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Eyes On The Prize

Vince Young in Confetti
Vince Young in Confetti

Horns_bullet_mediumEyes on the prize: The Big 12. This is not College Station, and our goals are not to rally around the golf team or survive a trip to Mississippi on two cans of repellent. This is Austin, where even a coach as beloved and appreciated as Mack Brown gets dinged for the lone blemish on his resume -- winning just one conference championship during his 11 years at the helm. You could argue that he got jobbed out of one in 2008, but I'm pretty sure he lost two in 2001, so the net result is all the same. In any case, no matter how you slice and dice Mack's litany of accomplishments and small list of warts, the bottom line is that among Texas's three goals this year -- (1) win the Big 12, (2) get to Pasadena, (3) win the national title -- the only failure that could truly damage Mack Brown's legacy is the first. Heading into the season, most felt Mack Brown needed to win the Big 12; having made it to this point without a loss, it's a mandate.

Eight up, eight down, and among those of us who called 2009 a two-game season, a spot in the Big 12 Title Game seems to be all but in the books. The Longhorns' sweep of the Oklahomas plus Tech puts the team in commanding position heading into November: to lose the South, they would have to lose two out of their remaining three Big 12 games against Robert Griffin's ghost, Todd Reesing's groin, and Joe Kine's gibberish. That ain't happening, which means Mack Brown's season will come down to one game, in Dallas, against a double-digit underdog from the Big 12 North. Whether that win gets Texas to Pasadena or to 11-2, it will be meaningful and, by one of the most fundamentally important measures, make the season successful. (Of course, if Texas were to win the Big 12 with an 11-2 record because it dropped games both to UCF and one of BU/KU/A&M, the AD's office might as well dig through storage to find the infamous asterisk.)

Whether Texas won the Big 12 after finishing unthinkably or after winning out before a loss to Florida, when the limited standard is conference titles -- one about which we profess deeply to care -- the accomplishment is the same. Even if at this point in the race that standard doesn't seem right, ask yourself this: Between finishes in which Texas lost two before winning the Big 12 crown, and one in which it won its final four before losing in the Big 12 Title game, which would you prefer? In neither case would the Longhorns be headed to Pasadena; in one instance the team would be Big 12 champs.

Get to Dallas. Win the damn Big 12 Title...  Above all else: that has to happen.

Horns_bullet_mediumEyes on the prize: Pasadena.  All that said... Texas is not going to lose on Saturday to UCF. It is not going to lose in Waco. And it is not going to stumble in DKR to Kansas. So certain are those wins that I reserve the right to ignore everything I just said if Texas does in fact win the Big 12 Title but miss out on Pasadena because of a loss in any of those three games. Which leaves just Thanksgiving and the Big 12 North champ between Texas and a return to the Rose Bowl. As to this particular prize, let's ask and answer each of the relevant questions.

First, could Texas drop a game and still make it to the national title game? There is good news: it is theoretically possible. Alas, there is bad news, too: you'd have to be more detached from reality than Bill Byrne to consider it. If Texas loses, it is out for the national title. If this seemed a 90% certainty in August; it is a certainty now, barring unimaginable chaos -- such as if all of the following occurred: (1) Texas suffered a sympathetic loss and looked otherworldly beating the other four opponents; (2) Ohio State beat both Penn State and Iowa; (3) Alabama looked bad winning out before getting clobbered in the SEC Title Game by Florida; (4) Oregon lost at Stanford, at Arizona, or versus Oregon State; (5) Utah beat TCU; and (6) Pittsburgh beat Cincinnati. And that's the most realistic scenario...

Bottom line, Texas has to win out. (On the bright side, as this week's BCS Standings made clear: it's equally unrealistic to think Texas could win out and still miss the BCS Title Game.)

Second, which post-OSU opponent presents the toughest test? This was the question posed Tuesday, and 75% of you went with Texas A&M. That was my answer in September, and though I might be tempted to play devil's advocate if the Big 12 championship were in Kansas City, the Thanksgiving game has to be the choice: the game is on the road, beating t.u. is all that matters to that other school in the state's armpit, and, among remaining opponents (including whichever team wins the North), the Aggies have the best skill position talent.

Third, how much should we value actually getting to Pasadena? To begin with, I'll stick by my guns that winning the Big 12 with a loss to, say, Central Florida would be better than losing the Big 12 via a loss to, say, the North Division champ -- enough so to mitigate a non-trivial amount of the shock and disappointment that would follow from such an ignominious end to our Rose Bowl dreams. But what about winning the Big 12 title with a loss, versus winning the Big 12 Title undefeated and earning a trip to Pasadena?

Despite all the care I just took emphasizing the priority of winning the conference, the truth of the matter is that we're just three days after the win in Stillwater, and you can't book a round-trip flight from Austin to L.A. any time around January 7th for less than $500. Sufficient time and mourning might allow Mack Brown to get credit for a Pasadena-less Big 12 Title, but oh would it take a good bit of time. And mourning. And, in the near-term, some ugly, frustrated lashing out. It was one thing for the fanbase to smile and clap when the team just missed last year's BCS Title Game on the heels of an OU win, a heartbreaker in Lubbock, and some back luck; it'll be quite another if the Horns miss it this year on the heels of a loss to any of the double-digit dogs standing in our way. If history eventually will smile kindly on any Big 12 championship, at this point, winning one without a trip to Pasadena will sting something fierce, and for quite a while.

