Horns face back-to-back tests

Updated: October 2, 2003, 6:23 PM ET
By Chris Fowler | Special to ESPN.com

Mack Brown just smiles when asked about winning "big games." He says at Texas "they are all big games." Yeah, OK, coach. They are all big, especially if you lose one of them. Arkansas wasn't considered a "big" game by most until the Hogs rolled in and out-muscled the Horns. But some games are really big. Those are the games that shape seasons, reputations, and legacies.

Texas has two of those games the next two weeks: Kansas State is really big and Oklahoma is huge. Again.

Mack Brown
APMack Brown and Texas have lost three straight to OU.
Texas has lost three straight to OU, of course. They did win at Kansas State last year. Make no mistake, that was a big game. Coming off another heartbreak in Dallas, the Horns needed to win to have any chance at the division title. Texas played superb defense in smothering Ell Roberson, blocked a field goal, and found a way to win despite gaining just 10 first downs and 46 yards rushing. It was gutsy.

However, Brown can't hide from his teams' records against top teams. He can ignore media hype about it, if he's smart. He can certainly avoid the handful of web sites devoted to highlighting his every loss. Is there any other coach coming off a 10-win season with so many no-lifers spending their energy on lynch mob web sites? It's amazing.

Brown can't win, really. Until he wins the elusive conference title. Then folks will expect a national title. And if he wins that, they'll just say, "it's about damn time." Can't win.

Still, Mack would be better off just addressing the "big game" questions. To brush them aside is disingenuous. Everybody knows his record against top five, top 10, and top 25 opponents is not good. Most coaches don't have great marks against the nation's best teams. But Texas is not most teams and the talent level (thanks to great recruiting by Brown and his staff) is among the best around. So far, Mack, his staff, and his teams have clearly not mastered the tricky art of playing and coaching their best when it counts most.

This is not the rant of a Texas fan. Just the facts. I've watched the last two Texas-Oklahoma games from the field. What has separated the teams is a play or two. Really, that's it. A tackle, a throw, or a catch made.

A mistake or two cost the Longhorns the 2001 Big 12 title game against Colorado, which truly rates as the "biggest" game lost by the current Horns. Do you simply blame a head coach for his team's inability to make a winning play? It's simplistic, talk radio fodder.

Yeah, the head coach is accountable. If his offensive coordinator calls a conservative game and seems more concerned with avoiding turnovers than scoring points, he's accountable. I'm curious to see if it happens again. Greg Davis has caught heat for that before. Will the Horns use the playbook the next two weeks, or pull in the (Long)horns and play not to lose?

More to the point, it's not the coaches but the Longhorns and their leader/spokesman, Roy Williams, who need to step forward and prove they can produce against the best. Roy, make plays. Derrick Johnson, Cedric Benson, make plays. Predictions about running the table after a "wakeup call" (who needs a wakeup call in the season's second game against a border rival?) won't win these next two. These weeks will tell a lot. Texas has the talent to beat Kansas State and Oklahoma, erase the embarrassment of the Arkansas loss, and jump back in to the title race. Let's watch how it plays out.

Been there, done that
With Texas in mind, I had a chance this week to visit with Phil Fulmer, Jim Donnan, and Tom Osborne. Osborne was in the Congressional office building, fresh out of a committee meeting in which he had listened to his colleagues shout at each other for a while. I think he enjoyed the momentary diversion of talking football. I know I enjoyed it.

In case you are under 30 and do not remember that before his Husker teams won all their games, big and small, Osborne was once labeled a "big game" loser. He volunteered his feelings on that without even being asked.

Tom Osborne
Before winning three titles, Tom Osborne was labeled a "big game" loser.
Osborne admits the label stung, but he says he never, ever allowed media coverage to seep in to his mindset. During a season, he never read sports pages, listened to sports radio, or checked e-mails. He said he never wanted to spend a minute's energy during his day mentally composing responses to critics in the media. That seems like good advice, although I doubt many coaches are able to insulate themselves as well as the imperturbable Ozzy.

Fulmer's teams, of course, shed the label of being second best in "big games." First they conquered Alabama, then broke through against Spurrier's Gators in 1998 en route to the national title. Fulmer seems much more relaxed since then and his teams certainly show up each game expecting to win. They reflect total confidence. Was that the problem before '98? Fulmer stops a bit short of admitting that.

