College football in the state of Texas has long been linked to the health of the Longhorns and to some extent, the strength of the Big 12 (and Southwest Conference before it). Yet both of those entities sit in extended rough patches at the moment.
Texas, fresh off of an upset loss to Cal last Saturday, hasn’t recorded double-digit wins since 2009. Its conference, the Big 12, has just two unbeaten teams heading into conference play and its best hope for a College Football Playoff berth is… Baylor.
This parity and uncertainty forces us to rethink how college football is defined in the state of Texas. Or rather, “who” defines it. The following takes a shot at assessing the current power structure of Texas football, and how all 12 in-state programs fit within that.
1. Texas A&M Aggies:
When Kevin Sumlin arrived at A&M, he brought a brash and bold swagger to the program. And despite the questions around his tenure since the departure of Johnny Manziel, he’s still recruiting top 20 classes and seems to have a very good defense this year. Being in the SEC gives the Aggies the strongest path to the College Football Playoff, even if it’s not the easiest one. Being removed from the Big 12’s power/dysfunction structure also gives them a leg up on all other in-state contenders.
2. Houston Cougars:
The #HTownTakeover has vaulted Houston up this list in a hurry. Whether the Big 12 invites them or not at this point, the Cougars and coach Tom Herman have become a Group of Five recruiting force while locking down the greater Houston area’s talent. In 2016, they would appear to be the state’s best chance at a Playoff berth, especially if they can manage to beat Louisville in November. Power conference dollars are all that’s stopping them from taking the top spot for the time being.
3. TCU Horned Frogs:
Without the resources of the larger state schools on this list, smaller (and private) TCU has built a nearly 20-year resume of football excellence that lets it fight above its weight. The 2015 and 2016 on-field product may not look Playoff-worthy. But the Frogs have still become a fixture atop the Big 12 and are one of the primary reasons for Texas’s recent struggles. TCU also stands to benefit least (along with Baylor) from the Big 12 adding Houston.
4. Texas Longhorns:
Charlie Strong has improved Texas from the depths of the end of the Mack Brown era. It’s just tough to believe when you see things like two straight losses to a less-talented Cal program. Or a win over Notre Dame that looks less valuable by the day. Coverage and conversation around what’s “wrong” always drowns out what’s right, making the job unenviable at this point. The Horns live in a fishbowl that has only led to them ceding ground to smaller in-state programs of late.
5. Baylor Bears:
Baylor could’ve been atop this list a year ago. But after Art Briles’s departure and with potential NCAA sanctions looming, the conversation has changed completely. Even as the potential Big 12 frontrunner right now, their “best-case” scenario is going unbeaten against a struggling group of conference-mates actively rooting against them. Baylor is no longer a plucky underdog. It’s a scandal-plagued program that voters will subconsciously (or consciously) pull against.
6. Texas Tech Red Raiders:
Tech has been stuck in neutral for a number of years now, buoyed by a record-setting offense and being in the Big 12 – plus Kliff Kingsbury’s good looks, of course. We’ve seen glimpses of the Red Raiders’ ceiling before, and it once looked pretty high. As the air raid’s become a state-wide scheme, however, it’s been tougher and tougher to bring elite talent to remote Lubbock. Still they’re miles ahead of the rest of names below it.
7. SMU Mustangs:
Chad Morris’s strategy to build a (private school) program completely off of Texas recruits sounds like a good one. The results are still TBD, however, though you see improvement already from the 1-11 crater he inherited. SMU is hurt a bit by the endless comparisons to Houston, which could go away if the Cougars leave the AAC for greener pastures. It shouldn’t be hard to have a quality team in Dallas, and yet the Mustangs have struggled for most of three decades now.
8. Rice Owls:
Apparently Rice is still in the running for the Big 12? Someone should let them know that the 0-3 start this year won’t help that cause. A premier academic institution, Rice has always been more about the classroom than the football field despite its location in talent hotbed Houston. Though Todd Graham and then David Bailiff led a bit of a program renaissance, that period appears to be over for the Owls. As C-USA members, they seem doomed to be also-rans as that conference’s coffers are particularly dry.
Remember the name Dalton Sturm. Slippery as hell. UTSA comes to Kyle Field Nov. 19, currently up 28-12 over ASU. pic.twitter.com/Bd7pdMNCjj
— Robert Behrens (@rcb05) September 17, 2016
9. UTSA Roadrunners:
UTSA, on the other hand, has been discussed as a high-upside program for years, and would seem to have the most potential for movement in this bottom half. State school with a quality fan base in a larger city, plus a top recruiter (former LSU assistant Frank Wilson) as a head coach? They’re already on the Mountain West’s radar. Any program that can leave C-USA’s disjointed pit of realignment despair automatically jumps up a spot or two.
10. North Texas Mean Green:
North Texas is another “upside” program with a long history of never reaching that potential. Sitting anywhere near the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex should give you an advantage in terms of attracting talent. And yet, UNT has four winning seasons since 1980. The climb to respectability will be steep, but it’s feasible. There’s little room to grow into a “bigger” league, however.
11. UTEP Miners:
UTEP’s brand recognition would vault it past multiple teams listed above it, if not for El Paso’s geography. The one saving grace is that given the team’s old WAC history, it could be a natural fit for Mountain West expansion. That gives them leverage, sure. It’s just not worth anything until they actual receive that proverbial life raft.
12. Texas State Bobcats:
Texas State always feels like a computer-generated team on the old NCAA video games, complete with the identity-less “Bobcats” moniker. That said, San Marcos’s location between San Antonio and Austin sounds appealing for recruiting. It’s feasible to improve quickly in the Sun Belt. It’s just that Texas State is so far behind the rest of these programs in the pecking order that may not be noticeable at all.
Individual school partisanship may create some quarrels about the order. But like the fast-paced offenses throughout the state of Texas’s high schools and colleges, many of these teams can move up or down very quickly.
If the Big 12 rallies and the Longhorns manage to get to the College Football Playoff at 11-1, then go ahead and slot them No. 1 come season’s end. But if Baylor and its PR nightmare go 12-0, followed by an 8-4 Texas in the Big 12 standings? That’s a recipe for a future of even more in-state football anarchy.