AUSTIN, Texas >> They remember it all so well.
Vince Young’s historic fourth-down sprint into the end zone and the ensuing rainfall of confetti. Texas’ comeback with seven-plus minutes remaining to play. The critical fourth-and-2 with no Reggie Bush on the field. Michael Griffin’s sensational interception. Bush’s poor decision to lateral.
And all that talent.
It all turned out just right for the locals who made sweet, sweet history against arguably the best college football team ever that didn’t win the national championship. USC was great that night in 2006, but Texas was greater.
A heart-stopping one for the ages, but maybe not the aged.
Talent galore so littered the field it was dripping in it. Sixteen of the 22 Longhorns starters played on NFL teams. And that doesn’t even count young players like third-stringer Brian Orakpo, who was so excited that he once ran onto the field without his helmet. Each team had two players taken in the first 10 picks of the next NFL draft, and 17 overall were drafted that spring alone.
As safety Michael Huff, the defensive player of the game, said this week, “We wanted to beat the best.”
But what if it hadn’t transpired that way on that crisp January evening in Pasadena? After all, USC’s press release before this week’s rematch shows that game never really happened, thanks to NCAA sanctions that vacated the Longhorns’ lone win over USC.
What if Vince had been sacked on Texas’ last offensive play from the 5-yard line, and the Trojans had run out the clock for back-to-back championships and a special place in history. What then?
Here are some what-ifs for Jan. 4, 2006:
What would have been Mack Brown’s legacy had Texas lost?
>> Possibility: Recruiting would have fallen off somewhat, and star-crossed Texas would not go on to make the BCS championship game against Alabama in 2009. Texas’ recruiting classes ranked fifth in three of the next four seasons.
>> Long shot: Without a championship, Mack would have been fired in 2010 after that 5-7 season and just two Big 12 titles in 13 years.
>> Probability: Mack would have been cast as a great coach who restored UT pride but couldn’t win the big one.
What if Pete Carroll had left Bush on the field and still given the ball to LenDale White on fourth-and-1?
>> Possibility: Texas stops White anyway. “I don’t blame Pete at all. We hadn’t stopped White all game,” recalled Huff, who said if Bush had been on the field, Huff probably would have concentrated on Bush and followed him away from the action. As a result, he wouldn’t have been in the gap to help stuff the play along with Brian Robinson and give Texas the ball back. “I ran in with my eyes closed and fell into something,” Huff kidded. “That could have been my last play in college.”
>> Long shot: White scores on the play with just over two minutes left and seals the game.
>> Probability: White gets the first down.
What if Young had returned to school for his final year and put off going to the NFL a year?
>> Possibility: Would he have? “Yeah,” VY said this week. “It depends. It was something I prayed about with my pastor. I thought I could go to the Texans and have the opportunity to play for my home team.” Young could have waited a year and then been drafted by the Oakland Raiders (who took LSU quarterback/NFL bust Jamarcus Russell with the first pick in 2007), not the Tennessee Titans at owner Bud Adams’ insistence which set off a hostile, ill-fated relationship between the quarterback and Jeff Fisher. Fisher wanted Matt Leinart.
>> Long shot: Vince would have returned with 14 starters, beaten Ohio State at DKR, and won the 2006 national championship against SEC champion Florida. “We would have smoked (Tim) Tebow,” former offensive guard Kasey Studdard said, forgetting that Tebow actually backed up Chris Leak on that team.
>> Probability: He gone. “He probably still would have left,” Huff said. “I would have told him to. His stock would never have been higher.”
Would Carroll have ridden off into the sunset ahead of the NCAA posse after 2009 had USC won, not lost?
>> Possibility: He would have ridden out the storm with the Trojans and continued one of the modern-day dynasties after a second straight national title.
>> Long shot: Carroll would still be coaching at USC, and Lane Kiffin — one of four Trojans head coaches since Carroll — would be a distant memory. The LA Airport tarmac wouldn’t be as famous as a firing den.
>> Probability: Carroll would have left anyway for the NFL, where he’d repeat his folly of not having his best player on the field on a last down to cost him yet another title, and USC would be positioned right where it is now as a top 10 program, totally rebuilt and stocked for the future.
What would have changed for Texas football had the Longhorns lost?
>> Possibility: So upset over yet another near miss, a desperate Texas administration ponies up and tries to hire Nick Saban for $10 million a year, a lifetime supply of Little Debbie Cakes and a permanent place at the front of the line at Franklin’s BBQ.
>> Long shot: So distraught over a championship drought that has now stretched to 47 years, Texas gives up football and puts all its money into Eddie Reese’s swimming program.
>> Probability: Texas would be right where it is, a 17-point underdog to USC and struggling to regain its footing. Its pride would have been stung again, not as badly as a loss to Kansas, but Longhorn Nation would be wondering when it’s their time again.
“We all hated losing,” Studdard said. “We had pride in the team and brotherhood, and coach (Tom) Herman is trying to bring that back. I’ve had multiple older gentlemen come up to me and say, ‘Thank you.’”
The best news is the Rose Bowl played out as it did. Texas won its first title in 35 years, Mack got his one championship and a nomination on this year’s College Football Hall of Fame ballot, Vince was cemented as one of the all-time college greats, and the Longhorn Network has an endless loop of inventory.
As Tim Crowder said, “The main thing is you want to be remembered when you leave the University of Texas. Since we won, I never thought about what might happen if we lost. I don’t live on what-ifs.”
And neither does Texas.