It took eleven games and a cathartic, heart-stopping, last-second kicking of sand into the face of Aggie Nation, but the Texas Longhorns finally resemble a team headed to a bowl game.
After the nuclear debacle of 2010—a season that saw the Horns slip, stumble, slide, and ultimately implode into a free-falling, bowl-less, 5-7 season, the Longhorns, at 7-4, with revamped coaching staff, a multitude of young starting talent, a banged-up, wobbly offense, and a world-beating Alabama- and LSU-style defense, are truly and finally bowl-worthy.
(Before you say it, I am aware that they became “officially” bowl-eligible a few weeks ago when they trashed the Texas Tech Red Raiders for their sixth win; however, bowl-eligible and bowl-worthy mean two different things to me.)
As I see it now, the Longhorns will end up in one of these five bowls:
Insight Bowl—Tempe, Arizona—December 30
New Era Pinstripe Bowl—Bronx, New York—December 30
Bridgepoint Education Holiday Bowl—San Diego, California—December 28
Meineke Car Care of Texas Bowl—Houston, Texas—December 31
Valero Alamo Bowl—San Antonio, Texas—December 29
So, where will the Longhorns go bowling?
That's uncertain at the moment. One thing that is certain, though, is this: On December 3rd, a feisty green and gold-clad squad from Waco, the Baylor Bears, will have much to say about the Longhorns' holiday travel plans.
Count on it.
It's simple, really: The Longhorns' road to a more glamorous bowl game and equally-glamorous opponent runs through Waco, the home of No. 18 Baylor (8-3) and their explosive, Heisman-worthy quarterback, Robert Griffin III.
RG3 ranks second nationally in total offense and in passing efficiency, while orchestrating a potent offensive attack. Their 576 yards per game ranks second in the nation, and they manage to score 43.1 points per outing.
The Bears, who ended a 0-for-forever streak against the Oklahoma Sooners two weeks ago, and hung 64 on the Texas Tech Red Raiders last week, are dangerous and confident. They know full well that they can beat the Texas Longhorns on the heels of last season's 30-22 triumph in Austin.
For Texas, the mission is clear: Win this game, tie for fourth place in the powerful Big 12 conference, and wrap up an attractive bowl game against a marquee name.
Lose, and they slip into sixth place, punch their ticket for an anonymous bowl bid versus a nameless, faceless opponent somewhere south of Palookaville.
Well, it won't actually be that bad, but it'll certainly feel that way to the Longhorns and their faithful.
If the Longhorns defeat Baylor—a tough proposition by any account—they have a great shot at “bowling” in Tempe, Arizona, in the Insight Bowl. Their likely opponent would be the Joe Pa-less Penn State Nittany Lions.
Two marquee programs, proud and significant.
However, neither team has much more than a scattershot offense, and Penn State is under a cloud of investigation into sordid goings-on in the past decade.
On paper, it's a glamorous game, two longtime college kingpins matching up for only the sixth time in history.
In reality, however, it would be a meeting of two outstanding defenses and two inept offenses, and the Longhorns would ring up a shutout along the lines of 19-0, registering four field goals and a defensive touchdown.
It would be a snoozefest, er, “hard-fought trenches battle,” that only the Longhorns and defensive purists would love; not too many other fans, presumably, would much care.
By the way, the last time these two programs met on the gridiron was also in Arizona, at the 1997 Fiesta Bowl, a 38-15 Penn State win.
Provided the Texas Longhorns get past the Baylor Bears, how about a sexy Big East-Big 12 matchup with West Virginia in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl?
I'm fairly certain that Longhorn football has never played in Yankee Stadium before. Further, I will admit to a thrill at the possibility of seeing this squad travel to the Big Apple to play a football game.
Can you imagine how excited this very young team would be with a bowl trip like this?
And then there's the matter of the Mountaineers. The BCS possibly getting stuck with a 7-5 Louisville Cardinals team is the best thing that could happen to this bowl.
The Mountaineers are a potent offensive force, with skilled veteran players like junior QB Geno Smith (151.3 with 25 TDs and only 5 interceptions).
Add to the mix not one, but two 1,000-yard receivers in sophomore Stedman Bailey (1,117 yds/11 TDs and a whopping 18.6 yards per catch) and junior Tavon Austin (1,009 yds/4 TDs).
Hardly a one-trick pony, the West Virginia Mountaineers also play a little bit of defense, ranking 25th nationally in that category.
As the Mountaineers are Big 12-bound, this would be a natural bit of matchmaking, and should be an exciting bowl game.
