The college football landscape in the Lonestar State has seen an enormous shift in recent years.
Texas no longer exists as a state of the Have’s and the Have Not’s.
In 2013, the landscape is that of the wide-open Wild West.
The state’s banner program, Texas, finds itself facing a pivotal season. Coach Mack Brown, in particular, enters the year in hot water – likely needing to contend toward the top of the Big 12 again to stave off the bloodthirsty mob.
Brown’s troubles stem not from a total erosion of a proud program, but rather from the several in-state uprisings.
Everything is in a state of upheaval in Texas – the state, not the university. The Longhorns were picked to finish fourth in the Big 12 – behind TCU and just one spot ahead of Baylor.
Texas managed eight first-place votes from media members, one fewer than TCU. For the first time in recent memory, Baylor received first-place votes as well, getting two.
Brown essentially said he understood why the Longhorns aren’t picked higher – putting it on the parity within the league that he said does not exist in the mighty SEC.
“When you look at us being voted fourth, I thought what we saw is the numbers are all really, really close, and people are confused on who they think may win this conference championship, and that’s a compliment to our league,” Brown said.
Art Briles, meanwhile, showed unprecedented, albeit playful, confidence from a Baylor head coach when asked about his program gaining recognition.
“I was wondering why those other 23 didn’t believe in us,” Briles said jokingly. “It just shows, I think, that we’re gaining some respect. We’re certainly not where we need to be or want to be or going to be, but we got one foot out of the water and on the land.”
Even Texas Tech is energized with new coach Kliff Kingsbury returning the program to its Mike Leach roots.
While the Texas Big 12 teams are making up ground quickly on the Longhorns, their most hated rival went the longest distance in the shortest time.
Texas A&M, which grew tired of Texas’ in-state tyranny and bolted away from the Big 12 into the SEC.
Now if the Aggies got eaten alive in Year 1, as many in the state predicted, this story might not have legs. Coach Kevin Sumlin, a gritty group of seniors and a young gunslinger nicknamed Johnny Football had a little something to say about that.
“Something” came in the form of an improbable 11-2 season featuring a win at No. 1 Alabama and a blowout victory over Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl. The Sooners, incidentally, demolished the Longhorns earlier in the season in the stadium, the Cotton Bowl.
Johnny Manziel provided the spectacular season an exclamation point by bringing home the Heisman Trophy.
Still, Texas has been long accustomed to receiving challenges from the boys in College Station.
It’s some of the other fortified units in the state giving the Longhorns trouble.
TCU – a program entrenched in futility for much of the 1960s through the mid 90s – started to show life in the late 90s under Dennis Franchione. However, they didn’t fully reach their potential until Gary Patterson took control.
Under Patterson, the program has gone from the doldrums of the WAC to Conference USA to the Mountain West and, ultimately, the Big 12.
Two teams in Texas have been to BCS games in the 2000s – Texas and TCU. The Horned Frogs took the hard way, qualifying for both the Rose Bowl and the Fiesta Bowl as a Mountain West team. As a perennial top-15 team, they elevated themselves to the point where the Big 12 invited the program to essentially fill one of the voids left by A&M and Missouri.
Now Patterson – previously considered a great coach to get more from less – has the facilities, financial backing and the big-conference product to skyrocket the program further.
What Briles has accomplished in a short period of time in Waco might be the most impressive job of anyone in the nation. He has found a way to make Baylor – longtime equal parts punch line and punching bag – cool. Recruits want to play for Briles and the Bears and opponents look to avoid them.
If Briles served as general of the surge, Robert Griffin III manned the front lines. In 2010, he helped get Baylor into its first bowl game since 1994. Griffin provided the program with a cosmetic makeover the next year when he won the Heisman Trophy.
Griffin and Manziel, incidentally, were recruited by Brown to play safety for Texas because he didn’t see them as quarterbacks. Oops.
In the last two years, Baylor has beaten Oklahoma, Texas, Oklahoma State and, last year, No. 1 Kansas State.
As Briles showed at Big 12 Media Days, there is no reason to play modest. The Bears are charging hard and, after all the dark days, have earned their swagger.
Texas Tech went from upper class of the Big 12 under Leach to up-and-down under Tommy Tuberville. The fan base hopes Kingsbury can provide an immediate gateway back to happier times.
Kingsbury, an all-conference quarterback for the pass-happy Leach offense, served as offensive coordinator at Texas A&M last year, where he helped Manziel post huge numbers on his way to the Heisman.
The bottom line is that teams are no longer catching up to Texas. They have caught up.
Longhorn fans have grown tired of in-state programs morphing into legitimate threats.
With Texas A&M now in the SEC, there will be no decisive “Best of Texas” in 2013.
This much is obvious, though: The race is closer than ever.