The Great Southwest Tiebreaker of 1994

    Week 15: Written by Ryan Nanni

This year, the Big 12 entered its final regular season weekend with Texas and Oklahoma as members facing a sprawling number of conference title scenarios, to the point where they said, “Here is a small portion of the math; go away until we have more of this settled.” In 1994, one of the conference’s predecessors, the Southwest Conference, faced a similar logjam identifying the conference champion to send to the Cotton Bowl (there was no title game to play) with a couple of key differences.

First off, there was a very clear champ. Texas A&M finished 6-0-1 in conference play, and the tie was against an SMU team that lost to every other Southwest team they faced. But the Aggies were ineligible for a conference title or bowl game after the NCAA determined boosters were paying players for no-show jobs.

Second, the list of tiebreakers was very, very short. Tiebreaker 1, for two teams or more: head-to-head results. Tiebreaker 2: whoever had gone the longest without going to the Cotton Bowl. End of tiebreakers!

And, to be fair, with a conference that only had eight members who all played one another every season, there wasn’t a need for that list to be particularly long. The 1975 and 1959 seasons had ended with three-way ties that required Tiebreaker 2. Still, even in those years, you were talking about deciding which one-loss team would go to the conference’s signature bowl game.

That was not the case in 1994. After Texas A&M, a whopping five teams – Baylor, Rice, TCU, Texas, and Texas Tech – were tied for second place with a 4-3 record. All of them had lost to the Aggies and two other group members, so Tiebreaker 1 was out.

As for Tiebreaker 2, Texas played in the 1991 Cotton Bowl, and Baylor was in the 1981 game. The other three had experienced much longer Cotton Bowl droughts, with Rice going in 1958, TCU in 1959, and Texas Tech, who wound up getting the ‘94 berth, last playing in the 1939 game.

The Red Raiders had finished second in the conference the season before, though that was two games behind Texas A&M, who beat them by 25 points. Other than that, they’d only really had two close shots at the Cotton Bowl berth since joining the Southwest Conference in 1960. The first was in 1967 when Texas Tech finished one game behind A&M, who they’d led with less than a minute to go before giving up the game-winning touchdown on the last play of the game. The second was in 1976 when Houston beat the Red Raiders by eight and wound up winning the conference title by virtue of that game.

Rice and TCU weren’t exactly swimming in Cotton Bowl opportunities themselves. In the last 20 years of the Southwest’s existence, Rice had more winless seasons in conference (seven) than years at or above .500 (three). TCU hadn’t done much better, with an equal number of winless and .500 seasons in that span. In a bittersweet turn, the Owls and Horned Frogs were the only conference teams that had beaten Texas Tech, besides the obligatory loss to Texas A&M.

And it wasn’t any of those three teams that clinched the Cotton Bowl for the Red Raiders. Texas beat Baylor by four touchdowns the day before Texas Tech’s final game, ensuring that Tech would either win the conference outright or win the tiebreaker. They went with door number two after losing to TCU to close the regular season.

But the most interesting scenario, at least to me, is the one that was narrowly avoided in a Week 1 non-conference game. Texas Tech opened the year hosting New Mexico, and they fell behind 17-0 in the first half. The Red Raiders turned it around and won 37-31…but what if they hadn’t? Keep every other result the same, and you get a 5-6 Texas Tech team tied for the conference lead. The tiebreaker rules, which, as we said, are not complicated, say they get the Cotton Bowl berth because they’ve had the longest absence from the game. Does it matter that they’re not bowl-eligible? Do the conference rules even bother considering what happens if the champion hasn’t won six games?

Incidentally, Rice finished 5-6 this season, where they claimed a shared conference title and were the only one of the five co-champions not to play in a bowl game. But this was the most recent season in which the Owls beat Texas, and maybe that’s better than a trip to the Cotton Bowl.


  • Geoff Mitchell

    I was there to see TCU beat Tech on Black Friday.

  • Geoffrey Bailey

    Does this count as a podcast

  • Jim

    I remember that. RC Slocum gave out undefeated gear of some sort, if memory serves. Which it might not, because…1994? Wow. If you had asked me, I would have told you I was still in school when that insanity happened, but I’d actually been out…three years at that point. Dang, I’m old.

  • Colby Black

    The story about how Rice beat Texas that year is also just as wonky as the title race.

    What if Tech doesn’t beat New Mexico? What if there isn’t a baseball strike and that Texas-Rice game doesn’t get moved to happen the middle of a typhoon?

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