Longhorns' 2005 rise mirrors 1969 title run

The 27-story UT Tower hasn't really been lit orange with the white number 1's displayed on all sides in 35 years.

At least not for football.

And for many long-suffering Texas fans not as enraptured with repeated success in baseball, track, women's basketball and swimming, it's been too long of a wait in the only sport that really matters within Austin's city limits.

Traditional powers like Ohio State, Michigan, Southern California, Miami, Oklahoma and LSU all have had their chance to claim at least a share of a national championship in the last 10 years. Longhorns fans have watched with envy as those old-school teams have survived struggles to return to the top.

But true to the Texas spirit of making everything bigger and better, the Longhorns have returned to national-title contention in a grandiose way this season.

Some are already calling coach Mack Brown's current 10-0 Texas squad perhaps the greatest team in the 113-season football history of the school. The Longhorns appear to be on a Rose Bowl collision course with No. 1 Southern California for, potentially, one of the most highly anticipated games in college football history.

"I've lined up on the other side against them 43 times now, and I've never seen another Texas team this good," Oklahoma director of football operations Merv Johnson said. "I think in today's football they are about as good as I've seen."

Texas is the only team in the nation averaging 50 points and 500 yards per game this season. It would be the first time in school history for such a feat and the first time an NCAA team has accomplished that since Nebraska in 1995 (52.4 points and 556.3 yards per game).

On defense, the Longhorns rank among the top 20 in every major statistical category, including third in pass-efficiency defense, fifth in scoring defense and sixth in total defense and pass defense. For good measure, UT ranks fifth in kickoff returns and sixth in punt returns heading into Friday's regular-season finale against Texas A&M.

"There are no weaknesses on this football team," Texas A&M coach Dennis Franchione said. "You go position-by-position with them, and they are strong across the board. It's very difficult to find any place where they fall off."

Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops, whose team's 45-12 loss to Texas last month was its worst conference defeat in his OU coaching tenure, came away impressed with the Longhorns.

"From all I've seen, they look to be a great team," Stoops said. "They are athletic and can run, and their quarterback play with Vince Young has improved and given them more production offensively. I think their defense is very structured and sound. And they always have good athletes."

Stoops' point is well-taken. And although some Texas teams under Brown might have been more talented athletically, this collection and Young's moxie have helped make for a special group.

The Longhorns are looking for their fourth national title after claiming Associated Press championships in 1963 and 1969 and the United Press International title in 1970. That most recent title came despite losing to Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl because the final coaches' poll was then taken before bowl games.

Most Big 12 coaches think this Texas team has the ability to compete with Southern California and bring an elusive fifth title back to Austin.

"It's a great honor," defensive end Tim Crowder said about comparisons to previous Texas championship teams. "I wasn't even around at that time. My parents were barely born. We're just trying to keep that Texas tradition alive."

The team that this squad is being most favorably compared is the 1969 team coached by Darrell Royal.

That squad featured a wishbone offense unusual for its time. It was ranked No. 2 for the entire season behind defending national champion Ohio State, then considered one of the greatest teams of all time.

The 1969 team had to deal with the loss of All-American running back Chris Gilbert, who graduated the year before. And it used momentum from a convincing Cotton Bowl victory over Tennessee the previous season to spark its national-title run the following year.

From the beginning of the '05 season, the Longhorns have been No. 2 behind Southern California, another team that is judged to be among the greatest teams in college football.

This Texas team has had to deal with the loss of All-American running back Cedric Benson, who was drafted by the Chicago Bears. And this team used momentum from last season's Rose Bowl victory over Michigan to spark its start this season.

"You think about all the great teams that came before us, just to be mentioned with them is an honor," defensive tackle Frank Okam said. "But we can't lose sight of what we need to still be mentioned there."

The Longhorns' strength begins with Young, a Heisman contender who already is judged as the greatest quarterback in the school's history.

"They've got all that talent across the board, but when you put that quarterback in there, it's like putting the cherry on top of the sundae," OU's Johnson said. "And that Vince Young guy is pretty good."

But as important as Young's athletic ability has been, he's been even better as a leader. He set the tone for spring and summer practice, leading by example, and he has backed it up on the field.

Texas lacks a franchise running back, but features a quartet featuring freshmen standouts Jamaal Charles and Henry Melton, along with Selvin Young and Ramonce Taylor. All do different things well and combined may equal the talents of a truly great back because of their varied skills.

Tight end David Thomas (34 catches, 457 yards) is the team's leading receiver and is a devastating blocker. Wide receiver was supposed to be the team's weak link coming into the season, but sophomore Billy Pittman (23.7 yards per catch) has paired with Limas Sweed to provide unexpected punch at the position.

The strength of this Longhorns team can be found in the trenches. Rival coaches marvel at the veteran offensive line keyed by tackles Jonathan Scott and Kasey Studdard and guard Will Allen.

The defensive front of Brian Robison, Crowder, Rodrique Wright and Okam has been dominant. Linebacker Aaron Harris has provided big plays at a position that was supposed to be susceptible after Butkus Award-winner Derrick Johnson became a first-round draft pick of the Kansas City Chiefs. And defensive backs Cedric Griffin, Michael Huff and Michael Griffin have all played at all-conference levels this season.

"Texas is supposed to have good players, and they do," former Baylor coach Grant Teaff said. "They have ability, access and facilities that they can recruit with anybody in any given year. But this Texas team is all about chemistry and leadership, and you can tell it."

The Longhorns are off to their best start since going 10-0 in 1983. But it's the way this team has played that has caught the attention of others. Texas has scored 42 points against each conference foe so far this season.

From the second half of the Oklahoma State game through halftime of the Kansas game -- a three-game period -- the Longhorns posted eight straight scoreless quarters (overall, they held opponents scoreless for 126 minutes, 30 seconds). During that period, Texas outscored its opponents 152-0.

The Longhorns ripped Kansas for 618 yards in their most recent game, a 66-14 victory that included 336 rushing yards against a team whose rush defense was ranked No. 1 nationally before the game.

That performance convinced Kansas coach Mark Mangino that the current Texas team is better than the 2000 Oklahoma team, the Big 12's only undisputed national-championship team.

"I thought we had our share of hard-nosed kids that blended in and probably overachieved," said Mangino, Oklahoma's offensive coordinator in 2000. "But this Texas team, if you look at it from top to bottom, is probably a lot more talented. That blend at OU made for a national-championship team, but I think in raw talent that Texas is better."

After Texas' tight 25-22 victory over Ohio State in its second game this season, the Longhorns have turned their last eight games into a boat race, with the exception of a struggling first half at Oklahoma State. In that game, Texas rebounded from an early 28-9 deficit to scored 38 unanswered points in a 47-28 triumph.

"I think Texas is as good a football team as I've seen in a long time," Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said. "There are some teams in this conference that have been really good in the last five or six seasons, but Texas doesn't have a weak link. You have a hard time finding anybody in the country that can do as many things as they can."

But even with the success, Brown and his team are taking nothing for granted. They still have a long way to go, and they realize it.

"I'm not sure you really enjoy the season until after it's over and you look back. You don't want to be 10-3, and right now, that's still a possibility for us," said Brown, who has never won a conference championship in 22 seasons as a head coach.

"If you stop to reflect on how cool this is, you'll lose and it won't be so cool anymore. So you better keep working and not look up."

Tim Griffin covers the Big 12 for the San Antonio Express-News.