In the land of oddities, chalk up the 1994 SWC race as a two-headed goat with both male and female parts. Never before had a team with more than two losses won the SWC crown. Never before had five teams shared the trophy. All that changed in 1994 when due to a curious series of events 62% of the conference won the conference title.
In Part one we looked at the fateful hammer of the NCAA, which crushed favorite Texas A&M's chances of another league title. In Part two we looked at the odd group of remnants left to challenge for the crown. Now in part three we look go all in on the bizarre results that led to five conference champions.
(Almost) Everyone Gets a Trophy. Part Three - Bizarre Result
For three weeks, Rice lived the dream.
After two difficult losses to open the season, to Tulane and Kansas State, the Owls took a measure of satisfaction by beating future Big 12 member Iowa State on the road. The conference slate lay in wait with Texas Tech, Texas, and Texas A&M, typically a brutal three-game stretch for the plucky little Owls. Tech would travel to Rice Village to start things off.
Tech's game plan came off without a hitch as the Red Raiders jumped out to a 21-14 lead by halftime and held the advantage, thanks to four Rice turnovers, into the fourth quarter. With five minutes to go, the Owls used a 22-yard field goal to bring the score to within four. Tech fumbled the ensuing kickoff, and Josh LaRocca found Ed Howard for the winning score. Ten points and a win in 1:17 seconds. To his credit Howard thought he'd run the wrong play on the go-ahead score, he ran into the end zone and waited for LaRocca to find him.
Texas meanwhile improved to 4-1 by squeaking past Oklahoma 17-10 in Dallas. The 12th ranked Longhorns came to Houston to take on the suddenly hot, 2-2 Owls. On the eve of the game, moved to Sunday due to an MLB strike and the need for live programming by ESPN, Texas coach John Mackovic suspended seven players including his top two receivers, Mike Adams and Lovell Pinckney. Still, no one gave Rice a chance to unseat the 12th ranked Horns. Austin columnist Kurt Bohls went so far as to pen a piece for the Statesman entitled "Rice Will Beat UT - Someday." According to Bohls, that day wouldn't be today.
He was wrong, but not without justification. The Owls hadn't beaten Texas in 28 straight chances, dating back to 1965.
The game, played in a deluge, favored Rice's ball-control attack as the Owls rushed for 207 yards compared to Texas' 16 and the Owls held the ball for nearly 40 minutes, twice as long as the Longhorns. The Owls won 19-17 and suddenly sat atop the league standings at 2-0.
A week later the Owls traveled to #6 Texas A&M. Even with the newfound success, the Owls were expected to take a beating from the Aggies who'd run roughshod over Houston and Baylor in successive weeks as well as beaten LSU and blasted #15 Oklahoma on their way to a 6-0 start.
The Aggies, winners of 24 straight SWC games, started quickly, scoring on a 60-yard pass from Corey Pullig to Rodney Thomas two minutes into the game. A&M outgained Rice by over 100 yards but couldn't find the end zone again. For Rice's part, Andy Clifton picked up a Leeland McElroy fourth-quarter fumble and started rumbling towards the end zone only to have Pullig tackle him, perhaps saving a score. In the third quarter, Dennis Allen intercepted a LaRocca pass in the end zone. A&M and its conference winning streak escaped by the skin on their teeth.
In three weeks the doormat of the SWC beat the eventual Cotton Bowl participant, upset a top 15 team they hadn't beaten in a quarter century, and almost pulled off an upset of a top 10 conference Juggernaut.
By Mid-October the league race was wide open, and Baylor came out fast. The Bears started 5-2, only losing to 19th ranked USC and 6th ranked A&M, both on the road. They impressively dispensed with TCU and SMU and headed to Lubbock looking to cement their status as league contenders.
Texas Tech in the meantime had a bye week after a devastating loss to Rice and a 2-4 start. The two met in Lubbock on October 22nd heading in very different directions. Whatever the results in the weeks before, they didn't matter on Saturday in Lubbock. A half-full Jones Stadium saw Tech cruise to a 38-7 win.
Three of the Red Raiders' four scores came from freshman, and Zach Thomas intercepted his fourth pass on the season, equalling his brother Bart for the team lead. The Red Raider defense intercepted Baylor quarterback Jeff Watson four times, one more than he'd been picked off all season. The result saved Tech's season and perhaps Spike Dykes' job.