All of which is to say: The benefit to Mack Brown winning a Pasadena-less conference title is dwarfed by the stakes tethered to the other two outcomes -- not winning the Big 12, or a 13-0 Texas returning to the Rose Bowl for a title shot. The former would be a disaster to Brown's legacy, while the latter would exponentially amplify our excitement about the conference championship. If the team does make it, Longhorns fans desperately will want to win the national title, but even if they lost: the perfect regular season, the Big 12 title, the confirmation of the program's super-high-elite status, the treat of taking a title-game trip to Pasadena, and on and on... those are the things for which the burnt orange nation lives, and however bitter it would be to swallow a loss in that game, fans' goodwill and appreciation would mimic that of the near-miss of a year ago.

We want perfection, but we do not demand it. We demand only that we get to enjoy the thrills from being close, from having a chance.

Horns_bullet_mediumEyes on the prize: The Crystal Ball.  All that talk about the implications of losing, about Mack Brown's need for a conference title, about the gratitude accompanying a trip to Pasadena... If I might be forgiven for hopping every line of chalk, it's that the ultimate prize -- a national championship -- is in our sights and so close within reach.

One game does not a player make. Neither can it make a coach, nor, especially, a program -- Texas in 2010 and beyond will be mostly unaffected by whatever happens to a 2009 team that reaches the national title game.

When this season ends, we will have eight excruciating months to ruminate on the implications of its conclusion, but we are huddled here right now precisely because it is November 4th, our team is undefeated, and they are giving us more reasons each week to believe that they are college football's best. That would be enough on its own, but for us, there's more. The story is arching not just to glory, but to the Rose Bowl. To a rain of confetti like the one that four years ago washed away thirty-five years of drought.

It's not just that we want it -- fans of Florida and Alabama and Iowa and every other contender want it, too -- but that this is the only story that we know: "A year after coming agonizingly close, the same core Texas team returns, determined to win every game and get to the Rose Bowl, where they can triumph as national champions." 

Forget the differences between the '05 and '09 teams; what will matter to us is any difference in how it feels if this Rose Bowl doesn't end the same way. Nearly forty years with nothing, until a dream season in Pasadena brings a title; four years later, our next shot at glory, amidst a set up nearly identical to the one that just brought such perfect joy.

Whatever we do to try to prepare ourselves for something different, we will expect the same. When this year's confetti rains down, we will celebrate as though it could not have ended any other way, or we will, sooner than we had hoped -- sooner than we had expected - begin our painful, reluctant retreat from neverland, back to reality, where there's no avoiding the cruel truth that sometimes our year isn't, in the end, our year.

Chide me for being dramatic all you like -- but this is where we are. As we approach the season's denouement, the anticipations and expectations of Texas fans will in most ways be normal, and in this way unique, tied to the exhilaration we know accompanies Rose Bowl glory. This is the only journey we know, and there is only one way that the story can end. Until it doesn't.

Whatever the outcome, our psyches will adjust, but what's at stake for the team? For Mack Brown? Colt McCoy? For them, too, 2005 looms large. Whether McCoy takes his last snap at Texas in the Rose Bowl or somewhere else, whether he wins the title or does not, he will depart the winningest, most productive passer in school history. Even if he never took another snap the rest of this year, or lost all four of his remaining games, he would depart not only with all the records, but as one of the most beloved players ever to pass through the program. The only thing that he would not have is a title.

The legacies of Mack Brown and Colt McCoy are, perhaps fittingly, thusly linked. McCoy's clock runs out sooner, but Brown insists (and I believe him that) his final days are near, too. No matter what happens from here forward, Brown and McCoy will be appreciated for everything they've done in this and previous seasons to get the team and the program to where it is today. All that remains to be determined is whether their legacies will be very good, or truly great. If Texas falls short of a national title, Colt McCoy will be remembered as an exciting, admirable, effective, and important quarterback -- less successful than his predecessor, yet far, far more than anyone believed he could be.

Not knowing how long into Garrett Gilbert's tenure Brown will stay, or how successful those teams will be, Mack Brown's own legacy may in this way be inseparable from McCoy's. If Texas wins it all, Colt McCoy is remembered as a hero on par with Vince Young -- less gifted, certainly, but, in his own way, no less great. For Brown, it would be a second national title but a first without Vince Young -- speaking differently to Brown's legacy than had he won two titles while Young was around, even. Mack Brown will be considered a great coach for many reasons (and no matter what happens from here on out), but winning a second national championship would elevate his legacy to a different level, where he would join Darrell Royal as Texas's best, and the modern era's short list of titans, as college football's best.

And if Texas falls short? Where McCoy's legacy would be limited by his failure to win a championship like Vince Young, Mack Brown's would be limited by his only winning a championship with Vince Young -- Mack Brown, neither quite as great as Vince Young made him to be, yet far, far more than anyone in 2003 believed he could be.

When it's all said and done, we may wind up saying the same thing about the legacies of both Colt McCoy and Mack Brown: An unquestionable success, far better than anyone hoped, but not quite as great as the two years of Vince Young...

If that's how they go out, they'll have a hell of a lot to be proud of and we'll be lucky to have had them.

But something tells me that, just like the rest of us, there's only way that they can imagine this story ending: In confetti.