Another trip to San Diego? This time, Texas probably got better than it deserved. In years past, Texas was relegated to the Holiday Bowl after expecting BCS berths in 2001 and 2003.
"This is not the 'ol disappointment where you didn't go (to a more desirable bowl)," Texas coach Mack Brown said. "After Kansas got in and Arizona State did not got in, I'm not sure we'd have been in the BCS had we beaten A&M. We'd probably have ended up in the same place."
Arizona State began the season with a school-record 8-0 start, but dropped two of its last four. Still, the Sun Devils finished tied atop the Pac-10 standings with USC and at No. 11 in the final BCS rating.
"We lost not to get into the BCS this time," Brown noted. "The last time (2003), we had won six straight and didn't get in. I would think there is more danger (of disappointment) on Arizona State's side. I figured they would be in the Fiesta Bowl. We're lucky that we're pitted against a team that makes this one of the best bowl games in the country this year. We're lucky that we're playing a team that most people consider better than us." (Everyone, it seems, except Las Vegas oddsmakers who have listed Texas as a 1.5-point favorite).
Players from both teams have said this represents a statement game. A couple of Sun Devils have said the Holiday Bowl gives them a chance to prove their BCS-worthiness by beating a traditional power just two years removed from a national title. Meanwhile, the Horns say the get-tough, post-season workouts have instilled a new sense of camaraderie, competitiveness and confidence.
So, will the real Longhorns please stand up? Please?
"This game will tell a lot about who this team is," NT Derek Lokey said. "We've been talking all year about whether we're a great team. Or, what is this team? We never really found out. I think this last game will be a good opportunity to get a final evaluation of what this 2007 team is."
Any mention of the Sun Devil offense begins with fiery QB Rudy Carpenter, a semifinalist for the Davey O'Brien Award. The junior threw for 3,015 yards (228-of-362) and 23 TDs against just eight INTs this season. He is just the third QB in school history to throw for 7,000+ yards (7,811). Carpenter is 21-9 as a starter.
"He likes to move around and get out of the pocket," CB Ryan Palmer said. "He's a real mobile quarterback. If the play breaks down, he gets to moving around. We have to relocate our receiver and cover him."
Two-time national champion coach Dennis Erickson (Miami) was one of the pioneers of the one-back set and has been known for his explosive offenses. Yet, the stat that jumps out at you is that ASU leads the nation in Time of Possession (33:56). ASU is averaging 405.7 ypg, with the lion's share coming through the air (259.1 passing ypg).
Junior TB Keegan Herring (5-10, 186) has run for 816 yards on 152 carries this season and has 2,236 career rushing yards. Yet, the Sun Devils get an awful lot of mileage from their other Rudy. WR/H-back Rudy Burgess is one of only three active FBS (Division-I) players to top the career 1,000-yard mark in rushing (1,093), receiving (1,524) and returns (1,600). In fact, he's just one of 14 players all-time to achieve the distinction, joining former Longhorn great Eric Metcalf on this list.
"Their backs are really good and really tough," NT Derek Lokey said. "They can hit small holes and be gone. We'll have to play disciplined."
Chris McGaha leads all Sun Devil receivers with 751 yards on 52 receptions but is still looking for his first TD. Michael Jones leads the team with eight TD receptions and has tallied 662 yards on 38 grabs. Burgess also has 445 yards through the air.
"They have a lot of speed at receiver," Palmer said. "It's going to be a challenge for us."
Indeed. Texas staggers into Qualcomm Stadium with the worst pass defense in program history (No. 109, 275.5 ypg). So, the game plan is to force the Sun Devils to throw?
"Before we do anything, we have to stop the run and make them one-dimensional," Lokey said. "We've got to stop the run first and get after the quarterback."
The offensive line boasts First-Team Pac-10 C Mike Pollak, one of three returning lettermen who earned some type of all-conference honors from 2006. Yet Carpenter has spent the better part of the season running for his life. Despite playing behind the only Pac-10 offensive line that returned all five starters, Carpenter has been sacked 51 times this season.
First-Team Pac-10 WLB Robert James anchors a 4-3 defense that yielded 334.4 total ypg in 2007. The unit's strength has been its run defense (109.9 ypg, NCAA No. 13). The Sun Devils blitz just 21 percent of the time, but Texas needs to score early. The Sun Devils are allowing just 1.8 points in the fourth quarter this season.
"They're a bend-not-break defense with really fast guys," Brown said. "They want you to mess up before you get to the other end of the field." (Unfortunately, for Texas, it has. The Longhorns are minus-three in turnovers this season, the worst of Brown's 10-year tenure).
James leads the Sun Devils with 99 tackles, including eight TFL and 2.5 sacks. Sophomore DE Dexter Davis notched 10.5 sacks this season and is a Second-Team Pac-10 selection. SS Troy Nolan earned Second-Team Pac-10 honors after collecting six INTs this season (the most by a Sun Devil since 1989).
Thomas Weber is the 2007 Lou Groza Award winner, honoring the nation's top kicker. The RS-freshman has connected on 22-of-23 FG attempts, including 4-of-4 from 40 yards out and a career-long 53-yarder. He took over punting duties in Week Six, averaging 39.6 yards per kick. PR Kyle Williams is a First-Team, Pac-10 selection after averaging 11.4 yards on 19 returns.