The 411: Texas, Texas A&M disappoint; Sonny Dykes with something to prove

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The regular season ended for the 12 FBS programs in Texas in an exciting Week 13. A trio of programs qualified for conference championship games. The Texas Longhorns broke their losing streak in a win against Kansas State. Rice and North Texas closed the regular season with a win. Texas A&M continued to struggle against LSU on the road. And SMU limped to the finish line with its head coach expected to jump ship later in the week. 

The 411 provides readers with four truths, one question, and one prediction following the 2021 regular season. 

FOUR TRUTHS

Sonny Dykes heads to Fort Worth with something to prove: News leaked Friday night that Dykes was ditching SMU for crosstown rival TCU following the final weekend of the regular season. The Dykes led Mustangs started 2021 with a 7-0 record. His name first surfaced in coaching rumors when Texas Tech let go of Matt Wells on Oct. 23 with four games remaining in the season. Whether it was a coincidence or not, SMU began to falter following those rumors. SMU lost to Houston to close October and lost to Tulsa on Saturday to complete a 1-4 finish to the regular season. 

Dykes heads to Fort Worth with question marks. His teams at SMU struggled down the stretch of regular seasons prior to 2021. The three losses in 2019 came after the start of November. The team lost its final two in 2018 and 2020. SMU went 18-13 in AAC play during the four years with Dykes at the helm. Dykes is 71-63 as a head coach, including a 19-30 stint over four years at Cal. He’s only coached one 10-win team in his career and only one of his teams has won more than eight games since 2012. 

TCU and Dykes might be a perfect marriage. A power vacuum is about to exist in the Big 12 with Oklahoma and Texas exiting for the SEC. TCU with its money and location in a fertile recruiting market could emerge as one of the power brokers of the new-look conference. But that doesn’t mean Dykes is a sure-fire answer to restore the Horned Frogs to a conference champion contender. He’s only won one conference title in his career and that was at La Tech in 2011. SMU never finished better than third in the West of the AAC in the four-year span with Dykes in charge. 

North Texas deserves a ton of credit: The mood at Apogee Stadium at halftime of the Marshall game felt gloomy. The Mean Green were trailing 42-7 at halftime and a 1-5 start was on the horizon. The stadium was nearly empty, and the hottest football ticket in town that night in Denton was a high school game between Guyer and Ryan. Add in the final four games of the 2020 season and North Texas was 2-9 in its last 11 games a week later following a loss to Liberty at home. 

Would Seth Littrell make it to 2021 as the head coach? Had North Texas quit? Those were reasonable questions. And then the Mean Green found their stride. An overtime win against Rice on Oct. 30 began the winning streak. Victories against Southern Miss, UTEP, and FIU followed. North Texas was playing inspired football and were suddenly 5-6, on a four-game winning streak, and one victory away from bowl eligibility. That’s a long way from 1-6.

The only hurdle remaining on North Texas’ redemption tour was the undefeated Roadrunners. UTSA clinched the West Division, and a spot in the Conference USA championship game on Dec. 3, in Week 12 with a last-second win over UAB. North Texas was playing for a bowl. UTSA was playing for a perfect regular season. The more motivated team was clearly North Texas, and Littrell’s group capitalized on a sloppy performance by UTSA in a 45-23 win. 

Any questions surrounding the status of Littrell for 2021 were squashed. North Texas is bowl eligible and trending upwards with a move to the American Athletic Conference in upcoming years. The Mean Green found an identity with their run game and defense late in the year, and they dominated UTSA in the trenches and on special teams. It would’ve been easy to quit. North Texas fought. And that deserves praise. 

The state deserves more from Texas A&M and Texas: The Longhorns missed out on bowl season with a 5-7 record that included a six-game losing streak through the heart of the Big 12 schedule. That streak began with four consecutive losses after holding a halftime lead. Texas is on its third coach since 2016. The dip for Texas began around 2010 when the Longhorns went 5-7 under Mack Brown. Brown, who led the Longhorns to its best stretch since DKR, was 30-21 in his final four seasons at Texas. Charlie Strong was 16-21 in three seasons. Tom Herman was 32-18 in four seasons, and now Steve Sarkisian is 5-7 after one year in Austin. Only one team (2018) won at least 10 games. Only one more (2012) won at least nine. 

