff, McCoy had led the offense 79 yards on 4-for-4 passing for 59 yards, setting up a 1st and Goal from the Kansas State one-yard line. After unsuccessful first and second down tries by Selvin Young, McCoy tried sneaking it in himself. When he failed to get in from the one on third down, Texas was faced with 4th and Goal. Texas went for it, McCoy plunged over the pile, and scored a touchdown. He also suffered a stinger injury that would keep him out of the rest of the game.

And with that, the wheels came off: Texas lost in Manhattan, and then, in losing at home to A&M, coughed up the Big 12 South Division title to an Oklahoma team it had defeated in October. Texas would ultimately fall all the way to the Alamo Bowl, just two short weeks after finding itself on the brink of the BCS Championship Game.

From The Bottom To The Brink

After an Alamo Bowl win fueled by Colt McCoy's 300 yards passing, Texas kicked off the 2007 season with high hopes renewed. Though the running game that dominated under Vince Young's direction had become painfully average by the close of 2006, Colt McCoy had surprised fans with his strong play as a passer out of the shotgun. Though here and elsewhere fans discussed at great length the need to improve the short-yardage running game (the deterioration of which in 2006 led directly to McCoy's injury), there was a general feeling, if not a consensus, that Texas' "post-VY" identity had been found: a pass-first, McCoy-led attack that used Limas Sweed to stretch the field. Defenses which chose to defend Sweed with single coverage would pay the price in touchdowns. Those which committed deep safety help would pay the price underneath with Quan Cosby, Jermichael Finley, and - the theory went - a running game that had more room to work.

Fatefully, Limas Sweed hurt his wrist just before the season opener, and though he tried to play through the pain, he was not the same player he had been and Texas' offense immediately suffered. Though the running game was relatively improved over the final eight games of '06, McCoy suddenly found himself struggling in the passing game. After consecutive defeats to Kansas State and Oklahoma, Sweed finally opted for surgery, and with that, the entire Texas offensive gameplan heading into 2007 was six feet under.

By the beginning of the fourth quarter against Nebraska, Texas had sunk to its lowest point in years. Trailing to a free-falling Cornhusker team in Austin, McCoy took one play off to nurse an injury. John Chiles came in for that one play, Texas ran the zone read, and Jamaal Charles took off for 25 yards. McCoy came back in, ran the same play, kept the ball, and ran it for 25 himself. By the end of the quarter, Texas had rushed for over 250 yards and three scores to fend off Nebraska. A week later in Stillwater, after another hellish three quarters of football, Texas stormed back from a 35-14 fourth quarter deficit to win on a walk-off field goal. And finally, last week against Tech, Texas' offense simply scored at will from start to finish. Charles was great, McCoy was great. Greg Davis was great.

And here we are. Like last year, Texas has arrived near the finish line in position to make the season a successful one. It's been at times ugly. At times lucky. At times just Longhorn football players exerting a sheer determination not to lose. But for all that to mean something, Texas has to beat A&M in College Station on Friday. A loss would ruin this season much the way 2006 fell apart.

Making It Mean Something

What would a win mean for Texas? For starters, Oklahoma’s loss last night means the Big 12 South is not yet decided; a Longhorn win and Sooner loss would send Texas to the championship game in San Antonio. Even if the Sooners do take care of business, though, a win over A&M would guarantee Texas a worthwhile bowl invitation. Though the prestige of a solid bowl is a valuable commodity in and of itself (program perception, etc.), the real prize would be getting to play another legitimately strong team to close the year. I do think Texas has suffered at times from the non-lessons that accompany games against teams the 'Horns can beat simply by showing up - Baylor, Rice, Arkansas State, most teams from the North in recent years. But even the great Vince Young probably wouldn't have won his national title if Texas hadn't gone through that trial-by-fire in Columbus. I'd love nothing more than for this Texas team to beat A&M and earn a chance to play Arizona State, Oregon, USC, Georgia, Tennessee, or Florida in a bowl. Win or lose, the game would be a great one for all those Texas players who will be dreaming of helping carry the 2008 Texas team to big and great things.

Beyond the tangible prizes that would accompany a win over A&M, this Longhorn team needs some validation. The reason I've just recapped the past two seasons so thoroughly is because these past 24 games have seemed in many ways like a transition from the Vince Young era. That's not the whole story of the last two years, but it may well be that it's the driving one. And this storyline needs some punctuation.

Texas has been in relative turmoil since Vince Young departed, a process the program, team, and fans can live with if - if - this is a transition. That's why this game has the potential to be one of the most important games of Mack Brown's tenure in Austin. A win would feed a storyline we're all comfortable with and give further hope that this group is starting to turn a corner all on its own. A loss would send us all back to the drawing board, wondering if the best has passed us by.