This year marks the 16th and final season the BCS will be used to decide college football’s national champion.
There have been six conferences – the Big East (now the AAC), ACC, SEC, Big 12, Pac-10 (now Pac-12) and Big 10 – whose champions have automatically earned a BCS bowl berth in the previous 15 seasons. 54 times (out of a possible 90) one of those six automatic-qualifying conferences placed four teams in the BCS standings.
Three of those 54 times, a team won an automatic-qualifying conference despite not being one of at least four teams in its conference included in the BCS standings as late as November – the same situation Texas finds itself in now.
The Longhorns have already accomplished something no other team has: start a season 5-0 in Big 12 play without cracking the Top 25 of the BCS standings. They are close, though. Texas received the most votes among unranked teams in the Associated Press, Harris and USA Today coaches’ polls.
But, if Texas continues its torrid run and wins out, it will win its third conference championship under Mack Brown and become the fourth team to win a BCS automatic-qualifying conference despite being unranked when four other teams from its conference were included in the BCS standings this late in the season.
“This will be the five most exciting weeks in the history of the Big 12,” Brown said. “A lot of people have some huge games coming up that will decide who wins the conference championship.”
The other three – Kansas State (2003), Florida State (2005) and Virginia Tech (2008) – all have interesting stories. And, more importantly for Texas’ case, all have interesting similarities.
Five Big 12 teams (No. 1 Oklahoma, No. 12 Texas, No. 18 Nebraska, No. 19 Oklahoma State, No. 24 Missouri) were ranked in the BCS standings that were released Nov. 1, 2003. Kansas State, who lost three straight games earlier in the year, including its first two games in Big 12 play to Texas and Oklahoma State, was on the outside looking in.
But, after starting the year 4-3, the Wildcats won their last seven games of the year. That streak included a 38-9 whipping of No. 17 Nebraska in Lincoln, which allowed Kansas State to earn a spot in the BCS Top 25 for the first time that year, and a convincing 35-7 win over No. 1 Oklahoma in the Big 12 Championship.
The Wildcats didn’t win another conference title until last season but, unlike Florida State in 2005, came out of nowhere to win the Big 12 in 2003.
The Seminoles started the 2005 season 7-1, climbing as high as No. 9 in the BCS standings before falling out of the rankings altogether following a three-game losing streak to NC State, Clemson and Florida. That same week Virginia Tech, Miami, Boston College and Georgia Tech were all ranked.
But, since they started the season so well, Florida State still had a season-salvaging opportunity in the ACC Championship the following week and beat Virginia Tech to win the conference. That allowed us to enjoy one of the best bowl in recent memory – Penn State’s 26-23 triple-overtime win over Florida State in the Orange Bowl, the final meeting between Joe Paterno and Bobby Bowden.
Three years later, a Virginia Tech team that was unranked in the BCS standings until the final day of November won the ACC. Even then, the eventual conference champion Hokies were just No. 25. North Carolina (No. 19), Georgia Tech (No. 20), Florida State (No. 22) and Maryland (No. 23) were all ranked on the first day of November.
At an unimpressive 6-4, the Hokies needed to win their last two regular season games and for Miami to fall in its regular season finale against NC State to just get into the ACC title game. And that’s precisely what happened. Virginia Tech pummeled Boston College, 30-12, in the ACC Championship, before beating Cincinnati in the Orange Bowl.
There are three traits each of these three teams share with Texas – a longtime head coach, a lack of an elite passing attack and a particularly stingy defense.
Kansas State’s Bill Snyder, Bowden and Virginia Tech’s Frank Beamer have spent a collective 95 years as a Division I head football coach, a number that could soon hit 100 since Snyder and Beamer are still coaching. With nearly three decades of head coaching experience under his belt, Texas’ Mack Brown fits right in.
Another stark similarity between these three teams and Texas is that none of them had a great passing game. Ell Roberson had his finest season at Kansas State as a senior in 2003, throwing for 2,545 yards and 24 touchdowns but was also picked off 12 times and completed only 51.7 percent of his passes. Because he could run the ball so well (2,007 rushing yards over his last two years at Kansas State), it didn’t matter as much.
Florida State won the ACC in 2005 despite having a quarterback in Drew Weatherford that threw as many touchdown passes as interceptions (18). In the Seminoles’ eight wins that year, Weatherford had 14 touchdowns and seven interceptions but threw only four touchdown passes and 11 interceptions in his team’s five losses.
Virginia Tech won the ACC in 2008 despite getting only six touchdown passes all year – three from Sean Glennon, two from Tyrod Taylor and one from third-stringer Cory Holt.
Like Texas, Virginia Tech in 2008 and Kansas State in 2003 relied heavily on its running game. Both the ’08 Hokies and ’03 Wildcats ran it about twice as many times as they threw it, an offensive approach similar to the one Brown and co-offensive coordinator Major Applewhite have adopted – run the ball, run the ball the some more and utilize play-action to take the occasional shot downfield.
“It’s just the way we have to be built to win games right now,” Applewhite said. “That’s what we are going to have to do and a lot of it has to do with quarterback depth. When you have a lot of depth or a lot of experience in that position, the last thing you want to do is find out how inexperienced you are.”
Deep at just about every spot, Applewhite is right. Since David Ash’s head injury against Kansas State, his second of the year, has kept him out for the last four games, Texas has leaned on senior Case McCoy. His backup Tyrone Swoopes is far from being a polished passer and McCoy, while the Longhorns are rallying around him, is not a top-notch quarterback himself.
The third thing the three aforementioned squads and this year’s Texas team have in common is a fierce and productive defense. ’03 Kansas State, ’05 Florida State and ’08 Virginia Tech were all in the Top 15 when it came to total defense.
In non-conference play, the Longhorns are No. 116 in total defense this year. But, thanks to new defensive coordinator Greg Robinson, they are No. 17 in total defense in conference play – an impressive feat considering the offensive juggernaut of a conference Texas is in.
“There’s a confidence developing,” Robinson said. “Our fundamental techniques are starting to look cleaner. You never want to take that for granted, but my mind is that if we just keep working, we’re going to continue to improve because I think we have some very good football players. I think that, as they continue to work, they’re going to get even better.”
With that said, Texas has yet to face either of the Big 12’s three highest-scoring offenses – Baylor (63.9, most in the FBS), Oklahoma State (40.5) and Texas Tech (39.1). The Longhorns still have a long ways to go and are trying to pull off a feat few have accomplished before, but, as Kansas State proved in 2003, Florida State in 2005 and Virginia Tech in 2008, it’s not an impossible task.