Texas Tech's 2008 football season was simultaneously the most glorious and the most disappointing in recent memory. The first ten games of the season were a slow burn that culminated in the epochal 39-33 defeat of the University of Texas before a primetime national audience.
Two weeks later the No.2 Red Raiders, the highest ranked football team in school history, were utterly destroyed by Oklahoma in Norman. The following week Tech dozed past an anemic Baylor team and were later taken apart by underdog Mississippi in the Cotton Bowl.
The Red Raiders finished the season 11-2 and ranked No.12 by the Associated Press. It was an excellent season by most any standard, yet the late collapse left Red Raider fans bewildered and vaguely dissatisfied. A team that seemed to be marching inexorably toward the national championship game instead finished out of the top ten.
Tech's late-season swoon was never definitively explained.
A partial explanation is that the Red Raiders ran into a typhoon full of meat cleavers in Norman, and a vastly underrated Mississippi team in the Cotton Bowl.
Ole Miss, meanwhile, was on a five-game winning streak in the rugged Southeastern Conference entering their clash with the Red Raiders. Ranked No.24 in the nation, the Rebels were a grievously underrated team.
It was entirely within the realm of possibility for a very good football team to lose to Oklahoma and Mississippi. Still, this explanation falters.
The team that succumbed to OU, squeaked by Baylor, and imploded against Ole Miss was clearly not the same group that plastered No.18 Kansas 63-21 on the road, bumped off the No.1 Horns in a pressure cooker, and then mauled No.8 Oklahoma State 56-20 in what could have been the ultimate let-down game.
No, other forces were at work here. And it was not injuries, because the Red Raiders stayed remarkably healthy throughout the 2008 season. What those forces were, however, is not exactly clear.
Head coach Mike Leach never offered a convincing analysis of why his team, arguably the nation's best in late October and early November, fell apart. The most concrete explanation he offered was when he told a reporter from a Wyoming newspaper that the Red Raiders "ran out of steam."
My intent here is not to essay an explanation for why a Tech team closing in on a national championship, disintegrated. I'm in the dark on this matter as much as anybody. No, what I want to show is that this sort of mysterious collapse is far from unprecedented. In fact, all we have to do is travel approximately 500 miles southeast of Lubbock, and back in time 36 years to find a team whose season was a carbon copy of the 2008 Red Raiders.
The 1975 Texas A&M Aggies, much like the '08 Red Raiders, entered the season with sky-high aspirations. Tech was pegged No.12 in the 2008 AP preseason poll, and the '75 Aggies No.9. A&M featured a powerful ground game led by Bubba Bean and 280-pound fullback George Woodard, a forerunner of Jamar Toombs and Jorvorskie Lane.
But the Aggies' main calling card was a talented defense led by consensus All American linebacker Ed Siminoni, and future NFL stars Robert Jackson, Lester "Stickem" Hayes, and Pat Thomas.
Much like the 2008 Red Raiders, the Aggies lived up to preseason expectations and then some. They defeated a pair of mediocre SEC teams, including LSU by a 38-9 count, took out Illinois and shut out Kansas State. They then proceeded to breeze through an unusually weak SWC.
After nine games the Aggies stood at 9-0 and were ranked No.3 in the nation. Seemingly the last and greatest obstacle standing between Texas A&M and a national title shot was a home tilt with the No.6 Texas Longhorns. Oh so similarly to the Texas Tech Red Raiders 33 years later, the Aggies dumped the Longhorns and subsequently rose to No.2 in the nation.
Sporting that lofty ranking and an undefeated conference slate, all A&M had to do was go on the road, defeat a conference foe, and a Cotton Bowl berth and possible national title shot awaited.
You ain't heard nothing yet.
The Aggies strolled northeastward into the state of Arkansas and were trounced by the Razorbacks, 31-6. Up in smoke went not only dreams of a national title, but a conference crown to boot.
But the parallels don't stop there.
The Aggies received a spot in the Liberty Bowl where they were seven-point favorites over USC. But like Mike Leach's seven-point Cotton Bowl favorite Red Raiders, Emory Bellard's Aggies spit the bit, losing to the Trojans 20-0.
After beginning the season 10-0, and climbing to No.2 in the polls, Texas A&M dropped their final two games of the season by lopsided margins and finished No.11, just outside of the top ten.
And as a curious little capper, Texas A&M opened the 1975 season with a victory over the Ole Miss Rebels; the 2008 Red Raiders concluded theirs with a loss to that selfsame football program.
Ultimately, it takes a huge fund of mental toughness and psychic energy to win a D-1 football national title. This wellspring must be sufficient to sustain a team through a 13- or 14-game grind, and it must be deep enough to withstand rivalry games and the hangovers that usually follow them. The team, moreover, must be playing its very best football, not in October or November, but in December and January.
The 1975 Texas A&M Aggies and the 2008 Texas Tech Red Raiders did not have enough mental wherewithal to sustain them to the end. Perhaps they really did "run out of steam" after all.