Later this month, one of the great long-standing traditions in college athletics—the annual Thanksgiving game between the University of Texas and Texas A&M—will come to an end. The rivalry between these two schools has lasted so long, and fostered such ferocious passion on both sides, that most people probably figured it was established in the state constitution. But after a melodramatic three months of phone calls, press conferences, legal threats, angry letters, and tense meetings, the rivalry appears to be kaput, a casualty of A&M’s departure from the troubled Big 12 Conference. Beyond November 24, only an act of God, the state legislature, or the BCS will bring these teams together.

Sportswriters, fans, and people who spend all night on message boards will tell you that this has been a long time coming, that the Big 12 was never built to last, that UT’s new Longhorn Network was the straw that broke the camel’s back, that A&M has had one foot out the door for some time. But I’m prepared to chalk it up to 2011: The Year of Change. In retrospect, I think we’ll look back and recognize that the end of the Aggie-Longhorn rivalry was just one of the many dramatic transitions visited on Texas this year. Just for starters, consider the big ones:

Ecological change: Climatologists tell us that we’re currently living through the worst single-year drought since researchers began keeping track of such things, in 1895 (by coincidence, just one year after the first A&M-Texas game). The entire state has received less than half its normal rainfall. For our agricultural producers, this has been nothing short of catastrophic. How many farms and ranches will disappear this year? How many herds of cattle will be sold off, never to be replenished?

Political change: Whatever happens to Rick Perry, his decision to run for president marks the end of an era. He’ll either move up, triggering a radical reshuffling of the deck, or he’ll return a loser, his seemingly impregnable armor cracked and vulnerable (a possibility executive editor Mimi Swartz explores in “Left Behind”). After a decade of stability, state politics are again approaching flux.

Demographic change: Texas’s booming Hispanic population is expected to become the state’s majority group by 2020, a much-anticipated, much-analyzed, and much-discussed cultural shift. But guess what? Change has already come. This spring marked the first time that the Hispanic student population of our public schools topped 50 percent. In the population at large, non-Hispanic whites remain the majority group, with 43 percent, but not for long. Not when Hispanic students exceed all other student population groups combined. The future is here, in our schools.

The demise of a college sports rivalry may seem out of place alongside these more serious transformations, but that’s only if you believe that Aggies versus Longhorns is only a football game. It’s not. As senior executive editor Paul Burka persuasively argues in this month’s cover story (“Farmers Flight!”), the 118-year rivalry is about culture, history, and the price of progress. Those two players on the cover are not just representatives of academic institutions, they’re stand-ins for two different ways of life—one rural, tough, and fiercely traditional, the other urban, wealthy, and proud of its sophistication. For more than a century the two were locked in a struggle that defined modern Texas. But, Burka writes in his piece, this may now be changing, as Texas, for its part, completes the transition to a state dominated by urban interests, and A&M, for its part, vaults into the country’s top tier of public research universities. The end of the rivalry is the end of something far bigger.

So add it to the list of epic changes of the 
year 2011. Our world may never be the same.

Next Month

The state’s best breakfasts, the year Texas burned, the real miracle of our economy, tracking a serial killer with the Houston Police Department, the state of Texas versus the Environmental Protection Agency, and the tenth anniversary of the collapse of Enron.