Even Mack Brown's staunchest defenders admit his record against Bob Stoops is a black mark on his resume. Very few Texas coaches would be able to survive a 5-9 stretch against Oklahoma, especially considering how uncompetitive many of those losses have been. What's kept Mack afloat has been his success against the rest of the Big 12.
In 2000, Texas rebounded from a 63-14 beating in the Red River Shootout to go on a 6-0 run and sneak into the Big 12 Championship Game. It was the same story in 2003: a 65-13 shelling in Dallas followed by 6 consecutive wins against the rest of the conference. From 2000-2004, Brown went 34-7 in Big 12 play: 0-5 against Stoops, 34-2 against everyone else.
But in the last three years, there has been a sea change in the conference. Re-alignment has sent four programs (Colorado, Nebraska, Texas A&M and Missouri) that struggled in the Big 12 away and brought in two rising powers (TCU and West Virginia). Bill Snyder has found a second wind at Kansas State, while Iowa State, Baylor and Oklahoma State have dramatically improved their coaching staffs since Mack's glory days.
Regardless of what happens in Manhattan on Saturday, the last three seasons can be spun as an upwards progression -- 5 wins in 2010, 7 in 2011, at least 8 in 2012. However, while the Longhorns have improved since bottoming out in 2010, so has the rest of the conference. Let's enter the realm of fantasy and pretend Mack defeats Stoops without Vince Young or Colt McCoy next season; there's still no reason to believe he can win a Big 12 title given the coaches he'll be facing in UT's other eight conference games.
In the last three years, Art Briles has gone 2-1 against Mack. You could write off the 48-24 debacle in 2011 due to the presence of a once-in-a-generation talent in RG3, but Briles plugged in a three-star QB this season and his offense hasn't missed a beat. If the Longhorns hadn't survived a 56-50 nail-biter in Austin this year, Briles would have been the first coach in Baylor history to win three straight against Texas. He's been a QB guru for over a decade at the FBS level, losing Nick Florence shouldn't significantly affect the Bears momentum as a program.
Just like Briles, Mike Gundy has built an offense at Oklahoma State bigger than any one player. The Cowboys offense has thrived despite losing Brandon Weeden to the first round of the NFL Draft and playing three different QB's (two of them freshman); compare that to how Texas imploded after Colt's graduation. You can throw away recruiting rankings when these two teams meet: Gundy knows how to find players that fit his system; Mack doesn't have one. Bryan Harsin has been a marked improvement on Greg Davis at offensive coordinator, but tactical ability won't make up for strategic deficits, especially when it comes to identifying offensive lineman who best fit your scheme and developing them over a 2-3 year period.
Gundy took over in Stillwater in 2005 and won four games in his first season. Six years later, the Cowboys won their first conference title in over four decades and were one 2OT loss from playing for a national title. Mack has had a career's worth of escapes over the Cowboys, including a memorable 41-36 win this year, but Gundy has been steadily shrinking the gap. Thanks to T. Boone Pickens, Oklahoma State has as many resources as anyone in the conference. They aren't going anywhere.
Iowa State, located 1,200 miles away from the Texas recruiting grounds that sustain most of the conference, has a fairly low ceiling as a program. But after bottoming out under Gene Chizik, it looks like they've found a keeper in Paul Rhoads. They're going to their third bowl game in four years, something only one other coach (Dan McCarney) in school history has accomplished. The Cyclones will never have the talent to beat the Longhorns consistently, but Rhoads has piled up some impressive scalps in the last 4 years -- Nebraska, Texas, Oklahoma State and TCU -- despite taking over a program that had won 9 games in the 3 seasons before he arrived. They play Texas in Ames in next season; that's not an automatic win anymore.
There just aren't many breathers in the Big 12 schedule these days. Tommy Tuberville at Texas Tech and Charlie Weis at Kansas are the only two coaches in the conference without significant skins on the wall at their schools. The conference is no longer Texas, OU and "everyone else". Four of those schools have left, replaced by TCU and West Virginia, both coming off conference titles in 2011 and both of whom defeated the Longhorns in 2012. Gary Patterson is well on his way to becoming the next Bill Snyder while Dana Holgorsen is one of the most respected X-and-O coaches in the country.
When you take a step back and look at the forest through the trees, the results are breathtaking. How many schools would trade their head coach for Mack? Snyder and Stoops are future Hall of Famers, while Patterson, Briles, Holgorsen and Gundy are rising stars. At best, Mack is a middle-of-the-pack coach in a 10-team league. I'm a Texas alum, so maybe I'm biased, but I don't see any reason why Texas fans should have to settle for that.
None of this is meant to denigrate what Mack has accomplished in Austin. He brought the program to heights it hadn't reached in over thirty years and his run from 2000-2009 will go down as one of the most successful in school history. However, no run of success lasts forever, especially in college football. The game catches up to even the greatest coaches. At this point, you would have to blink hard not to see how Brown's flaws as a coach are killing this program. Ian Boyd's preview of the TCU game essentially called everything that happened on Thanksgiving beforehand. As Scipio Tex wrote in a must-read piece at Barking Carnival, the writing has been on the wall for awhile.
The new breed of head coaches aren't "CEO's"; they're guys who have made careers out of out-scheming people. The Purple Wizard is the only coach in the Big 12 older than Mack. Patterson and Briles are in their early 50's; Gundy, Holgorsen and Rhoads are in their 40's (Insert I'm a Man! I'm 40! Joke Here). Mack has outlasted most of the guys in his generation, but his tricks just aren't working against the new generation of coaches.
In a way, he's the victim of his own success. Along with OU, Texas was so dominant in the 2000's that it forced their competitors to clean house and remove most of the dead wood that had accumulated. Three of the schools farthest outside the state's recruiting imprint -- Colorado, Nebraska and Missouri -- left. Almost every remaining school in the Big 12 can recruit the state of Texas, which gives them a chance to be competitive, if they have the right people in place. TCU opened a new stadium this season and Baylor is opening one up in 2014, along with Oklahoma State, they are well positioned to take advantage of a direction-less Longhorns program going forward.
This is where not playing Texas A&M hurts. There's a scenario where Collin "Optimus" Klein wins the Heisman based on his play against the Longhorns this weekend. It's one thing for that to happen for two consecutive years; it's quite another if one of those QB's had played in College Station. One game against Kevin Sumlin and Johnny Football would have been the healthy dose of medicine every Longhorn booster needs right now.
So what happens from here? I'm hardly in the position to give Mack Brown much advice, so I'll hand it off to Marcellus Wallace:
I think you're gonna find, when all this shit is over, I think you're gonna find yourself one smiling motherfucker. The thing is, right now you got ability. But painful as it may be, ability don't last. And your days are just about over. Now that's a hard motherfuckin' fact of life, but that's a fact of life your ass is gonna have to get realistic about. See, this business is filled to the brim with unrealistic motherfuckers. Motherfuckers who thought their ass would age like wine. If you mean it turns to vinegar, it does. If you mean it gets better with age, it don't. Night of the fight, you might feel a slight sting. That's pride fuckin' with you. Fuck pride! Pride only hurts, it never helps. You fight through that shit. 'Cause a year from now, when you kicking it in the Caribbean, you gonna say to yourself, "Marcellus Wallace was right."