The main thing we can say about the 2021 college football season? It was better than last year.
Well, not for Texas A&M.
Or Texas Tech and TCU.
But at least it was a normal twelve-game season, with fans in the stands, and minimal COVID-19 impact. Right or wrong, we could (mostly) go back to obsessing over conference realignment, starting quarterback battles, and Jimbo Fisher’s contract. And while the Aggies fell well short of an SEC championship, Steve Sarkisian’s Longhorns went 5–7, and fire-the-coach season arrived early in both Lubbock and Fort Worth, fans of other schools had more to cheer about.
“Texas is back?” Nope, Baylor was. Ditto Houston, which also got invited to the Big 12. Less fortunate was SMU, which not only remains in the American Athletic Conference, but lost head coach Sonny Dykes to rival TCU (and, ahem, the Big 12). And San Antonio was perhaps the state’s best college football town, with UTSA (12–1), FCS Incarnate Word (10–3), and Trinity (9–0 before it lost to Mary Hardin-Baylor in the D3 playoffs) all making noise.
Of the twelve FBS teams in Texas, three—Baylor, Houston, and UTSA—played for their conference championships, and eight will play in bowl games (even 6–6 North Texas and Texas Tech). But how did each school’s season really measure up?
This “report card” isn’t a rankings column. Teams with higher grades are not necessarily better than teams with lower grades. Rather, the grades are relative to each team’s goals and expectations. Where applicable, I will also look back on some questions and predictions from my September season preview, where I was either correct or wildly incorrect.
UTSA (12–1): A+
Should the Roadrunners (meep-meep!) be marked down for that final loss to UNT, which ruined a perfect regular season? Nah. This is a decade-old football program that went 4–8 as recently as 2019, which is how Jeff Traylor got to be head coach. In his second year on the job, Traylor put UTSA in the national conversation—even if that conversation was mostly about the way the College Football Playoff panjandrums kept the Roadrunners out of the top 25—and won the Conference USA championship as home underdog. UTSA’s reward? An unglamorous pre-Christmas trip to Frisco for what is actually a stellar matchup against 11–2 Mountain West runner-up San Diego State.
Most important, the school locked up Traylor with a 10-year, $28 million contract extension. That’s worth a letter grade in and of itself, or else he’d be house-shopping in Lubbock or Fort Worth by now. The Roadrunners are staying in the conversation—which next year will begin with the question “should UT really be favored over UTSA?” The two University of Texas system schools meet in Austin on September 17.
Baylor (11–2): A
It’s now official, with or without the changes to the conference: Baylor is the class of the Big 12, and absolutely the top Texas team. If not for that upset loss to TCU, the Bears would be getting ready to play Alabama in the Cotton Bowl and College Football Playoff. Not bad for a school that went 2–7 last season, which was head coach Dave Aranda’s first in Waco.
Given Baylor’s issues, you absolutely don’t have to hand it to them, but it’s still pretty incredible that the school has managed to bounce back from both the Art Briles era and the loss of Matt Rhule to the NFL. This was Baylor’s sixth 10-win season since 2011, but just its seventh since 1899. And while Rhule’s team played for a Big 12 title in 2019, losing to Oklahoma in the championship game, Aranda’s Bears won it. This year’s squad also dealt the Sooners one of Oklahoma’s worst regular-season losses in years. Then Baylor won the conference championship against Oklahoma State with defense and a backup quarterback (Blake Shapen), even if it came down to the final play.
“Reliable Violent Offense” is still an awful name, though.
Houston (11–2): A
When Texas Tech and Houston opened the season against each other on September 21, I asked, “Which coach has more to prove, Matt Wells or Dana Holgorsen?” That was really just a nice way of asking, “Who’s more likely to get fired?” So when Houston blew a 14–0 lead and lost to the Red Raiders 38–21 in that first game, the outlook wasn’t too rosy for Holgorsen. But the Cougars didn’t lose again until the American Athletic Conference championship game—though there’s no shame in being unable to stop College Football Playoff–bound Cincinnati.
At long last, we can put to rest all references to UH president Renu Kator’s infamous “the winning is defined at University of Houston as ten and two” quote. Now they go up to eleven. And Holgorsen, who was already the best-paid Group of Five coach in the country, got a big raise just because UH is headed to the Big 12 and the Power 5.
UTEP (7–5): B+
The preseason goal, at least according to the media, was modest. Dana Dimel’s Miners were expected to win more games than they had in the previous three seasons combined. They got that out of the way quickly, going 6–1 before losses to Florida Atlantic and UTSA, and the Miners will play in a bowl game (close to home, in Albuquerque) for the first time since 2014. Unfortunately, with Rice, North Texas, and UTSA all leaving Conference USA for the AAC, the state’s only Mountain Time Zone team feels more like desert island than ever.
Texas A&M (8–4): B-
What I said in September proved to be correct: A&M was the most overrated team in Texas because it was most highly rated. The goal was to improve on last year by beating Alabama, making the SEC championship game, and maybe getting to the College Football Playoff. Instead, the Aggies beat Alabama but finished in a three-way tie for third place in the SEC West, while Alabama still wound up the top team in the country.
