BYU fails not only on the strength-of-schedule issue but also on the economic-impact side. Bowls, particularly the Sugar Bowl, thrive on bar business. One of the tenets of the Mormon faith is abstinence from alcohol. You do the math. In the French Quarter, they don't call the most famous thoroughfare Milk Street. "We used to go to the Holiday Bowl, and our fans would bring a $50 bill and the Ten Commandments and break neither," says BYU coach La Veil Edwards. Nebraska fans, on the other hand, travel like Deadheads and spend like tourists.
Choosing bowl teams based in significant part on the rabidity and spending habits of their fans isn't fair to the audience watching the bowls at home. For all its flaws, BYU would even be a more intriguing opponent for Florida State than a team the Seminoles have already beaten. Unfortunately, money rules all matchups.
The least likely possibility last weekend was that Texas would end up with an alliance berth. The Longhorns were dead. Not just as a team—they went into the Big 12 title game unranked—but also as a program. Texas falls into that broad, romantic species of the once great but now departed, forever grasping at past glory, its fans always expecting reincarnation. The group also includes Alabama (with one hiccup, a national title in '92), Oklahoma and USC. Miami will be there soon, wondering what became of the swagger. Longhorns coach John Mackovic is the latest hire by Texas in a search to recapture Darrell Royal's magic. Brought to Austin in '92, Mackovic went 11-10-1 in his first two years and twisted in the autumn winds, enduring criticism of his offensive preference (he likes to move the ball more by air than ground) and his personal habits (he's a Chardonnay gent in a Lone Star longneck state). A year ago Texas went 10-1-1 in the regular season but was thrashed 28-10 by Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl.
The Longhorns began this season by talking themselves up as national championship contenders but crashed to earth in a 27-24 home loss to Notre Dame on Sept. 21. A 37-13 loss at Virginia followed, and after a so what? victory against Oklahoma State, Texas lost to Oklahoma, giving the Sooners their first victory of the season. Mackovic's rebuilding already seemed a failure, with the coach barely into the first year of a five-year contract. "We were at the bottom of the barrel," says senior linebacker Tyson King. "We felt so bad about ourselves. I didn't even feel like going to practice."
The Longhorns convened a players-only meeting on Oct. 14, two days after the Oklahoma defeat, and then met again that night to watch Monday Night Football at the house that King shares with two teammates. "We just decided to see if we could pull it together the rest of the season," King says. Texas played well after that, losing narrowly to Colorado to drop to 3-4, then finishing with four consecutive wins heading into Saturday's game. The Longhorns were 20-point underdogs to Nebraska, but junior quarterback James Brown spiced up a potentially dull pregame week by saying on Dec. 2, "I think we'll win by three touchdowns."
There is a cool courage about Brown that first showed itself when Texas was recruiting him as the state's top-rated quarterback, out of Beaumont's West Brook High. Whispering old dirt about life in Austin, people in Beaumont told Brown that Texas would never put itself in the hands of an African-American quarterback. "We got so much of that in the black community here, it was sickening," Brown's father, James Sr., told the Austin American-Statesman in August 1995.
"That made me mad, people telling me what I can't do," says James, the son. So it should come as no surprise that he rushed onto the carpet at the Trans World Dome before Saturday's game and did a little dance right on the N in Nebraska's end zone, just to punctuate his prediction. Or that he played brilliantly, completing 19 of 28 passes for 353 yards and one touchdown. Behind him, senior tailback Priest Holmes rushed for 120 yards and three touchdowns, and in front of him, a young offensive line held the Cornhuskers' fierce pass rushers sackless.
However, with 2:40 to play and the Longhorns leading 30-27 and facing fourth-and-two-inches on their own 28, Mackovic made the kind of call that shapes a coach's legacy, and Brown made the kind of play that crushes typecasting. Mackovic had his team line up in a tight goal line formation for a play called "Steelers roll left," a sprint out by Brown with a pass-run option; on this occasion Mackovic put the emphasis on running and making the first down. So close to their own end zone, the Horns would most assuredly lose if they failed to pick up the first down.
Mackovic had often practiced this play in his 12 years as a college coach and had used it in goal line situations. But he had tried it only once on fourth down so deep in his own territory. That was nearly a decade ago, when he was at Illinois. "We didn't make it, and people called me crazy," Mackovic says. On Saturday morning Mackovic had stood in front of his players in a meeting room at their hotel and told them, "I've had a dream all week that we're going to win, 20-19." Now, he tried to make his dream of victory come true with what he would later describe as the biggest call of his career.
Brown sprinted hard left, aiming for the sticks, but then pulled up and dropped a soft spiral to sophomore tight end Derek Lewis, far behind the flummoxed Nebraska secondary at the Texas 42. Lewis rolled down the sideline to the Cornhuskers' 11, completing a 61-yard play. "Calling that play took, took..." said King later, searching for the right body part to describe Mackovic's bravery, "...guts." On the next snap Holmes bolted through the beaten defense for the killing score with 1:53 to play, and the small Texas crowd made the Dome shake just a little.