The concern, from day one, is that Michigan is making a league-record 19th Rose Bowl appearance while the Longhorns' first-ever trip to Pasadena prompted a Dust Bowl-like exodus from Texas to California. Will the last person leaving Austin please turn off the light? More important, will the Longhorns play as if they're just happy just to be here? Or, will they finally give head coach Mack Brown his first signature win in a major bowl game?
Michigan boasts four first-team All-Americans. That's scary. Even scarier is that two of them (Ernest Shazor, Marlin Jackson) are in the secondary. And we all know how VY has struggled with the passing game, at least until the last three games of the regular season. The thought here, however, is that those bad boys in the Michigan secondary are gonna be spending most of Saturday afternoon playing run support. Every team has tried to load the box against Texas; most teams might have been successful in stopping Texas' ground game if it didn't possess the 2004 Doak Walker winner and the best running back never to be invited to the Heisman presentation. Look for RB Cedric Benson to be a battering ram in his final game as a Longhorn. Look for VY to try to connect with his seasoned TEs to loosen up the D (Bo Scaife and David Thomas won't be nearly as wide-eyed as RS-freshman SE Limas Sweed).
WR Braylon Edwards is the Biletnikoff winner, honoring college football's best receiver. Texas' best DB Michael Huff will shadow him all afternoon. If you look at Michigan's two losses in 2004, Edwards still got his yards. The Wolverines lost when their running game got shut down. Defensively, the key is for Texas to keep Edwards between the twenties and contain freshman TB Michael Hart. He was the Big Ten's leading rusher in 2004, but he'll be introduced to heat-seeking missile WLB Derrick Johnson, who has yet to take a lazy step all season.
In short, the first team to render its opponent one-dimensional will be Rose Bowl champs.
Still, my gut feeling is that this game is won in the second half when cool-as-a-California-avocado Vince Young makes plays with his feet. In fact, the buzz among the Michigan people is that if they can get to Young, the game is theirs. It's as if they are conceding five-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust to Benson but don't want Young to break the long ones. They want to hit him and hit him hard.
Texas has been so abysmal in major bowl games during the post-Darrell Royal era (going 1-6) that it makes you a little leery of picking them. But this is a Longhorn team that refused to lay down when other Longhorns squads have rolled over and died, swatting away devastating losses staring them in the face (Arkansas, Oklahoma State, Kansas) to earn the program's first BCS bid. That should serve them well if a more poised Michigan jumps to an early double-digit lead.
Brown agreed to a 10-year contract this week worth more than $25 million, which would keep him at Texas through 2014. While I am thrilled Texas is in the Rose Bowl, that's still a nice pat on the back for a guy who has not won a conference title in 21 seasons as head coach. It means there are 25 million reasons why Brown needs to win the BCS game for which he lobbied. If Brown is going to pull down that kind of jack despite no championship hardware, then Texas must play like a champion Saturday. Texas 31, Michigan 24.
Pearle -- It's been over a month since Texas has played a football game and it's left me a little unsure of what to expect when the Horns take the field in the Rose Bowl Saturday.
The Longhorn team that finished the season with a convincing win over a ranked and improved Aggie squad was confident, riding a streak of six straight victories. But the Texas team that will face Michigan in Pasadena will have had almost five weeks to hear about the BCS, the criticism of the team and their coach, and their coach's failure to win big games. They also will have been soaking up the sights and sounds in SoCal and trying to prepare for a huge game in a setting that is totally unfamiliar to them. Will we see the same focused, motivated, dangerous Horn squad that pulverized opponents most of the season, or will we see a Texas team rusty from the layoff that is unfocused, outcoached and confused by a top-10 caliber opponent, similar to last year's Holiday Bowl?
As I say, I don't have a clear feeling about where these guys are going into the biggest game of Mack Brown's career at Texas. But watching the Alamo and Holiday Bowls the last couple of days has given me what I think is at least a little bit of insight into who Texas is as a team and what type of an opponent they can expect to face in Michigan.
