When Texas and Texas A&M met at the end of last season, the Longhorns seemed capable of maintaining several years of dominance in the Big 12 while the Aggies were hopeful about their future with Jerrod Johnson under center.
As the teams prepare to head into Thursday night’s regular-season finale in Austin, it’s safe to say that neither could have predicted how 2010 would turn out.
This year’s rivalry game between No. 17 Texas A&M and Texas certainly has a different feel than previous seasons. Last year, the Longhorns won 49-39 en route to the BCS title game, while this season they are struggling even to become bowl eligible.
This is the first time the teams have met without Texas (5-6, 2-5) ranked in the Top 25 since 1998, when the Longhorns defeated the then-No. 6 Aggies 26-24 on a late field goal.
It’s been just as strange of a season for Texas A&M (8-3, 5-2). Coming off a 6-7 campaign, the Aggies dropped their first two Big 12 games and eventually benched Johnson, the conference’s preseason offensive player of the year.
However, Ryan Tannehill has helped turn things around, starting the last four games in place of Johnson. He has thrown for 10 touchdowns during Texas A&M’s five-game winning streak.
The Aggies were also forced to replace starting running back Christine Michael after he suffered a broken leg on Oct. 30. But just as Tannehill stepped up, so did Cyrus Gray, who has rushed for more than 100 yards in five straight games - the first Aggies running back to do so since Darren Lewis in 1990.
Gray matched his career high, set the previous week against Baylor, with 137 yards in a 9-6 win over then-No. 9 Nebraska on Saturday, helping the Aggies win a fifth straight Big 12 game for the first time since 1998.
“The consequences of winning are the expectations get higher,” coach Mike Sherman said. “We jumped over another hurdle and have taken another step. We still have another step to take.”
While Sherman’s team would need a win along with an Oklahoma State loss to Oklahoma and a bizarre swing in the BCS standings to reach the Big 12 title game, the Aggies will still look to close the regular season on a high note as they try to avoid a third straight loss to Texas, which has scored 49 points in each of the last two meetings.
“The most important thing for us is to worry about the University of Texas and playing a great game,” Sherman said. “I’d be pretty proud of our team if we could win Thursday night. … After that, we’ll just see what happens, see what they tell us we can do.”
While the Aggies rebounded after their poor start, the Longhorns were unable to recover from theirs and need a win to avoid missing a bowl game for the first time since 1997 - also the last time they had a losing season.
“If we can do our job Thursday night, there’s absolutely no doubt that we’ll be excited to go wherever,” coach Mack Brown said. “There’s no such thing as a bad bowl.”
Still, it’s been a dramatic fall after Texas opened the year ranked fifth in the AP poll. It fell out of the rankings for good after a shocking 28-21 home loss to Iowa State on Oct. 23.
The Longhorns’ struggles in Austin have been the most surprising. They entered this season having won 15 straight home games, but they’ve suffered losses there to UCLA, Iowa State, Baylor and Oklahoma State.
Texas snapped its four-game overall losing streak with a 51-17 win over Florida Atlantic on Saturday. Garrett Gilbert passed for 263 yards and two touchdowns while also rushing for a score and Cody Johnson ran for 124 yards and a touchdown. The Longhorns’ 522 total yards were a season high.
Texas struggled to stop the run in its previous seven games, allowing opponents to average 172.1 yards, but it held Florida Atlantic to 88 rushing yards.
The Longhorns are now focused on trying to extend their season - and avoid their first-ever five-game skid in Big 12 play.
“It’s a short week, but we have our heads right,” linebacker Emmanuel Acho said. “We have to get focused. This is going to be the biggest game of the season, but if we take what we did (Saturday) and improve on it, we are going to do very well.”