Will Rival Longhorns Suffer the Same Fate as Texas A&M Football Did Back in 2020?
I don’t need to remind any Texas A&M football fan of what transpired back on selection Sunday back in 2020. The Aggies were hoping to sneak into the playoff after a one-loss season, but the committee opted to put in a one-loss Notre Dame squad who was promptly pantsed in the semifinal by the eventual champion Alabama. Instead, the Aggies went to the Orange Bowl, finishing 4th in the nation after defeating North Carolina by 14.
Three years later, the rival Texas Longhorns find themselves in a very similar position. In their third year under the current coach, the Horns are sitting on their hands following a one-loss regular season, hoping to jump a couple of teams currently ranked ahead of them to make the final four. History is not on their side; no team ranked lower than 6th headed into the final weekend has made the playoff in its 9-year history. That said, do they have an argument?
One would certainly suppose so. The Longhorns would try to lay claim to the best win of the season by any team with their defeat of Alabama (though Michigan triumphing over Ohio State probably outclasses it). Their lone loss was to a ranked team in Oklahoma. They are now conference champions after defeating Oklahoma State.
That said, they have quite the hill to climb. Washington is in after an undefeated season. Michigan is a huge favorite to remain undefeated tonight against Iowa. UGA is trying to remain atop the standings with a win over that same Alabama team. Ohio State is still ranked ahead of the Longhorns, though Texas fans would be apt to think that this positive thirteenth data point moves them ahead of the Buckeyes. The big question mark is Florida State’s fate: if the Seminoles remain undefeated tonight against the Louisville Cardinals, there will be three conference champions without a loss (four if UGA wins).
A Seminole loss is the clearest path for Texas. If Alabama defeats the Bulldogs, will the Longhorns be able to move past the current #1 and also stave off the SEC champion? It doesn’t look promising. If Alabama and FSU win, there are probably too many variables for Texas fans to feel comfortable.
So how does the Texas resume compare to the Aggies’ from 2020? They have several things in common, and several differences. Each has one loss, with both squads’ biggest win coming against a team that is an SEC championship participant. The Aggies had the better loss, as it came to who we now know as the eventual champion that year (and one of the best teams of all time), but the Horns probably have the better win. The data point of the conference championship has proven to be big in the eyes of the committee, though, and that’s something that the Aggies, due to conference and divisional affiliation, did not get the chance to compete for. A&M was more consistently impressive throughout the year against a schedule that, according to advanced analytics, would likely compare favorably to Texas’s conference slate this year. The Aggies won every game by double digits after UF, and the Longhorns struggled late into the game against teams like Wyoming and Houston.
Ultimately, it was the outside factors that kept the Aggies out of the playoff. Ohio State only played 6 games but still qualified, eventually losing to Bama in a statistically less impressive game than the Aggies gave the Tide. Notre Dame was able to down Clemson in South Bend due to Trevor Lawrence missing with COVID, keeping the Irish undefeated until they played the Tigers once more—this time with their QB—in what ended up being a blowout loss. Even so, they still qualified despite their one loss being worse than that of Texas A&M football. It’s an ironic note that, despite the excuse among rival fans that Texas A&M football’s achievements are somehow due to the (ever-vaguely-termed) “weirdness” of the 2020 season, the same thing that caused that “weirdness” is what prevented them from a shot at the national championship. If Trevor Lawrence is never held out due to health and safety protocols, Norte Dame ends up with two losses rather than one, and the fifth-ranked Aggies get in the playoff.
We do not yet know what will happen with the other conference championships. If FSU loses, prospects are hopeful for the Longhorns. Things are murky if Alabama wins. But being in a similar situation to the 2020 Aggies, they will be relying on different circumstances to those of Texas A&M football, not superior achievement, to get them in that final four.