With 36 four-year colleges and universities sponsoring teams across 10 conferences in all four NCAA divisions, no one does college football quite like the state of Texas. While those 36 programs run the gamut from championship-calibre to happy to win a game, pride and passion for the game are everywhere. So for today’s Top Ten list, we picked out the 10 programs for which we’d most eagerly buy stock in right now. Emphasis on the final two words of the previous sentence.
Before we get to the list, a disclaimer. This is a ranking of the top 10 pound-for-pound programs in Texas. You don’t have to tell us the Texas Longhorns would beat the Mary Hardin-Baylor Crusaders 100 times out of 100 on the field. But which program would you buy stock in for this season?
1) Texas A&M – Summarize the Aggies’ rise with this sentence: “You just took about 10 years off my life,” said Nick Saban to Kevin Sumlin after Saturday’s four-hour fireworks display. Texas A&M isn’t the absolute best program in college football, but they’re close enough to give the reigning two-time champions a 60 minute scare. The amazing thing isn’t that the Aggies finally figured out how to harness all of the program’s potential, thanks to a move to the SEC, it’s how fast it happened.
2) Mary Hardin-Baylor – If you know nothing else about the Division III Crusaders, here are some quick facts. They went 13-1 last season, with the only blemish coming in a 48-35 setback to Mount Union in the Division III semifinals. Their last losing season, and the last time they won anything less than eight games, was in 1999. They’ve gone 141-21 since the turn of the century. They’ve won 10 American Southwest Conference championships over that span, including eight in a row. They’ve won 27 straight ASC games, 54 of their last 55, and 101 of their last 107. And the program didn’t even start unil 1998. I’d say Pete Fredenburg has done a pretty good job.
3) Sam Houston State – Coming off back-to-back trips to the FCS title game, the Bearkats are 27-1 since the start of the 2011 season against everyone not named Texas A&M, Baylor and North Dakota State. Willie Fritz has put together one of the most athletic rosters in FCS, led by a running back, Tim Flanders, who even Texas A&M and Baylor couldn’t hold under a 5.68 yards per carry average over Sam Houston State’s last three games against in-state FBS competiton.
4) Baylor – The Bears wouldn’t have even made this list seven years ago, but Art Briles has them moving up the rankings faster than the Baylor offense shreds opposing defenses. Briles has led his club to a previously unthinkable 24-14 since 2011, including a 7-1 mark since November 2012. In a state that’s always been at the forefront of offensive football, Briles’ office has become the epicenter.
5) Midwestern State – With eight wins or more in seven of the past nine seasons and two straight Division II Lone Star Conference championships, Bill Maskill has things rolling in Wichita Falls. The Mustangs have been especially good of late, owning a 19-3 record (15-1 in conference) over the 2011-12 seasons.
6) Texas Tech – No one does consistency quite like the Red Raiders, with 17 bowl trips over the last 20 seasons, but Tech’s highest Big 12/Southwest Conference finish was a share of the Big 12 South Division title in 2008. Enter Kliff Kingsbury, the pied piper of Texas Tech football who has given the folks in red and black no reason to feel anything other than unbridled optimism.
7) TCU – The high-level success the Horned Frogs achieved in the Mountain West was as dominant as any program in college football, but Gary Patterson’s program has yet to truly find its footing in the Big 12, dropping eight of its last 12 games against FBS competition.
8) West Texas A&M – The Buffalos posted a 79-22 record in eight seasons under Don Carthel with four Lone Star Conference championships and six Division II playoffs appearances, including a trip to the 2012 semifinals. However, the untimely and abrupt dismisal of Carthel knocks WT down a few pegs, at least for the time being. A 2-0 start to the 2013 season suggests the folks in Canyon can keep the program rolling with or without Carthel, however.
9) Texas – That the Longhorns remain on this list at all is a testament to where they’ve been more than where they are now. The unquestioned king of college football in the Lone Star state since the early days of the Mack Brown era, Texas has dropped 19 of 42 games since January 1, 2010. Worse than the results are the way the losses have happened, with three of their last four BCS opponents hitting the 40-point barrier and an astounding 822 rushing yards surrendered over the last two weeks. The good news, though, is that the right person in the right place can send Texas back to the No. 1 spot in about 15 minutes.
10) Rice – Since October 27 of last year, you’d be hard pressed to name a better program at the sub-BCS level. David Bailiff’s team has won six of its last seven games, with the only defeat at the hands of Texas A&M to open this season. The Owls have one of the most experienced rosters in FBS and could easily challenge for a spot in the Conference USA title game this year.
Honorable Mention: UTSA, SMU, North Texas, Abilene Christian, Stephen F. Austin, Houston