Strength in Numbers: 'Off' Weeks Often Meaningless

One of the several bullets taken from the arsenal of <B>Mack Brown&#146;s</B> critics in recent years is the one marked &quot;can&#146;t consistently beat the teams he&#146;s supposed to.&quot;

Despite the narrow nature of last Saturday’s home contest against upset-minded Oklahoma State, Brown’s Longhorns have now won 21 straight games over non-ranked opponents. You know that the Oklahoma Sooners, the Horns’ next challenger, desires to claim the same after losing to those Oklahoma State Cowboys late last year–at home. And unlike OU (which gained zero yards rushing and only 220 total against an OSU team that had allowed 517 yards just the week before to cellar-dweller Baylor), UT dominated the statistics, outgaining OSU by a 243-83 margin in the first half, running twice as many plays in the process. At the final gun, the total yardage showed 412 to 273 in favor of Texas, while Oklahoma State made only one of 11 third-down conversions. Superstar wideout Rashaun Woods was held to just 63 receiving yards, or less than half his average of 134 yards coming in.

Texas now stands at 5-0 for the first time since 1983–almost two decades! To avoid sounding like a Pollyanna, however, the Longhorns must play better in the Red River Shootout this upcoming Saturday than they did the last one to remain unbeaten. Even so, nearly all excellent teams, current and past, play poorly for quarters, halves, and sometimes games during a season. Texas has not proven itself to be a superb team yet, but being "off" last weekend in Austin does not indicate conversely that the Horns are merely decent.

Let us take a look at a number of the highest-rated programs at this point in 2002, along with a few from the past several seasons.

Miami–at this point, the ‘Canes deserve the top spot after blowing out Nebraska in the Rose Bowl to claim the national title and then continuing to win decisively for the most part this fall. Even so, the ’02 version has displayed several moments of mediocrity, including a second-quarter meltdown that allowed lowly Temple to compete strongly until some time into the third quarter–particularly late in the second quarter when the Owls closed to within one score at one point. And with just a minute before halftime, the defending national champ found itself behind Boston College at home, before taking a last-moment lead and running away in the second half.

Oklahoma–the Sooners sweated out the whole first half against Tulsa, possibly the worst team out of 117 in Division I-A, before decisively pulling away in the second half. That Boomer Sooner only put up three points in the first thirty minutes and was ahead by only that margin is shocking considering the Golden Hurricane is 0-5, losing even to Arkansas State, and usually plays overly generous defense. Oklahoma was also extremely fortunate to survive a home bout with probation-ridden Alabama, as they had negative-23 yards rushing. Most recently, OU narrowly escaped with a seven-point win at Missouri, in large part due to a temporary injury to the Tigers’ starting quarterback.

Virginia Tech–the Hokies have indeed looked very impressive most of the year. However, some observers believe their win at Texas A&M was less than stellar, that it was the result more of the lethargic Aggie offense than strong play by the Hokies. Tech’s vaunted rushing attack managed only 2.7 yards per carry in that game. And after last week, A&M has now lost five games at home in two-and-a-half seasons and only won half of its last ten at College Station against BCS conference teams.

Ohio State–the Buckeyes were forced to scrape by mediocre Cincinnati (2-3, including a loss to Miami, OH) in the closing minutes. This past weekend, they found themselves behind lowly Northwestern (2-4, including allowing 39 or more points four times already) until late in the first half.

Oregon–the Ducks were last year’s clear No. 2 and are unbeaten this year to boot. However, they had to rally from behind at home to beat a David Carr-less Fresno State team that was further depleted without starting quarterback Jeff Grady and star receiver Bernard Berrian because of injuries. Fresno State, by the way, lost three of its first four games, including a 59-19 rout at the hands of Oregon State.

Other perennial powers, such as Florida State and Tennessee, have already suffered losses this fall to less-than-dominant teams.

Miami (2001)–the Hurricanes trashed most of their opponents, due to a combination of superior talent and a chip on their shoulder after a BCS title snub the previous year. Even so, they had to survive in the narrowest of manners the Boston College Eagles. With 20 seconds left, BC, behind only 12-7, was at the Miami 9-yard line driving for the game-winning score. On the next play, however, the ball ricocheted off a ‘Cane defensive back and Ed Reed made a game-saving interception, returning the ball for a last-second score to keep Miami unbeaten. The eventual national champs also had luck on their side in upending Virginia Tech by two points after a Hokies’ receiver dropped what would have been the game-tying conversion. Afterward: "I'm happy we won," cornerback Phillip Buchanon said, "but walking off the field I didn't have that feeling you should for a team going to the Rose Bowl."

Oregon (2001)–especially after dominating Colorado in the Fiesta Bowl, 38-16, the Ducks could legitimately claim they deserved to face Miami in the Rose Bowl instead of Nebraska. But not only did they lose a game to Stanford, they barely survived a number of close calls. Included were nail-biters of 31-28 at home versus Wisconsin (5-7 record); 24-22 at home versus USC (6-6); 21-20 versus UCLA (7-4), which was without the nation’s third-leading rusher Deshaun Foster; and 17-14 at home versus Oregon State (5-6). Frequently, Oregon had to come from behind under the leadership of Joey Harrington.

Oklahoma (2000)–the Sooners executed a perfect season, including an especially dominant October run versus top-notch competition, and finished with a defensive masterpiece against FSU to seal the national crown. But they were also fortunate to survive a five-loss Texas A&M team, being helped by a non-pushing call in the back of the Aggie quarterback during the game-winning interception return for a touchdown. OU also barely defeated a 3-8 Oklahoma State team by a 12-7 score.

Florida State (1999)–the Seminoles won the national title by whipping previously unbeaten Virginia Tech and Michael Vick, 46-29, and possessing a spotless record for the season. But even with national champs, as noted above, this team had to withstand a couple of squeakers. The 'Noles defeated Georgia Tech, which had four losses (including to Wake Forest), by only six points, and then later could only beat a mediocre Clemson team (6-6 record) by a razor-thin 17-14 margin.

Tennessee (1998)–the Volunteers, though crowned No. 1, may not have even been the best team in the country. But they waded through all 13 games of their schedule without a defeat. To play an old song though, they had a lot of fortune on their side. Tennessee’s close calls against less-talented foes were multiple: 34-33 over four-loss Syracuse; 17-9 over a poor (3-8 record) Auburn squad; and a 28-24 miracle over Arkansas when the Razorback quarterback inexplicably fumbled the game away on a simple hike and drop back from center.

The message seems clear: no team in recent memory, save the 1995 Nebraska Cornhuskers (perhaps the best ever), goes through a season without underperforming relative to its talent in at least one contest, maybe more. Including the current season, we have focused on the best teams of the last five years and found none that avoided at least a fair share of bruises and some close shaves against lesser programs. If Texas, with a brutal schedule ahead, can still end up in the mix at season’s end for the title, then the 17-15 win over Oklahoma State will seem insignificant.

Bert Hancock has owned two college football-related web sites and was designated "Lead Writer" of one of the first independent web sites dedicated strictly to UT sports. At the University of Texas, where he received a Bachelor of Business degree, his area of specialty was in statistics and probabilities. His "Strength In Numbers" column will appear weekly on InsideTexas.com.


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