Jim Donnan was hounded by his record against Georgia's biggest rivals, Florida in particular. Like Brown, Donnan was a great recruiter whose skill at assembling talent actually was turned against him by critics expecting SEC titles to start piling up. Donnan says he never approached any game differently. He thinks it's a mistake for a coach to limit media access the week of a big game or do anything else that could signal to his team that they must approach this game differently.

Osbourne didn't quite believe that. Before each season, Osbourne would select a big game or two (Oklahoma or Colorado) and spend about twenty minutes of practice early in each week doing extra preparation. Of course, the message was "this game is different from the others." It seems to me players know that anyway.

After spending almost an hour total visiting with these three guys, I sure didn't come away with any magic formula to getting a team ready to play its best when in counts most. Sorry. It doesn't exist.

Osbourne did have this piece of advice for Brown, though: don't let Ell Roberson play against you.

Sorry, coach, he's back and ready.

The departure of the Head Ball Coach made life so much more pleasant for Fulmer, just as Barry Switzer's departure from Oklahoma removed Osbourne's personal nemesis. Brown and Texas can either turn the tide quickly against OU, or wait for Bob Stoops to move on. Until then, the chorus in the Burnt Orange Nation won't shut up.

Rethinking Heisman patterns
Larry Fitzgerald could certainly get my Heisman vote if he keeps playing this well. Yeah, he's a pure receiver who does not return kicks (which helped Tim Brown and hugely aided Desmond Howard's campaign). But these days, I think "just" playing receiver is enough, if you meet the Heisman criteria of being the "most outstanding player."

Larry Fitzgerald
Larry Fitzgerald has 9 TD grabs through 4 games.
I maintain that after watching so many of the nation's best teams from the field level the last 10 years, receiver play is the most underrated aspect of football. Those guys are the difference makers: a great catch made, a routine ball dropped & that decides so many games when the talent gap between good teams is small.

True, the QB may be more valuable, but he cannot do it without strong receivers. Being the best wideout around now fully qualifies you for Heisman consideration. Most of the best ones are also spectacular athletes and charismatic personalities and that does not hurt, either.

A Fitzgerald candidacy may symbolize the new pass-happy era.

Due for a fall?
You've noticed the pattern this season: a big, emotional win followed directly by a humbling crash to earth. Oregon, Iowa, Marshall, and Toledo were among the examples last weekend. Thud! The Ducks were the poster boys (and cover boys), following one of Mike Bellotti's best wins with one of Oregon's most humiliating losses, a home woodshed beating from Wazzu. Iowa was awful. And the MAC daddies were suddenly humbled by Troy State and Syracuse.

If you follow that pattern, these teams would be due for a thud: Kansas, California, and Michigan State. All pulled emotional upsets. The goalposts were sacrificed in Lawrence (it took fans there a long time & out of practice) and Berkeley. Now, will they plummet?

Cal has a very dangerous game against resurgent Oregon State, a team I have liked all along. The Beavers self-destructed against Fresno State, but have found themselves since and hammered ASU. Michigan State has Indiana at home, closest thing to an open date. Not even the notoriously up and down Spartans can blow this game.

The Jayhawks now have a chance to come down to earth before using Bill Whittemore and company to try to slice up Colorado's porous pass defense next weekend. A subsequent home win over Baylor would make big Mangino's crew 6-1, needing only one win in the last five games to secure a bowl bid. That would be huge for a sad outfit that staggered to a very uncompetitive 2-10 nightmare last year.

Super 7
My AP ballot looks like this:
1. Oklahoma
2. Miami
3. Florida State
4. Virginia Tech
5. Tennessee
6. LSU
7. Ohio State

The only potential matchup of unbeatens the entire month of October is next Saturday's collision in Tallahassee. It feels great to see Miami and FSU back in the top five at kickoff for the first time since 1993. This game has the kind of intrigue and buildup that the early '90s battles did.