If anyone, the league favorites Texas left the most meat on the bone. Texas finished the season 8-4, losses to the aforementioned Rice and rival Texas A&M weren't encouraging, but Texas' still had a trip to Lubbock to salvage their conference season. They didn't.
For Texas Tech the tilt against 19th Texas was do or die, a loss and their hopes of a league title or even a bowl bid were over. A near 30 mph breeze greeted both teams and Texas Tech won the toss and used that breeze to score 17 unanswered in the first quarter. For Texas' part, three of their first-half possession went backward. Texas benched Shea Morentz in favor of the Godfather of Soul, James Brown.
Brown led the Horns on two scoring drives, but the Longhorns needed so much more. The Red Raiders cruised to a 38-9 win. Texas fans and media began to call for their head coach, John Mackovic's, job, a Texas tradition like no other.
SMU beats A&M 21-21
We haven't mentioned SMU much, mostly because the Mustangs eliminated themselves early (and often) from the conference race. After starting 1-7, 0-4 in the league, the Mustangs played a home game, against Texas A&M in San Antonio. 51,056 fans showed up in the River City, based on personal observation, roughly 51,000 were Aggie fans, thrilled to see 7th ranked A&M push its conference winning streak to 27 straight.
SMU's talented quarter Ramon Flanigan had other ideas. Flanigan threw for a score and ran for one, making up for an injury-marred season. The Aggies repeatedly shot themselves in the foot with turnovers and lack of focus. SMU was more than happy to make A&M pay, scoring on touchdown drives of 31, 29, and fifteen yards after turnovers.
The Aggies eventually tied the game in the latter half of the fourth quarter, but SMU, not satisfied put together a fifteen play drive to get into field goal range. Ben Crosland's 43-yard winner with 29 seconds left went wide, however. The Aggies were able to get to midfield where an ill-advised 67-yard attempt was nowhere near good. SMU celebrated as well they should have, and for A&M's part, head coach R.C. Slocum wanted no part of any "unbeaten" talk, he viewed the afternoon as a loss - the only blemish on A&M's 10-0-1 season. SMU wouldn't exactly harness that momentum, losing out to finish the season 1-9-1.
A Crown No One Wanted to Win
Entering the last weeks of the '94 season, several teams had chances to win the crown outright, even up to their final game, but they stumbled, some dramatically, some horrifically.
Baylor 19 Rice 14
A national television audience tuned in to ABC to watch the Bears and Owls venture into unfamiliar territory - a game for SWC supremacy - in mid-November. The Owls needed a win to earn a Cotton Bowl bid, Baylor needed one to keep its hopes alive. Baylor opened up a 13-0 lead only to see Rice take a 14-13 advantage into the fourth quarter. The Bears rallied to come from behind to poach the Owls by five. Holding Rice on a critical fourth down late in the game, the Bears erased Rice's hopes of winning the league outright while staying alive themselves.
Texas 63 Baylor 35
The Bears, with a win, and help from TCU, would've won the title outright with a victory over Texas. SWC officials moved the game to the usual Texas/A&M Thanksgiving slot to ensure that the league had a national TV presence on Turkey Day. Baylor wishes this one was played behind closed doors, friends, and family only. The Horns pummeled Baylor 63-35.
TCU 24 Texas Tech 17
A day later, Texas Tech, Cotton bowl trip assured, had a chance to win the league outright by beating TCU. The Frogs' Max Knake hit Jimmy Oliver for scores of 62 and 89 yards, and Andre Davis capped a 69-yard drive with a score with under four minutes to play. TCU players carried head coach Pat Sullivan off the field. TCU defensive lineman Royal West was thrilled, "I am the happiest man alive. We are co-champs or whatever they are going to call it." Whatever indeed Royal.
And then there were Five.
As the season set for the league, four teams sat atop the standings as play concluded, only the Bayou Bucket remained as Rice and Houston met in the Astrodome. The Cougars at 1-9 played for pride or perhaps with the hope that they'd never speak of the 1994 season again. Rice, on the other hand, could get an elusive title slot with a win.
Backup quarterback Chad Nelson led the Owls, running for a score and making his first completion in three attempts count with a touchdown to Jeff Venghaus to give the Owls a 21-7 lead. The Owls rushed almost 400 yards, a rushing display that the 14,983 fans who were able to stretch out in the cavernous dome surely took copious note of. Final score, Rice 31, Houston 13.
Owl coach Ken Hatfield said afterward, "It's the first time three losses won a (SWC) championship." "It's good to be part of history." We guess so coach.