Max OlsonESPN Staff Writer
This was the year to mess with Texas.
There are 12 FBS football teams in the Lone Star State. Their combined record at the end of the 2016 regular season is 64-80. That’s not great, and their collective performance in conference play was far uglier: 37 wins and 63 losses. Even with six of the 12 going to bowl games, this was not a proud year for many of the programs in a state proud of its football.
Houston (9-3) and Texas A&M (8-4) had by far the best seasons of the bunch and had early College Football Playoff aspirations. Both ended up dropping out of the committee’s top 25 by season’s end. TCU was picked to finish No. 2 in the Big 12 and went 6-6. Baylor started 6-0 and went 6-6. Texas fired coach Charlie Strong after another losing season. Texas Tech had the nation’s most prolific passer in Patrick Mahomes II and went 5-7.
Only two FBS teams in the state managed to pull off winning records in conference play: Houston and UTSA. That is difficult to fathom.
For the first time since September 1997, not one Texas team is ranked in the AP Top 25. If Houston and A&M fail to win their bowl games, they’ll ensure that the state gets shut out of the final AP poll for the first time in almost 50 years.
Why was this such a tough season for so many programs in Texas? There’s no perfect answer, but a few theories are worth considering.
TCU coach Gary Patterson suggested that recent recruiting trends in the state could be contributing to the struggles.
“I think a lot of the best players have left the state,” Patterson said. “I think there’s a lot of good players, and we’re getting good players, but a lot of guys have left the state here in the last three or four years. You see them playing on Saturday. We’ve got to do a better job of keeping guys at home.”
Between the 2015 and 2016 recruiting classes, almost 40 percent of the top-50 ranked players in the state of Texas signed with out-of-state programs. Texas A&M’s jump to the SEC has been opening doors in the state for many other SEC programs the past few years, no doubt, and Oklahoma and Oklahoma State will always contend for Texas’ best. Other powerhouses such as Ohio State, Florida State and Notre Dame are also recruiting Texas better than ever.
This is especially hitting the state’s elite prospects. In both the 2015 and 2016 classes, five of the top 10 Texas prospects in the ESPN 300 left the state.
This year, the elite recruits are definitely leaving. It’s likely that each of the top seven Texans in the 2017 ESPN 300 will sign with out-of-state programs. So far, of the top 16 recruits in Texas who have made verbal commitments, 11 are leaving the state. Ohio State, LSU and Notre Dame have two each, with No. 2-ranked Jeffrey Okudah likely to become a Buckeye.
That’s one big-picture issue that the four Big 12 schools, Texas A&M and Houston will continue to fight. Another one worth pondering: How many Texas schools played good defense this season?
It’s fair to point out that of all the FBS teams in Texas, only Houston (27th) and Texas A&M (37th) finished with top-50 scoring defenses. Maybe it’s no coincidence that they’re the only teams that won eight or more games. Meanwhile, eight Texas teams finished with bottom-50 scoring defenses, led by Texas Tech’s last-ranked D.
One more factor worth noting: Some of these struggling programs had young teams. Look at the depth charts of the four Texas schools in the Big 12, and count the players who started at least six games this season. Baylor had six senior starters. TCU and Texas Tech had five. Texas had four. These four teams went a combined 22-26 with 23 losses in Big 12 play. All four should be better a year from now.
The last time we saw a statewide win percentage as bad as this year’s wasn’t all that long ago: 2007. There were only 10 FBS teams in Texas that year, as Texas State and UTSA had yet to make the move up. Those 10 programs went a combined 55-70. Texas, Texas Tech and TCU at least had solid seasons.
Maybe we should learn from what happened the following year. Texas and Texas Tech had their incredible Big 12 title race with Oklahoma. TCU went 11-2 and finished No. 7 in the polls. Even Rice stepped up, going 10-3 with a young Tom Herman as its offensive coordinator.
That was a heckuva year in the Lone Star State. Perhaps another one is coming in 2017.
As Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops theorized, there’s a chance that this rough year in Texas was just some odd, forgettable outlier.
“I think it’s an aberration that’s not going to happen hardly ever,” Stoops said. “It’s just unusual that it happened here in one year.”