Texas A&M hasn’t experienced the extreme lows of the Longhorns, but the Aggies aren’t knocking down the door to national relevance, either. Texas A&M is 101-51 in that same 12-year span. Mike Sherman’s final two years resulted in a 16-10 record. The Aggies were 51-27 in the six seasons led by Kevin Sumlin. Jimbo Fisher, and his 100-million-dollar contract, is 34-14 through four seasons. That’s not a ton better than the 32-18 posted by Herman at Texas. Texas A&M has as many 10-win seasons in that span as Texas (1). 

A quick look at where the best recruits in Texas head to college illustrates the damage caused by the two “blueblood” programs in the state. Eight of the top 12 prospects from the 2021 class headed out of state. Five of the top 12 left in 2020, and that would’ve been six if Zach Evans was allowed to sign with Georgia. Seven of the top 12 prospects in Texas for the 2022 class are already committed, and four of those are headed out of state. That trend is a direct reflection of Texas and Texas A&M not competing for national championships. 

The perception of college football in Texas hinges on the Longhorns and the Aggies, especially in recruiting. Baylor is heading to its second Big 12 championship game in three years, but that success hasn’t translated to top-10 recruiting classes. The Longhorns and the Aggies need to step up. Texas is home to best high school football in the country. Yet not a single team from the Lone Star State has reached the College Football Playoff. 

The state played well in 2021: Eight of the 12 FBS programs in Texas qualified for a bowl game with Houston, UTSA, Texas A&M, Baylor, SMU, UTEP, Texas Tech, and North Texas reaching at least six wins. Three of those teams – UTSA, Baylor, and Houston – are competing for conference championships next weekend. That’s three of the five conferences Texas teams play in. At the FCS level, a trio of Texas teams reached the playoffs with Incarnate Word and No. 1-ranked Sam Houston still in the mix. Mary Hardin-Baylor is still alive at the Division II level. The only teams to not reach a bowl game were Texas, TCU, Texas State, and Rice. Texas and TCU were one win away at 5-7. Rice and Texas State both finished the year on a win at 4-8. 

ONE QUESTION 

Can Baylor beat Oklahoma State in the rematch? 

The Bears squeaked past Texas Tech in the regular season finale to reach 10 wins, and then watched Oklahoma State beat Oklahoma in Bedlam, to qualify for the Big 12 championship game. It will be a rematch between Oklahoma State and Baylor. The Cowboys won the first meeting 24-14 in Stillwater. Baylor was without its starting quarterback against Texas Tech with Gerry Bohanon nursing a hamstring injury. Blake Shapen has looked good in relief over the last two weeks, throwing for 254 yars and two touchdowns in the win over Texas Tech. To win, Baylor needs a big game from Shapen, the run game, and the defense. It’ll take a complete effort over 60 minutes to knock off an Oklahoma State squad with an outside shot at reaching the College Football Playoffs. 

ONE PREDICTION 

Houston beats Cincinnati: Chaos is the only thing a good journalist roots for on an active level. A win for Houston in the AAC title game against Cincinnati would cause maximum chaos for the College Football Playoff. A playoff I despise. Cincinnati looks primed to break the glass ceiling placed on G5 programs, even though the Bearcats are on the move to the Big 12 soon and will be considered a Power Five program within two or three seasons at most. The loss by Ohio State creates an opening for Cincinnati. The Bearcats beat Notre Dame and Alabama looks likely to pick up a second loss on the season when it plays Georgia in the SEC championship game. 

Houston is also on its way to the Big 12. The Cougars are on an 11-game winning streak after an easy win over UConn in Week 13. Quarterback Clayton Tune might be the offensive player of the year in Texas. He threw for 301 yards and four touchdowns in the 45-17 victory over UConn. He’s thrown for 2,712 yards, 22 touchdowns, and eight interceptions on the season. Four of those interceptions were thrown in a Week 1 loss to Texas Tech. 

Tune isn’t the only reason the Cougars can pull the upset on Saturday. Nathaniel Dell is approaching 1,000 yards receiving on the season, and he added two more touchdown catches to his tally in the UConn win. Freshman running back Alton McCaskill has 15 rushing touchdowns on the season. The Houston defensive line is one of the top 10 units in the nation at sacking the quarterback. Oh, and cornerback Marcus Jones leads the nation with four interceptions and four special teams touchdowns in 2021. 

Cincinnati is good. Really good. But the Bearcats haven’t faced a team as talented or confident since that Oct. 2 win over Notre Dame. 

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