On the afternoon of September 7, Clemson University’s footballers beat Texas A&M, 24-10. A few hours later, in Austin, LSU beat Texas, 45-38. Before these games, all four teams were 1-0 and highly ranked in the Associated Press poll. Clemson, the defending national champion, was the number one team in the country. LSU was sixth. UT and A&M began the day at ninth and twelfth, respectively.
But there was only one ranking that ultimately mattered, as the Texas Tribune’s Matthew Watkins tweeted once the UT game went final.
And now we will all debate whose loss was better, which is basically the perfect summation of the UT-A&M rivalry this decade.
— Matthew Watkins (@MWatkinsTrib) September 8, 2019
That, of course, is because there is no UT-A&M rivalry anymore, at least not on gridiron. Since the Longhorns won the final meeting on Thanksgiving night 2011 and the Aggies decamped to the SEC, we’ve had eight college football seasons without a game between these teams, just a lot of empty statements from one side or another each time a new athletics director or head coach takes over (which, if you’re keeping score, has happened eleven times between the two schools in that short period).
“I’d love to see the rivalry renewed,” Texas coach Tom Herman said this past off-season. “I think it’s great for college football. It’s great for Texas.”
“Yeah, if it’s beneficial for Texas A&M,” a slightly less enthusiastic coach Jimbo Fisher offered. We are scheduled out right now for ten years.” (UT had reportedly tried to bring the game back for 2022-2023, but A&M declined.)
“Us not playing A&M is not good for college football,” Texas athletics director Chris Del Conte said at the Texas Tribune festival in September, where he appeared on a panel with A&M AD Ross Bjork. “We need to play each other … It should happen, but for some odd reason that’s above Ross’s and my pay grade.”
“I’d like to put the UT–A&M game back together,” one of the men above Del Conte and Bjork’s pay grade—Texas A&M chancellor John Sharp—told Texas Monthly’s Michael Hardy in 2017. “I know the governor wants to put it back together. UT wants to put it back together … Man, can you imagine how much money we could make off that game?”
The Texas House—also theoretically above the ADs’ pay grade—has introduced not one but two bills requiring the schools to play. The subject comes up like clockwork every November and every off-season. Nothing changes. But there’s always been a relatively simple way to make it happen. For the past five years and at least until 2025, the Texas Bowl matches up SEC and Big 12 teams at NRG Stadium in Houston. Texas and Texas A&M have both played in the game, just not against each other (UT in 2014 and 2017, and A&M in 2016). This year, multiple bowl projections (including from The Athletic, Yahoo! Sports, and ESPN, have the 7-5 Aggies slated for a return visit, perhaps against Oklahoma State or Kansas State. A week earlier, however, ESPN’s Mark Schlabach projected Texas-Texas A&M.
Apparently, he missed a memo. Here’s the tweet Brian Davis, the University of Texas beat writer for the Austin American-Statesman, has pinned on his Twitter profile at the moment.
Before you ask, the SEC will not allow Texas A&M to be matched against Texas in a low-level bowl game. So no, it’s not going to happen.
— Brian Davis (@BDavisAAS) December 1, 2019
This is either an urban legend dating back to 2014 (when Chip Brown of Horns247, citing unnamed sources, first reported it) or a thing that the powers that be know, only they won’t say it on the record. One reason it has the ring of truth is because the SEC decides which non-College Football Playoff bowls its teams will play, whereas in the Big 12, the bowl games get their pick (though there’s always some collaboration).
“The SEC Bowl Pool participants are determined after conversations with bowl partners and discussions with school personnel in order to create a lineup of compelling bowl games for our teams and their fans,” was SEC commissioner Greg Sankey’s written response to Texas Monthly when asked about a possible Longhorn-Aggie bowl game.
That is what you call a “non-denial denial.” A slightly stronger but still qualified response came from Texas A&M associate athletics director Alan Cannon. “To the best of my knowledge, there is no such policy in place within the Southeastern Conference Office,” he wrote in an email. (Cannon’s counterpart at the University of Texas, John Bianco, declined to comment.)