That game will dictate whether or not we have a chance to witness more clashes of unbeatens in November. With only 10 perfect records among BCS conference teams, only Miami's games with Tennessee and Virginia Tech fit the bill. The only other potential regular season match up of unbeatens is Louisville vs. TCU on a Wednesday night! Oklahoma-Nebraska and Tennessee-LSU/or Arkansas are potential matchups of unbeatens in conference title games. No wonder why the teams with a loss already are preaching to their players not to give up playing for a national title shot. The chances for a second straight clean and controversy-free BCS title game pairing are shrinking quickly!

Near tragedy
Did you see the story about the Alabama fan who was really upset after his team blew a 31-10 lead and lost to Arkansas in double overtime Saturday? What's that? There were hundreds of thousands of Tide faithful who were upset?

True. But only one is charged with trying to shoot his 20-year-old son in the head. According to a police report, Joseph Alan Logan of Pinson, Ala., became enraged after watching the game on TV and proceeded to slam doors and throw dishes into the sink.

His son chose that moment to ask his father for a new car. Logan, 46, allegedly got a 9 mm handgun from his car and held it to his son's forehead. The son moved his head just as the trigger was pulled. The bullet whizzed just past his ear. A SWAT team was called, but Pinson walked out of his house with another son, 13, and surrendered without a fight. He is charged with attempted murder and out on $7,500 bond.

Sheriff's Deputy Randy Christian had this quote to the Birmingham News: "I know we take football serious in the South, but that's crossing the line." Uh, yeah, it is.

Of course, the crossing of that line is hardly confined to Alabama or the South. It happens in all parts of the country and around the world. In fact, when it comes to sports-related violence, we Americans are amateurs.

However, on the college football beat I've often witnessed the flipside of fans' deep passion. It's ugly and it's dangerous. It's a pretty thin line between a screaming fan, so enraged his eyes and veins are bulging, and an attempted murderer. Sometimes all that seperates them is the availability of a gun, or a knife, or a bottle.

A fan was shot near Legion Field following an Auburn-Alabama showdown that GameDay attended. I believe the year was 1996. Clearly, there are too damn many guns available, but that's another column for another web site.

Taking a couple Pysch classes in college doesn't qualify me to comment fully on the roots of violence. That's another column, too. But it seems pretty clear that when a mob sets cars on fire or a guy puts a gun to his kid's head, there are other issues involved besides the score of a football game. Postgame rage just becomes the spark that ignites more dangerous emotions. Emotions escalate quickly.

Ask yourself if have you ever been enraged enough after a loss by your team to point a gun at someone? An official? A coach? A player?

You probably answered no. I hope you did. But I've seen plenty of fans who certainly looked angry enough to kill. When I was younger, I could be mad enough after a game to fight, if somebody said the wrong thing.

Making sports a career will certainly tame the instincts to take a team's performance too seriously. But I have to admit that several years ago, a certain team's missed field-goal attempt (a game-winner in a rivalry game) made me hurl a bottle at a TV set hanging from the ceiling of an ESPN conference room.

OK, the bottle was plastic and no harm was done, except for some spilled Diet Coke. And I've gotten tamer still since that day.

Seriously, I find it especially tragic when games designed to entertain, provide an escape or release, and unite people serve instead as triggers for violence. So, if your team blows a lead and loses in overtime, take a few deep breaths and take a minute to regain perspective. It's gonna be OK.

Off to Austin
GameDay comes from Austin, my favorite stop on the tour, at a location outside Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium. Hope you'll join us. No lightning is forecast for the area.

It was a huge disappointment for the show's entire staff to have heavy rains destroy our plans for a special show at West Point and then get forced off the set entirely by nearby lightning strikes. When we all felt a small electric shock go through our headphones (a camera guy felt a surge through his hands, frying his camera), we knew it was time to leave our metal stage sitting in the middle of an open field! I have climbed mountains for years and been in the middle of many electrical storms, but this one was a little dicey. It was a thrill nonetheless to at least do part of the show from a beautiful spot on the parade grounds. We all hope we can return on a clear day and give a West Point show another try.

Chris Fowler is host of ESPN College GameDay

Chris Fowler

College Football
Since 1989, Chris Fowler has been ESPN's primary college football and men's college basketball studio host. He's anchored College GameDay, the network's award-winning Saturday morning college football preview show, since 1990.