The Texas Longhorns are no stranger to heartbreak. Yes, it’s a storied program with more wins than just about any other school in college football history and a winning percentage to match. But the Horns have “only” won four national championships and have spent much of the 21st century tantalizingly close to national and conference championships that, for every big in there was at least one big loss.
This past Saturday was as painful as it gets. It was the very definition of a punch in the gut to every Longhorn fan watching, thinking that the comeback was complete only to fall a PAT short. So that got us at Playmaker Magazine thinking: on the list of all-time devastating losses, where does the 45-44 loss to Cal fall? So we put our heads together and came up with our “top” 10. We considered not just the game, but the historical context. Some games on the list are blowouts that shattered a season, it wasn’t just the last-second losses that were considered, although we’ve got plenty of those.
Also, it felt like losses to the Oklahoma Sooners made up half of our nominees, and they still have a big presence on this list. But enough with the build-up, let’s get to the list. Coincidentally, we start with OU.
10. The Wake-up Call: 2004 vs. Oklahoma (12-0)
After taking beating after beating on a seemingly interminable four-game losing streak to the Sooners, Texas was putting together a great season with the emerging Vince Young complimented by the veteran presence of Chance Mock at quarterback. They had the backs and defense to take on the Sooners and finally win one at the Cotton Bowl again.
But Texas just didn’t have the offensive chops. Mock struggled and Vince just didn’t have the confidence or the game plan to succeed. You almost wish it had been a blowout if you were there (which I was) because it’s just torture to spend an entire game so close without being able to put any points on the board.
Even worse, the shutout broke the Horns’ NCAA record of 282 games of consecutive scoring. Everyone knew it happened too. When Texas hosted UCLA in Austin back in 1997, a big sign flashed on the scoreboard saying that Texas had (at the time) the 2nd longest active streak in the country. So people actually had something to celebrate when they finally scored three points in a 66-3 lashing.
Against OU in 2004, there was nothing to celebrate. But at least the loss forced the coaching staff to change the offense and feature Young by letting him do his thing. They wouldn’t lose another game for the next two seasons.
9. Insult & Injury: 2006 vs. Kansas State (45-42)
The Horns started 2006 with a high profile loss to #1 Ohio State. They’d fallen from the #2 team in the country, but not far. They were a top 5 team perfect in Big 12 play with an outside chance at another national title with an amazing freshman quarterback named Colt McCoy. The kid had guts and some great moves with his legs, if not much of an arm. But late against an upstart Kansas State team that featured Josh Freeman and Jordy Nelson, McCoy got hurt scoring a touchdown.
He wouldn’t return and the KSU domination of Texas would continue (as it does to this day). What hurt most about this game is that, if McCoy doesn’t get hurt, then they probably beat KSU, a healthy McCoy helps beat A&M the following week and the Horns go into championship week the #3 team in the country while #1 Ohio State played #2 Michigan in their final regular season game. A shot at back-to-back titles AFTER Vince Young left? That would’ve been a hell of a story.
8. The Beginning of the End: 2013 vs. BYU (40-21)
2013 was supposed to be the return to prominence that would see Longhorn football back to competing for the Big 12 Championship and maybe even getting into the national title hunt. All the young players that had struggled and all the injuries that held Texas back the previous two years was going to culminate in one amazing season.
The problem was the defense never showed up. Defensive coordinator Manny Diaz was fired unceremoniously and unsurprisingly after Texas gave up 550 rushing yards, 259 to quarterback Taysom Hill alone. Texas never really recovered thanks to more injuries, including to starting QB David Ash, and Mack Brown was gone by the end of the year.
That’s a bad loss.
7. From Roars to Silence: 2012 vs. West Virginia (48-45)
I’ve never seen anything like it and I don’t think I’ll ever see anything like it at a Texas game in Austin. Two ranked teams were going at it at DKR Stadium. While we all think of Geno Smith as a joke in the NFL, he was a major player at WVU in a matchup that was built up big time for the Horns. So, with an exciting game going, and the Mountaineers pinned back near their own endzone, the crowd lost it’s mind when Smith took a sack at the goal line.
But loudness would explode into pandemonium when the celebration was interrupted to announce that Texas had actually forced a fumble and recovered it in the endzone for a touchdown. The crowd went to 11 upon hearing that news. The play had to be reviewed, and during the review process, the stadium pumped in “Jump Around” by House of Pain. The players on the sidelines and the fans in the stands all started jumping. I’m not talking about just the student section either. My seats that night were with donors and alumni. People in their 50’s and 60’s were jumping right along.
It was epic.
It’s just a shame that Texas lost because Anthony Fera missed a field goal to tie the game in the 4th quarter. Ugh.
6. The Stoops Era Begins: 2000 vs. OU (63-14)
In the 11 years leading up to the 2000 edition of the Red River Shootout, Texas was 8-2-1. Their dominance was fueled by upset after upset of ranked Sooners teams. I still remember the confidence Longhorns fans had going into that game. Despite both teams winning the previous week, Oklahoma had jumped Texas in the rankings.
“That’ll just make it look better when we beat them,” my Dad said.
The humiliation was a huge step back for the program. One they wouldn’t recover from for another five years.
5. The Comeback Fail: 2015 vs. Cal (45-44)
You have to love the eternal optimism of Texas fans. Down 21 going into the 4th quarter, they were still hanging in because, hey, the Longhorn offense finally showed up on a Charlie Strong-coached Texas team. It had been years since the burnt orange faithful had seen that kind of explosiveness. Jerrod Heard was the chosen one that had risen to lead Texas to glory once again!
