But the Longhorn program can take a giant step toward tier one status with a victory over No. 12/13 Michigan, the winningest team in D-I football history. On top of that, the roughly 93,000 who will be on hand for the 91st Rose Bowl will comprise the largest crowd in the history of University of Texas athletics. In short, this is big.
"This will be the biggest crowd that I've ever played in front of in my life time and most of the people on the team, too," senior TE Bo Scaife told me. "There's not many stadiums that hold more than 100,000 people. Next year they go up to Ohio State and that might be the only one (bigger). Even the guys going on to the next level, even the Super Bowl doesn't hold that many people."
But this game is not as much about stadium capacity as it is the national perception of the state of Longhorn football.
The general consensus is that, during Brown's tenure, Texas is ridiculously talented, posts impressive wins every season to at least finish in (or near) the Top 10, is consistently in the thick of the chase for conference and national championships but fails to win the so-called 'big one'. Would a win in the 'Granddaddy of Them All' count as a 'big one'? Some Longhorns believe that it would.
"They call it the 'Granddaddy of Them All'," said FS Phillip Geiggar. "I heard that this one was almost as big as the national championship game. To be playing in it is a big deal."
The eyes of not only Texas but also the entire nation are upon the Longhorns every second Saturday in October. Fair or not, the annual showdown against Oklahoma serves as the national barometer of the stature of the UT football program. But SS Michael Huff believes the 91st Rose Bowl is a more high profile pairing than even the Red River Shootout.
"It's the first time we've been to a BCS bowl and it's the first time we've played Michigan," said Huff. "I think it's bigger than those rivalry games."
Many pigskin pundits, however, will continue to regard Texas as a second-tier program until it stems the tide against the Sooners. Still, the Horns have a golden opportunity to not only script a Hollywood ending to the 2004 season but also chart the immediate direction of the program if Brown manages to pull off what will likely be regarded as the biggest win of his Texas tenure. (For now, I would continue to rank the 1998 wins over Nebraska and Texas A&M as Brown's biggest.)
All-American WLB Derrick Johnson said the final game of his collegiate career ranks as his biggest, but he wants his team to maintain the even-keeled, business-like approach it has brought to every game this season
"Every time you step out on the field, you have something to prove," Johnson said. "Right now this team is very focused. This is a very experienced team even though we've got some young guys. The young guys understand this is going to be a business trip, even though there's going to be some fun involved. We're going to have fun but, at the same time, you know what you have to do."
And what Texas has to do is accomplish something it has generally failed to do since Darrell Royal hung up his whistle 28 seasons ago: win a nationally significant bowl game. The Longhorns have been in but six major bowl games in the post-Royal era, winning just one of them. (Note: the comeback win in the 2001 Holiday Bowl was thrilling and propelled the Horns to a No. 5 ranking in the final AP poll, but the Holiday Bowl is simply not a major bowl game. Neither has been the Cotton Bowl after failing to ante up to Alliance Bowl/BCS Bowl standards more than one decade ago).
Here's how Texas has fared during those high profile, marquee matchups:
1978 Cotton Bowl: No. 1 Texas 10, No. 5 Notre Dame 38
(Coach Fred Akers)
Back when the college football year culminated on January 1, the Cotton Bowl was one of just four January post-season sites and played host to the Southwest Conference champion. Heisman Trophy-winning TB Earl Campbell and the nation's No. 1 defense carried Texas to an undefeated regular season during coach Fred Akers' inaugural campaign. But top-ranked Texas was never in this one, as the Fighting Irish rode the strong arm of QB Joe Montana to the crushing upset. Never has a bowl loss hurt so much for Orangebloods.
1982 Cotton Bowl: No. 6 Texas 14, No. 3 Alabama 12
(Coach Fred Akers)
College football icon Paul 'Bear' Bryant had just become the winningest coach in Division-I history when his Alabama team accepted a Cotton Bowl bid against No. 6 Texas. The Crimson Tide held Texas scoreless for more than three quarters before the Horns rallied around Robert Brewer's 30-yard TD run on the quarterback draw. FB Terry Orr's game-winning plunge capped the comeback as Texas finished No. 2 in the final AP poll.
1984 Cotton Bowl: No. 2 Texas 9, No. 7 Georgia 10
(Coach Fred Akers)
The one-point loss was not only Texas' sole setback of the 1983 season, it also cost the Horns a national championship in what was The University's centennial year. (Top-ranked Nebraska would lose later that night to Miami.) The Bulldogs did not claim their first lead until late in the fourth quarter after a muffed punt return by Craig Curry. Akers inexplicably went with backup QB Rick McIvor instead of undefeated starter Rob Moerschell moments before kickoff. The punchless Texas offense never crossed the Bulldog goal line. Many have pointed to this heartbreaker as the beginning of the end to the Fred Akers era.
1991 Cotton Bowl: No. 3 Texas, No. 4 Miami 46
(Coach David McWilliams)
Third-ranked Texas had an outside shot at the national title if both Colorado and Georgia Tech lost in their respective bowls. Instead, the Horns suffered the worst defeat in Cotton Bowl history at the hands of a Hurricane team that rewrote Cotton Bowl records for unsportsmanlike penalties.
1995 Sugar Bowl: No. 9 Texas 10, No. 12 Virginia Tech 28
(Coach John Mackovic)
Off-field distractions and an under-respected Hokie team had the Horns singing the Bourbon Street Blues. Texas finished No. 14 in the final AP poll, after winning the final Southwest Conference Championship.
1997 Fiesta Bowl: No. 20 Texas 15, No. 7 Penn State 38
(Coach John Mackovic)
Texas was fresh off the 37-27 win over No. 3 Nebraska to win the first-ever Big 12 title. Against Joe Pa's Nittany Lions, the Horns took the momentum into the locker room following a second-quarter fake punt, but then took a second-half siesta in the Fiesta. The real question is: how does a team boasting Ricky Williams and Priest Holmes in the same backfield manage to lose five games in a single season?
Which brings us back to No. 5/6 Texas verses No. 12/13 Michigan in the 91st Rose Bowl.
"We need to win this game," said Johnson.
Texas arrived in Los Angeles Saturday and practiced for the first time in Southern California Sunday morning. After morning practices, UT and Michigan players are scheduled to visit Disneyland Monday afternoon.