Longhorns need resounding victory to prove national-title mettle

Texas approaches the Big 12 championship game with its first 12-0 regular-season record in history and momentum from a strong sprint through the Big 12.

And still, something appears to be missing as the Longhorns attempt to claim their first conference championship since 2005.

If Texas can beat Nebraska Saturday in Arlington, Texas, the path appears set for the Longhorns to make their second trip to the BCS national title game in five seasons. A potential matchup with Alabama or Florida beckons in Pasadena -- just like it did for the Longhorns to higher-ranked USC in the 2006 Rose Bowl.

Even with that historical parallel in place, these Longhorns aren’t approaching the conference championship with a lot of national buzz. Most are seeing their Big 12 championship game with little excitement compared to the SEC championship game earlier on Saturday. It is causing the Longhorns to suffer in comparison to both the Gators and Crimson Tide as “Super Saturday” approaches.

Texas’ performance in its 49-39 victory over Texas A&M appeared to raise some questions that the Nebraska game could be more of a challenge than expected. The Longhorns struggled on defense against an A&M team that came into the game as the Big 12’s most inconsistent team. Earlier in the season, the Aggies had lost games by 28, 48 and 55 points.

The Longhorns have benefited from a series of favorable breaks throughout the season. Oklahoma was missing tight end Jermaine Gresham from the start of the season. Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford made it through only nine snaps in the Longhorns’ 16-13 victory over the Sooners earlier this season.

Some of the difficulty of the Longhorns’ trip to Oklahoma State diminished when Dez Bryant was suspended by the NCAA. The Cowboys also lost 2008 Big 12 rushing leader Kendall Hunter for most of the season. Hunter had one carry in the Texas game.

Even their toughest nonconference game against UCF featured a favorable break. The Knights opted to sit starting quarterback Brett Hodges and starting running back Brynn Harvey in their game in Austin earlier this season. UCF coach George O’Leary’s strategy appears to have worked as his team has won its last three games. But it still diminished the challenge the Longhorns faced.

The Longhorns have lost three tight ends during the season, including projected starter Blaine Irby. So it’s not like their rivals are alone in injury losses. But Texas appears to have gotten its fair share of breaks.

The Longhorns have relied on Colt McCoy’s short passing as their major offensive weapon – mainly to wide receiver Jordan Shipley. Their running game has been sporadic, but appears to be coming on as the season continues with the recent emergence of Tre’ Newton.

Texas’ defense had been the Longhorns’ major strength before being gouged by the Aggies for season-high totals in points and total yards. Before that game, the Longhorns had given up 37 points combined in their last three games and had allowed more than 21 points only once this season -- in a 34-24 victory over Texas Tech on Sept. 19.

Before that stumble, Texas had produced a remarkably consistent statistical season. The Longhorns still rank among the top 16 teams nationally in 13 of the 17 categories tracked by the NCAA. Included in those are first in rush defense, third in scoring, sacks, tackles for losses and kickoff returns, fifth in total defense, eighth in scoring defense and ninth in scoring defense.

Critics contend those numbers have been swelled by playing in a weaker-than-expected Big 12 and against a nonconference schedule that featured no opponents from conferences with automatic bids into the BCS.

Their margin over fourth-place TCU eroded from 114 points to 98 points in Sunday’s Associated Press poll. While it doesn’t appear that Texas is in danger of being lapped by TCU or Cincinnati, it still is indicative that the Longhorns’ status as a legitimate title contender could be called into question by some media members.

Texas should be a heavy favorite in the championship game. But it always hasn’t benefited them, especially in a game with similar circumstances eight years ago.

In that 2001 title game, Texas had a similar open path to the national championship game. All the Longhorns had to do was beat Colorado to qualify for a chance to meet Miami for the title.

Instead, the Buffaloes jumped all over them in a surprising 39-37 victory that sent the Longhorns spinning to the Holiday Bowl after their BCS title game hopes had appeared set with a victory.

Since then, Texas coach Mack Brown has learned to trust his coordinators more and become more of a delegator of authority. It has resulted in one national championship, a five-game bowl winning streak and seven consecutive finishes inside the top 13 at the end of the season.

That recent surge has helped change the national perception of his team from some of his earlier Texas squads, which always had trouble beating Oklahoma. In those days, Brown was known as “Mr. February” because his strong recruiting didn’t always translate into on-the-field success against the Sooners. Brown didn’t claim his first Big 12 title until 2005.

That image has changed. But the Longhorns still need a convincing victory Saturday to prove their legitimacy to much of the country heading into the national title game.