Down three touchdowns? No problem! Heard’s got this! It was amazing to watch and that crowd was rewarded for sticking with the team. They thought that this was the moment that everyone would point to when Heard was leading to the Longhorns into a successful future.
The highest of highs to the lowest of lows.
People were still celebrating on the sidelines and had to be stopped. The canon that goes off after every score fired anyway because extra points are so automatic. It was like a zombie outbreak suddenly struck every Texas fan. The silence was only broken by droning.
It went from a moment we never wanted to forget to a moment wish we wish we could.
4. Sucker Punched: 2001 vs. Oklahoma (14-3)
I’m surprised this isn’t a Vine that plays on a loop in Norman somewhere. Moments don’t get better than that one for the Sooners. As big as it was for them, it was as painful, if not more so, for the Longhorns. And it pretty much sums up what it was like to root for Chris Simms throughout his career at Texas. Actually, there’s a better example. We’ll get to that.
3. The Near Miracle: 2010 National Championship Game vs. Alabama (37-21)
Some people think this should be No. 1 on the list. After all, you literally could not get closer to a national championship than they did, and you couldn’t ask for a worse fate for Colt McCoy, to have to watch on the sidelines helpless to help his teammates despite working four years to get to that moment.
But here’s the thing: the fight that Texas showed in that game despite all the set-backs in the 2nd half was amazing. I remember walking out of the Rose Bowl and seeing Texas fans not depressed at the loss, but proud of the effort. Garrett Gilbert’s first significant action was trial by fire. At halftime, they were down 24-6. But they played inspired football in the 2nd half and cut the lead to three with six minutes remaining.
I still can’t stand the fact that Nick Saban ran up the score at the end of the game to make it look like Bama didn’t nearly lose to Texas playing the vast majority of their game with a backup quarterback. But the Longhorns know the truth about that game. It was maybe the best loss in school history.
2. The False Finish: 2008 vs. Texas Tech (39-33)
We’ve written about this play before. But it bears repeating here. Some people forget that the play right before Michael Crabtree scored the winning touchdown in 2008 that the game should’ve been over. Graham Harrell’s pass was tipped up in the air around several Texas Longhorn defenders.
Everyone watching at home thought it was over. At the time, I was a sports anchor and reporter in El Paso. The UTEP Miners were hosting the Rice Owls, but everyone was huddled around a small black and white monitor to watch the Longhorns and Red Raiders. We’d all stopped ignoring the game action in front of us. Those of us cheering for Texas jumped for joy. And it was a few seconds before we realized that it wasn’t over. Blake Gideon dropped the ball. And on the next play, the game was really over.
It was the sad end to an epic run. Texas had defeated three consecutive ranked teams, all in the top 12, going into that game. No team had ever beaten four. And the Longhorns would’ve breezed into the national championship game against Florida where the Horns would’ve had a shot at taking down Tim Tebow. That would’ve been fun to watch. Instead, we had to wait, and Colt McCoy wouldn’t last long in his one national championship game.
1. The Texas Twister: 2001 Big 12 Championship Game vs. Colorado (39-37)
Now THIS is how Texas fans remember Chris Simms. It’s amazing how just a few things could’ve changed the outcome of this game.
But it was a crazy lead-up to the game. It all started on Thanksgiving Day. Texas had just beaten Texas A&M. Oklahoma was all but a sure thing to beat OSU the next day to clinch the Big 12 South division and go to the conference championship game. I still remember Mack Brown saying that Texas should be in a BCS Bowl Game (their first in the BCS era) on Kyle Field right after the win. Then Oklahoma State pulled off an incredible upset. Texas was headed to the Big 12 Championship Game to play a Colorado team they’d already dominated at home. Now they could just clinch a BCS bowl berth!
And then, madness. Florida lost their regular season opener to Tennessee, dropping them in the rankings and vaulting the Vols to No. 2. Then Tennessee got upset by LSU in the SEC Championship Game.
I remember being at Texas Stadium. No one was in the stands mere minutes before the Longhorns kicked off against the Buffaloes. Everyone was in the tunnels watching the SEC Championship Game. When the Tigers upset the Volunteers, everyone was euphoric. It felt like destiny. Texas got off to an early lead. Up 7-0 late in the 1st quarter, the Horns were driving. Another score and Colorado would have to abandon the running game and the game would essentially be over because the Buffs offense wasn’t designed to deal with big deficits as we’d seen earlier that season.
But then disaster struck. Chris Simms threw an interception returned deep into Texas territory where Colorado tied the game just a few plays later. Simms threw two more interceptions and before you knew it, Texas was down 29-10. Then, an opportunity. After taking a sack, Simms appeared to injure his finger. That’s all the excuse Mack Brown needed. He subbed in Major Applewhite. Two plays later, the spark was lit.
The audacity of Applewhite’s celebration after that play gave Texas confidence, but the comeback stalled in the 2nd half. Colorado was running the clock out and successfully keeping the Horns at bay. Until one crucial mistake gave Texas new life. The Buffs called for a fake punt out of nowhere and Texas was ready for it.
The burnt orange faithful lost their minds. We fell to our knees in exultation just like Roderick Babers did on that play. One score away. One touchdown away from the biggest game in program history. Sadly, going after a punt resulted in running into the kicker, extending a Colorado drive and putting them up by two scores. Texas lost by two points.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s no way that Texas could’ve beaten the Miami Hurricanes in the championship game. In retrospect, they’re arguably the greatest college football team of all time. But the pain of that loss took a long time to get over.
So what do you think? Do you think we got the order right? Is there a game missing from here that you think should’ve made it on the list? Let us know in the comments below.
Photos courtesy Jay Janner/Austin-American Statesman; USA Today; Dallas Morning-News