The defense was great, the quarterback play—with Zach Calzada stepping in for the injured Haynes King early in the season—was not elite, and Jimbo Fisher’s team couldn’t finish in close games. And yet, on the field, the Aggies are probably still the best team on this list.
SMU (8–4): B-
Like A&M, the Mustangs had a good season, but not the season they hoped for. For the third year in a row, Sonny Dykes’s squad was undefeated until it wasn’t, going 7–0 before an overtime loss to Houston, and then 1–3 from there. And now Dykes has moved on to TCU. And unlike Houston, SMU did not hear from the Big 12 (at least not with an invitation).
But we will get to see the Ponies play football in front of the Green Monster in Boston, in something called the Wasabi Fenway Bowl. And next year’s home game against TCU should be one heck of a grudge match.
Texas Tech (6–6): C
Despite beating Houston and starting the season 5–3, it was in fact Matt Wells whose job was on the line, as the coach never seemed to win over fans—nor his own boss, athletic director Kirby Hocutt—and he hadn’t done any better in Lubbock than Tommy Tuberville or Kliff Kingsbury did.
The Raiders lost to Texas in September, 70–35 (which looks even worse in retrospect), then blew a 14-point second-half lead over Kansas State in what turned out to be Wells’s final game, on October 23. Offensive coordinator and interim head coach Sonny Cumbie went just 1–3 from there, but he and his new boss Joey McGuire have brought hope and good vibes to the program. Behold, the pump jack!
TCU (5–7): C-
Turns out it was not quarterback Max Duggan’s year at TCU. Nor coach Gary Patterson’s. Nor were the Horned Frogs a Big 12 sleeper. Fort Worth’s team lost the Iron Skillet to SMU, lost to Texas for the first time since 2014, and then punted the one edge it had over almost every school in the country not named Alabama—head coaching stability, after the school ditched Patterson in late October. (And Patterson actually took over at TCU six years before Nick Saban was hired Alabama, with Patterson originally getting the Horned Frogs job after Dennis Franchione, one of Saban’s predecessors with the Crimson Tide, left for Tuscaloosa!)
For a few years, TCU was clearly the state’s top program, and Patterson was the state’s top coach. Without him, under respected interim head coach Jerry Kill, TCU wound down the season with the fleeting satisfaction of a win over Baylor, followed by two losses and a too-close win over Kansas. At least the Horned Frogs may have found a new quarterback in Chandler Morris. And Sonny Dykes is strong hire. With Texas and Oklahoma leaving the Big 12, the question becomes: Can TCU catch up to Baylor and once again be a top team in the conference?
North Texas (6–6): C+
UNT head coach Seth Littrell salvaged what at first looked like a disastrous year—the Mean Green started 1–6 (with the first win coming over FCS Northwestern State) but then went 5–0, including that final game as meep-meep! spoiler. Six and six is still a far cry from the two nine-win seasons (in 2017 and 2018) that had Littrell slated for a better job (he turned down Kansas State in 2018), but given how crazy the coaching market is, and with a move from Conference USA to the American Athletic Conference pending, UNT will probably stay the course with Littrell (and, as of this writing, it has).
Rice (4–8): C-
Texas State (4–8): D
Both of these teams were supposed to chase .500 and the six-win cutoff for bowl eligibility. Technically, perhaps they did chase these goals—but neither team attained them.
Rice, which is also headed to the AAC from Conference USA, hung with Arkansas for a while in its season opener before losing 38–17, then got smacked by Houston (44–7), UTSA (45–0), and even Texas (58–0). UNT also ended its losing streak against the Owls, 30–24 in overtime. But overall, a decent season:
Third-year Texas State head coach Jake Spavital didn’t have to face UTSA in the “I-35 Rivalry,” this year. Instead, he dropped one to another neighbor down the highway: the University of Incarnate Word, which plays in the FCS. The Bobcats managed to scrounge together a pair of competitive losses to Baylor and Troy, but Texas State remains well behind the likes of Coastal Carolina, Louisiana, and Georgia State in the Sun Belt Conference pecking order.
Texas (5–7): F
Should the season-ending win over Kansas State bump this to a D-? Nope.
At the start of the season, some wondered if the Horns would even win the first two games of head coach Steve Sarkisian’s rookie outing. Then the team went out and looked great against Louisiana, a top 25 opponent, and bounced back sufficiently from a bad loss to what turned out to be a pretty good Arkansas team. And while the loss to Oklahoma stung—especially given UT’s 38–20 halftime lead—at the time, it didn’t seem crazy to think that the two teams would meet again in the Big 12 championship game. As they used to say on the viral internet: you won’t believe what happened next.
Except that you already know. A six-game losing streak, the longest since 1956, and a worse season—losing record, no bowl game—than any of the four under fired coach Tom Herman. The headline on a story by the Athletic’s Sam Khan said that Texas “devolved into a punchline,” but Texas had already been a punch line, literally. Now, incredibly, Sark is also on the clock. Paging Quinn Ewers?