No Apologies; Powerful Horns Deserve South Title

<B>Mack Brown</B> has often said he believes the Horns get praised too much when they win a game and criticized too much when they lose. Such is life at the premier university in the football-mad state of Texas. But after its steely victory in College Station Friday, I am finding it hard to over-praise what Texas has done this season. Hope you'll cut me a break, coach Brown.

If ever a team is a walking endorsement of the validity of recruiting rankings, this Longhorn team is it. A product of four star-studded Mack Brown classes, three of which were considered top-5 or better, the ‘01 Horns are as good a team as most can remember seeing in Burnt Orange. Other than the slip up in Dallas, which is still agonizing for the opportunity squandered, they have played up to and maybe even beyond expectations. To put the OU loss in perspective, a glance at the standings in college football will tell you there is now all of two teams left which are undefeated -- BYU and Miami. Texas has a lot of fast company in the one-loss department.

Oh yeah, I almost forgot -- the Horns, amazingly but deservedly to this biased but trying-to-be objective reporter, are Big 12 South champs for the second time under Brown. And I don't want to hear any whining from the Sooners or anybody else about Texas sneaking into the title game. No, the Horns fought their way in, and OU bumbled its way out.

The Horns are as hot as a habanero pepper, a team nobody wants to mess with, including Colorado, which is bound to be brimming with confidence after its stunner over the Huskers. With a 41-7 blowout against the Buffs, the total destruction of competitive Texas Tech, a runaway win over ‘Nole- slayer UNC, and now the win over bowl-bound A&M at Kyle, Texas has clearly shown it is a thoroughbred. Of course, in the games in which the Horns were expected to dominate, against the Baylors, KUs and OSUs, they did, with not a hint of a stumble. The OSU victory now actually looks like a pretty nice win, too, coming as it did at Stillwater. Still, the schedule has not been the toughest ever, no argument, but Texas has sliced through it like a razor.

For much of the Texas A&M game, though, a totally different storyline to this season hung in the balance.

For about three and a half quarters, the Aggie game looked like it would prove a negative fact about the ‘01 Horns, that in the only games this season in which rock-ribbed defenses stared ‘em in the eye, the UT offense blinked. This game looked almost identical to the OU punch-out as the defenses took turns stomping on the other teams' O. The fear was hanging there, no doubt about it -- if Texas had turned it over late and given up an improbable offensive thrust by the anemic Ag offense, the Aggies might've stolen a shocking win. A&M kept it that close, and we've seen it happen before, too many times.

That was the image that kept gouging its way into my consciousness as I watched Cedric Benson smack time after time into a maroon rampart, gaining nothing. Each time Benson got bashed, and each time Chris Simms got battered, the Farmers gained hope of pulling off the improbable. Benson's lack of PT against OU somehow seemed to be fading in importance -- what difference would it have made? A&M was kickin' his rear.

Well, it probably would have meant everything. The Texas coaches obviously learned something in that game back in October and it won them a crucial game Friday. They learned that they have a back in Benson who, like many great backs, including Ricky Williams, gets stronger as games wear on and opposing Ds wear down. Benson, as I've written before after watching him carry the ball time after indefatigable time for Lee in last year's state playoffs, is a battering ram, a blue-collar blue chip with a nose for the red zone. This game looked like Lee against the Woodlands in the semis last year when Benson got mugged, but just kept pounding it until his team finally won.

Much like Friday. The Aggies, despite their 7-4 record and apparent slide into semi-mediocrity, still play chin-splitting defense. Ask Cedric. Texas did basically nothing on offense for three and-a-half quarters Friday. But finally, the holes started opening just a crack, and that's all Benson needed. A 24-yard dash here and a 5-yarder there and Texas managed to score, and survive.

To be honest, that's all I realistically hoped for against the Aggies. Any fans out there not happy with the offense and thinking Texas should have blown out this fading A&M squad, well, you're entitled to your opinion, and I would agree with you to a point. I also kept thinking during the game that if the Horns are struggling like this against A&M, what might a team like Florida with a powerful offense and defense do to them?

But that thought came and went, because it had nothing to do with reality. Winning at Kyle Field for Texas is as tough as it gets for any team, anywhere. It is supremely difficult. The noise is deafening and A&M, especially against the Horns, fights to the finish. The Sooners' run to a national title almost derailed at College Station last year. Texas' run to a BCS berth faced the same obstacle. Like the Ags? Of course not. Respect how they play at Kyle? You better believe it.

That's why this game to me confirmed how good Texas really is. Like the Sooners last year, the Horns managed to grind out a win under unnerving conditions, with the wind and the Farmer faithful howling. The Longhorns never caved under the pressure, they never panicked, and they never made a fatal error. They played conservatively, which they needed to, and just kept working until the Ags finally broke. Turned out Texas turned in a championship performance

With OU's shocking loss to Okie State Saturday, Texas' win over A&M has now proven to be the ‘W' that won the South. Incredibly, Texas is going to Dallas, with a possible Rose Bowl berth on the line. If they knock off Colorado, which I think they will, the Horns have as legitimate a claim to the title game as any other one-loss team in the country, and one-lossers will be all that is left to play Miami should the ‘Canes get by Va-Tech at Blacksburg.

It may not pan out for Texas, even with a win in Dallas, as the latest ESPN projections I've seen have Miami and Florida as the most likely to play in Pasadena. But if the Horns get by the Buffs and somehow, at 11-1, get cheated out of a shot at the ring, it will be a crime, because this team would deserve it. No sorry computer rigged by some nerd in Seattle could convince me otherwise.

But first, Texas has to face another smokin' team in CU, which will be wanting blood after the Horns waxed ‘em in Austin. It should be a great game. Dallas is definitely a great reward for a Texas team that in ‘01 lived up to the hype.

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