West Virginia hung 21 points on LSU while racking up 541 yards of offense. Nobody, and I mean nobody else, did that to the Tigers this year.
Additionally, the potential meeting of these two teams would mark only their second matchup in history. The Mountaineers won the only other meeting by a score of 7-6 in Austin, in 1956.
2007 - Texas 52 Arizona State 34
A Longhorns loss to Baylor drops the Horns to a 7-5 slate, and possibly sends them west to San Diego and the Bridgepoint Education Holiday Bowl against a Pac-12 team.
That team would most likely be the Utah Utes.
The Longhorns played in this bowl four times between 2000 and 2007, winning two (vs. Washington in 2001 and Arizona State in 2007) and losing two (vs. Oregon in 2000 and Washington State in 2003).
The average score for games involving the 'Horns was 37-35. From a historical vantage point, the Longhorns' Holiday Bowls were nothing if not dramatic and thrilling.
So how would the Utah Utes match up versus Texas?
Frankly, they wouldn't. At 7-5, the Utes enter the game on the heels of a humbling 17-14 loss, at home, to Colorado, ending the Buffaloes' school-record 23-game road losing streak.
Outside of junior running back John White IV, whose 1,404 yards rushing rank him 11th nationally, there doesn't appear to be an offensive weapon capable of denting the Longhorns' ninth-ranked defensive unit.
The Texas Longhorns are 7-4 and bowl-bound, regardless of their effort against the Baylor.
Lose badly, however, and the bowl trip will be a three-hour bus ride down Interstate 10, to Reliant Stadium in Houston, for a date with either the Northwestern Wildcats or the Iowa Hawkeyes in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas.
The 6-6 Northwestern Wildcats have a significant win over Nebraska, in Lincoln, no less. They're otherwise notable for staying close to Michigan State (17-31) and Penn State (24-34).
Ranking 32nd nationally in total offense, the 'Cats feature a well-balanced attack, averaging 256 yards per game through the air and 176 on the ground.
The Iowa Hawkeyes, at 7-5, probably deserve better than this bowl, and they'll be rightfully displeased when a 6-6 Ohio State gets an invitation to the more desirable Gator Bowl.
Like a typical Hawkeye squad, the 2011 team relies on solid, efficient quarterback play from junior James Vandenberg (2806 pass yds, 23 TDs, 6 int) and physical running from sophomore Marcus Coker (1384 yds,15 TDs).
Star WR Marvin McNutt is wrapping up a stellar career with personal bests in catches (78), yardage (1269) and touchdowns (12).
The Longhorns have twice played Iowa, first losing badly, 55-17, in the infamous Freedom Bowl debacle of 1984, before gaining a measure of revenge in the 2006 Alamo Bowl, 26-24.
In the only gridiron clash between Northwestern and the Longhorns, the Wildcats, playing at home, defeated Texas and head coach Dana X. Bible, 3-0, in 1942.
Win or lose against the Baylor Bears, and the Texas Longhorns might end up very close to home in the Valero Alamo Bowl. Their likely opponent would be the Washington Huskies of the Pac-12.
As San Antonio is just over an hour's drive from Austin, the Longhorns can anticipate a huge home crowd advantage against the 7-5 Huskies.
The Washington Huskies are a competent bunch on the offensive side of the ball, scoring 31.5 points per game. Piloting the Huskies' attack is sophomore QB James Price, with 2,625 yards passing, 29 TDs, and a healthy efficiency rating of 157.9.
Their main offensive weapon is junior RB Chris Polk. Polk, in the midst of a stellar career, has run for over 3,900 yards and 25 TDs. His 2011 stats include 1,341 yards and 11 TDs on the ground, and 324 yards and four TDs as a pass-catcher.
Defensively, the Washington Huskies leave much to be desired. In their five losses, they surrendered 51, 65, 34, 40 and 38 points—45.4 points per loss. Ouch! The Huskies rank 95th in total defense, and 100th in scoring defense.
The last time the 'Horns and Huskies met was the 2001 Holiday Bowl, a game that must rank among the all-time great bowl games.
Longhorns fans will remember it as Major Applewhite's last start, a game in which he brought Texas back from a 36-17 third quarter deficit to a thrilling 47-43 win. Major completed 37 passes for 473 yards, and brought the Longhorns back time and again—an all-time performance from an all-time Longhorn.
I find it highly unlikely that the Longhorns of 2011 will need such heroics to defeat this Huskies' team.