Ohio State's easy blowout of Oklahoma State told me this: the Big 10 is a power conference, populated with big, strong, physical football players as well as some guys with surprising speed. Ohio State impressed me with the ease with which they dispatched a talented Okie State team, albeit a Cowboy squad that faded like a cheap hanky over the last half of the season. Point is, I am expecting to see a Wolverine squad that is at least comparable to the Buckeyes in terms of size, speed and physicality. These guys will slug it out step for step with Texas, and will present a huge physical challenge for the Longhorns.
But watching Texas Tech basically blow No. 4 California out in the Holiday Bowl also told me that Texas, which won in a laugher over Tech in Lubbock, is certainly one of the best teams in college football when it gets rolling on both sides of the ball. So I believe Texas can win this game comfortably if it executes, keeps the turnovers to a bare minimum, and eliminates stupid penalties. They don't have to play a perfect game, just a focused, emotional one.
With an incredible player like Braylon Edwards getting the football, Michigan will get some yards and put up some points. But I believe Texas has more game-changers than Michigan, particularly with guys like Vince Young, Cedric Benson and Derrick Johnson on the field, and will ultimately prove the more explosive team.
By the time the sun sets over the Pacific, the Horns will have proven they deserved to be right where they are: in the BCS, in the Rose Bowl, and in the top 5 -- deal with it, America. Texas 30, Michigan 20.
Ross -- Earlier this year, in my Publisher Column in the October Inside Texas magazine, I wrote that Mack Brown faced "his biggest game ever as head coach at The University of Texas" on Oct. 9 when the Horns took on the Sooners in the Cotton Bowl. And at the time, it was. But that title will be surrendered Saturday in Pasadena.
A win in the Rose Bowl won't erase five straight losses to OU, including in that "biggest game ever" almost three months ago. And it won't bring either a conference or a national title to the Forty Acres. But, given the controversial circumstances surrounding UT's first-ever BCS berth and the announcement this week of another pre-bowl raise for Brown, a win will bring two, absolutely vital things to the Texas program: renewed national legitimacy and respect by shedding the 'can't win the big one' label it's earned under Brown, plus renewed momentum for a program that appeared plateaued at the very good but not great level over the last four seasons. And it'll feel darn good! An 11-1 finish with a BCS bowl win is that important. (Perhaps a more effective way to get the point across about this game's importance: just imagine for yourself what we'll be hearing from Saturday evening on throughout the off-season if the Horns lose to the Wolverines. Suffice it to say, it will dwarf the derision both in terms of ferocity and longevity that followed the most recent loss to the Sooners.)
So, does Texas win its latest "biggest game ever"? I say, 'Yes'!
First of all, the Horns match-up well with Michigan. I particularly like UT's rush O vs. the Wolverines' run D. Over the final three games of the season, Michigan gave up 397 yards on the ground to Michigan State and then 200-plus to both Northwestern and Ohio State. OSU QB Troy Smith torched the U-M defense for 145 yards on 18 carries and MSU QBs Damon Dowell and Drew Stanton totaled 112 yards on 18 carries. The Wolverines focus Saturday will be on slowing Vince Young's running (and forcing him to pass), but that's easier said than done. Michigan couldn't stop three lesser athletes than Young, and those QBs didn't have a backfield mate like Cedric Benson. And -- shhh, don't tell the Wolverines -- while VY is no Joe Montana, he finished the season completing 52 of 79 attempts for 698.
I also like the Longhorn D vs. the Michigan run game. Braylon Edwards will get his yards. He got 'em vs. Notre Dame and Ohio State, the Wolverines' two losses. The more important stats from those losses are Michigan's rushing yards: 56 vs. the Irish and 71 vs. the Buckeyes. Edwards will not beat Texas, but Michael Hart could. Greg Robinson knows it, and will scheme accordingly.
And speaking of Robinson, his influence (along with that of soon-to-be San Jose State head coach Dick Tomey combined with Mac McWhorter and Michael Haywood) on the attitude of this team is another of the aspects that make me like the Horns in this one. No way is this team unprepared, in scheme or in attitude, as have been some Longhorn bowl teams of recent vintage. I expect Texas to be ready.
The usual caveat applies: turnovers can render all of the above virtually meaningless. But in the shadow of the San Gabriel Mountains, the Horns will reach heights not seen by Orangebloods since the early 80's. A major bowl victory and a top four finish. Texas 34, Michigan 21.