LOS ANGELES — What made the 2005 Texas Longhorns so great was their ironclad belief in themselves. Sure, that group had incredible talent. But that burning desire to be great, that’s what turned them into national champions.
“After I lost the Heisman, the first thing I did was call Rod Wright,” Vince Young said this week. “I said, ‘Man, get the guys together and tell ’em it’s showtime.’”
Since Texas and USC collided in the Rose Bowl for the national championship in January 2006, both programs have undergone wide-sweeping changes. Both schools have changed coaches and athletic directors multiple times. The Trojans had an embarrassing scandal that landed them on NCAA probation. The Longhorns started piling up embarrassing losses.
Texas and USC meet again for the first time since 2006 on Saturday in the sold-out Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. My, oh my, how different they look now.
For those not paying attention, you’d think the roles would be reversed. Texas (1-1) should be the two-touchdown favorite and ranked fourth nationally. After all, USC is the program that lost 30 scholarships, fired one coach on the airport tarmac and fired another for alcohol abuse. The Trojans should be the ones who haven’t been nationally relevant this decade.
Instead, USC (2-0) is the program that’s ranked fourth in the country with Heisman-caliber quarterback Sam Darnold. The Pac-12 stalwarts are the ones who held firm in the Associated Press Top 10 for three consecutive seasons after the Texas loss and got back there again in 2011 and 2016.
USC, for all its off-field issues, won another Rose Bowl last season. Texas recently endured three consecutive losing seasons and fired Charlie Strong last November. The Horns haven’t been to a bowl game since 2014.
Asked how his program survived through all that turmoil, USC athletic director Lynn Swann called it a process. “The folks that were here at the time weathered the storm,” Swann said. “We took our punishment once that was established and tried to do the best we could.”
USC is back to a NCAA-maximum 85 scholarship players. “But just because you get 85 scholarships, you don’t always get the 85 you want,” Swann said.
The Trojans wound up vacating the 2005 season, whitewashing it from the record books. The NCAA dropped the hammer when it was discovered Heisman winner Reggie Bush and basketball player O.J. Mayo had received improper benefits. Bush gave back his trophy.
USC claims it holds a 4-0 all-time record over Texas, “not including one loss vacated due to NCAA penalty,” the school wrote in its weekly game notes distributed to reporters.
“They say they never lost,” former defensive end Tim Crowder said. “But I bet you a million people know they did.”
Ultimately, USC’s turnaround story is one of internal belief, same as it was for the 2005 Longhorns. The program simply kept chugging along as its mantra suggests — “Fight on!”
Pete Carroll, USC’s coach in 2005, stayed through the 2009 season and then left to go win a Super Bowl with the Seattle Seahawks. The Lane Kiffin years are now thought to be a national punchline, but he went 8-5, 10-2 and 7-6 from 2010-12. The Trojans even went 10-4 the next year when Kiffin was fired at the airport and fan favorite Ed Orgeron picked up the mantle to win six games.
Steve Sarkisian was thought to be the next Carroll. Instead the university cut ties with him in 2015 when it was discovered he had an alcohol problem. That’s when assistant coach Clay Helton took over, and the Trojans still finished 8-6.
Helton was named head coach in November 2015. He’s now 18-7 with seven wins over ranked opponents, including three in the top five.
Texas fans are hoping that new coach Tom Herman can find that same winning formula with a similar blue-blood program. Herman went 6-0 against ranked opponents during the two previous years at Houston, including a 2015 bowl game win over Florida State and a 2016 season-opening win over Oklahoma.
Can that magic replicate itself Saturday? Either he was playing possum or telling the truth on Monday when he said, “We are an underdog.”
Herman said his coaching staff would spend the week taking about confidence. “Why do you play?,” he said. “If it’s really and truly to see the looks on your teammates’ faces when you win games like that, then you’ve got a shot. If it’s for yourself, and the ‘I’m going to get mine,’ and the ‘It’s a big stage, I’m going to ball out for me’ and all that, you’ve got no shot.”
Confidence is far more powerful than any secret X’s and O’s, something Herman will tell you doesn’t exist. That’s why the 2005 Longhorns were cheering in the locker room that October night after beating Colorado. They were happy to see Matt Leinart push Bush into the end zone against Notre Dame, helping to seal a 34-31 win so USC would remain undefeated.
That USC team that featured two Heisman winners was billed as one of the greatest of all time. Young said his Longhorns couldn’t wait to get their shot. “At that point, as a football player and a team, you always wanted to play the best,” Young said. “USC was the best.”
Texas fans should hope the current Longhorns feel the same way.
“It’s just a big game obviously, because it’s just USC,” nickel back P.J. Locke III said. “It’s a lot of tradition going back to the old days with Vince Young and stuff like that. It’s kind of hard to pass it up.”
Make no mistake, some of the current players are tired of hearing all about the ’05 team despite their politically correct public statements. Two years ago, linebacker Malik Jefferson said he respects Young, but “we gotta get his name outta here.” Jefferson’s point was that players should want to make their own memories.
That can’t happen until enough Longhorns band together and do something about it. Texas is 2-8 in road games the last two seasons alone.
For this one, it’s unclear what the Horns will do at quarterback. Sophomore Shane Buechele practiced this week after sitting out against San Jose State with a bruised throwing shoulder. Herman offered no clues as to whether he’ll start Buechele or freshman Sam Ehlinger.
All that’s known is Jerrod Heard, a talented runner, will see some playing time out of a wildcat formation.
Asked Wednesday who would start as he was leaving the building, Herman yelled, “Nope! Can’t do it!”
That’s the question, really. Can these Longhorns do it?
Contact Brian Davis at 512-445-3957. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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