Will this be Brown's last season as Texas' head coach? These five games will be the determining factor.
The 2013 season is being pointed to as the one in which Mack Brown and the Texas Longhorns will finally make their return to the top of the Big 12. But losses to teams like Oklahoma and TCU will curtail those dreams and likely cost Brown his job.
Rebuilding has been a painful process since the 2009 season. But that process, along with the accompanying excuses for poor performance, is over. In returning the conference's most experienced quarterback and all but three starters, there is no reason Brown cannot lead the team to at least 10 wins.
If the outcome be anything less, it will mean the end for Brown's career at Texas. These are the five games that will decide whether he returns in 2014.
Bill Snyder has had Texas' number. Is this the year Brown finally shakes him?
Brown's first must-win game of the season comes against Kansas State, a team that has given him fits throughout his tenure. Can he take advantage of the most vulnerable Wildcat team he has faced in three years?
Kansas State head coach Bill Snyder has owned Mack Brown. He is 5-2 against Brown during his career, with four of those wins coming by double digits. Overall, KSU has beaten the Longhorns five times in a row, prompting its fans to chant "We Own Texas" following last year's 42-24 rout in Manhattan. This is unacceptable against a program that has never had a top-10 recruiting class, according to Rivals.
But this year, Brown and the 'Horns have a chance to turn things around. Texas-killer Collin Klein, a finalist for the 2012 Heisman Trophy, has exhausted his eligibility along with top defenders Arthur Brown and Meshak Williams. Texas, on the other hand, returns all but three starters and will have a decided advantage on paper.
Given the talent advantage, the home-field advantage and the pressure to figure out the Wildcats, Brown needs this game to keep the critics off of his back. Another loss, and an early one at that, puts him and the entire team in dire straits moving forward.
The most obvious game that Brown needs to win in 2013 is against the Oklahoma Sooners, another team that he has had trouble taking care of over the years.
No game on Texas' schedule carries more weight than its annual tilt against Bob Stoops and the Sooners. This year's matchup carries even more weight, as the Sooners have beaten the 'Horns three consecutive times, including back-to-back 40-point blowouts these past two seasons.
Fortunately, the Sooners are also dealing with a new face under center, so this is another crucial game in which Texas should be favored. But given Brown's measly 6-9 record and recent struggles against his team's archrival, this is far from a foregone conclusion.
It is, however, a foregone conclusion that Brown will not survive another 40-point defeat at the hands of the Sooners. With the patience of the Longhorns faithful running thin, even a close loss could prove beyond reproach.
This past Thanksgiving, the Longhorns gave away a game and recruiting leverage to the TCU Horned Frogs. Brown needs to get both back this season in Forth Worth.
In its first conference game against the 'Horns, Gary Patterson's squad simultaneously ruined a four-game winning streak and a third straight senior night for the new rivals. Adding insult to injury, Patterson flipped running back Kyle Hicks from the 'Horns just a week later.
The Frogs are a good team, but this was an unacceptable series of events for Brown. On Thanksgiving, he let them come into his house, crush his team's BCS hopes and take one of his best recruits in one fell swoop.
With two weeks to prepare, revenge must be had this time around to keep similar hopes alive as well as to maintain the waning in-state recruiting advantage—especially if Brown is trying to recover from yet another defeat in the Red River Rivalry.
For the second straight season, the Longhorns will have their senior night on Thanksgiving, this time against Texas Tech. For Brown's sake, they will need to put on a much better show than last year.
The Longhorns had one of their strongest games of 2012 in defeating the No. 18 Red Raiders 31-22 in Lubbock. As payback, Tech and new coach Kliff Kingsbury will be looking to crush their Big 12 title hopes the same way TCU did a season ago—by taking them down on Thanksgiving.
Mack Brown cannot afford to let this happen again, especially with a matchup at Baylor awaiting the following week. He again has 12 days to get his guys ready, so there is no excuse for another stinker in this crucial part of the season. If he blows it again, chances are that he can kiss the Big 12 and his job goodbye.
To close their season, Texas travels to Waco to avenge 2011's 42-24 drubbing at the hands of RG3 and the Baylor Bears. With the conference title likely on the line, Brown has to come through in the regular-season finale.
Provided that the Longhorns enter this game with two losses or fewer, a win here gives them some combination of a Big 12 title, a long-awaited 10-win season and a return to a BCS bowl. All of which are the expectation for the 'Horns, and anything less has to be considered a failure on the part of the entire program.
Not to mention that Texas cannot afford to give away any more recruiting leverage to the Bears, with whom they will battle for the services of wide receiver K.D. Cannon in 2014.
Texas has not won its regular-season finale since 2009. A win in this one likely proves that they are back among the national powers. But a loss should seal Brown's place on the unemployment line.