Having reclaimed the White House, Texans can now focus on the more difficult part of establishing world order: a return to the top of the college football kingdom. This is no laughing matter in the Lone Star State, particularly among Texas football players, who would huddle before and after their summer workouts, raise the Hook 'em Horns salute and break the huddle shouting, "One, two, three, Pasadena!" It's also serious business to sophomore receiver Roy Williams, whose cell phone displays ROSE BOWL! when it's turned on. "Everybody has his mind set on getting to Pasadena," Williams says. "We want to win the national championship, and if we want to win it, we need to start acting like a national championship team."
Forgive the Longhorns if they've forgotten how to walk and talk like champions: They haven't won the national title since 1970. They haven't even been ranked No. 1 since Oct. 9, 1984. Since its last championship, the program has endured bad bounces (a fumbled punt in the '84 Cotton Bowl cost Texas a 12-0 season), NCAA probation (one year in 1982 for a ticket-scalping infraction involving wide receiver Johnny "Lam" Jones), the second-worst loss in school history (66-3 to UCLA in 1997) and former coach John Mackovic's bright orange neckties.
Now the Horns, to borrow a Texas idiom, are fixin' to do something about it. Fourth-year coach Mack Brown has put together three straight unofficial top five recruiting classes, giving Texas as deep and talented a roster as the Florida States and Nebraskas. The Horns also have 17 returning starters. Above all, they're beginning to recognize how far they've come and how close they really are. "We've got talented guys and depth at every position," says junior cornerback Roderick Babers. "Now's the time to bring something home to Texas."
Yet doubts still hang over the Horns. How can a team that last year lost 63-14 to Oklahoma (a defeat that prompted some around Austin to dub Brown a "February coach," with lots of recruits and little to show for it) be considered a serious title contender? How can a program that is 2-6 against ranked opponents over the last two years conquer the nation's elite? How can a team that hasn't gotten past Oct. 1 undefeated since 1985 make it through Jan. 3 without a loss? How can a coach who has never won a conference championship win a national championship?
A scan of the roster provides some answers. Junior quarterback Chris Simms (page 82), who torched Texas A&M for 383 yards and three touchdowns in the regular-season finale, has displaced Major Applewhite as the leader of an offense that scored 38.6 points a game. The offensive line has back everyone but left tackle Leonard Davis, and freshman running back Cedric Benson, who ran for 8,423 yards at Lee High in Midland (the fourth-best total in Texas schoolboy history), has the ability to play immediately " Joe Paterno told me that you lose a game for every freshman you start," Brown says. "So maybe we'll wait until the second play to put Cedric in."
The most gifted player at Texas, and possibly in all of college football, is Williams. He's 6'5", 210 pounds, can run 100 meters in 10.4 seconds, long-jump 25'6" and high-jump 6'10". He also has magnets for hands. "His physical attributes are freaky," Babers says. "He's so big, you don't think he'll run the way he can, but he'll blow past you."
On defense—Texas ranked seventh nationally last season—the need is for speed. In an effort to combat the spread attacks the Longhorns will face (Houston, Texas Tech and Oklahoma), the coaches have moved cornerbacks to safety, safeties to linebacker, linebackers to defensive end and ends to tackle. Says Brown, "It's not a game for slow guys anymore."
He's right. Times have changed in college football. The Longhorns are counting on it.