“We do provide input, but ultimately it’s a conference decision,” says Texas Bowl executive director David Fletcher. “We certainly would welcome the opportunity to host [a UT-A&M game], and I can’t think of a better market than Houston to host it.”
But you can bet that when the college football bowl bids are announced on Sunday, Texas A&M will not be playing Texas in the Texas Bowl. Conspiracy theories and conference tie-in vagaries aside, the underlying reason for that is obvious: the Texas-Texas A&M rivalry is too important to be relegated to a December 27, lower-paying bowl. If the teams are going to meet in a postseason affair, it has to be for higher stakes (meaning more of that money John Sharp dreams about).
Fair enough. But how’s that going to work, exactly? Or more importantly, when? Both teams are 7-5 this year. Neither is truly an elite college football power: A&M won its only official national championship in 1939 and has just eighteen conference titles (seventeen in the Southwest Conference and one in the Big 12). UT’s resume is far more gilded (four national championships since 1963; 32 conference championships), but as the San Antonio Express-News’ Mike Finger pointed out recently, the Horns have either lost at least five games or been unranked 18 of their last 36 seasons. Despite winning it all in 2005, former UT head coach Mack Brown still played second fiddle to Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops, while there aren’t enough fiddles in the band to say where A&M rates in the current SEC.
To meet in the College Football Playoff, both teams would have to be ranked in the top four at the end of the season. They would either have to win their conferences or be a one-loss runner-up. UT and A&M are betting tens of millions of dollars on Tom Herman and Jimbo Fisher doing just that, and preferably soon. But would you bet money on both of them doing it at the same time? With Oklahoma (and Baylor) and Alabama and LSU (and Georgia and Florida) still in their way?
The easier path would be the Sugar Bowl. Big 12 and SEC teams also meet in that game every year as part of the College Football Playoff’s misnamed “New Year’s Six.” For that to happen, both teams merely have to be ranked in the top twelve, and there have been exceptions to that qualifier (last year, Texas was fifteenth when it took on number-five Georgia).
Still, is playing in a New Year’s Day consolation bowl in New Orleans really that much less prestigious than the Texas Bowl? Most of what used to be college football tradition is already dead. The Cotton Bowl, once the most important game in Texas in the Southwest Conference era, is neither guaranteed to have a Big 12 team (as it was in the SWC days) nor is it actually played at the Cotton Bowl. These days, a bowl is a bowl. Like the Cotton Bowl, the Texas Bowl is in an NFL stadium. Like the Alamo Bowl, it’s in a major Texas city. It is not beneath Texas or Texas A&M.
The only reasonable argument here is that the Texas-Texas A&M rivalry is too important for any bowl game—that the two schools should play only for real stakes. The rivalry is about history, family, tradition—not a one-off bowl game played away from Kyle Field and Royal-Texas Memorial. Anything less than playing every year, ideally at the end of November, isn’t going to be the same.
But that’s never going to happen. The rivalry has already lost its luster. The current crop of students, including the players, don’t have cherished childhood memories of Peter Gardere and Bucky Richardson, or Derrick Johnson and Von Miller. They’re not coming to Texas to beat the Aggies (or vice versa).
Neither side has anything substantial to gain from facing off on the field. The most the winning school likely earns is bragging rights for its fans on social media and in the living rooms of some in-state recruits. It’s sad, because history and regional hatred is what made college football great. It’s just not what college football is anymore, in 2019. That’s neither the Longhorn Network’s nor the SEC’s fault (those were symptoms, not causes).
Of course, if the two teams do someday, somehow, some way find themselves both making the playoff, it would certainly be an event worth waiting for. As it happens, in 2024, NRG Stadium and the Texas Bowl committee are hosting the College Football Playoff championship game. If that’s when the rivalry finally resumes, the fix was probably in.
UPDATE: Both the Longhorns and the Aggies will play 2019 bowl games in Texas. UT will take on eleventh-ranked Utah in San Antonio’s Alamo Bowl on New Year’s Eve. A&M will appear in the Texas Bowl, but their opponent will be 25th-ranked Oklahoma State. Cowardice has indeed won out.