AUSTIN, Texas — This is what it's come down to for once-mighty Texas: Win two of the last three games or have the first losing season in the Mack Brown era.
The odds aren't good for a team that seems to be getting worse every week.
The quarterback keeps throwing the ball to the wrong team, the defense can't stop anyone and Royal-Memorial Stadium has been turned into a stomping ground for opposing teams to dish out whippings like a school yard bully.
At 4-5, the Longhorns are in complete collapse just one season after playing for the national title.
With three games left against No. 12 Oklahoma State (8-1), Florida Atlantic (3-5) and No. 23 Texas A&M (6-3), Texas isn't even a lock to get the six wins necessary for a bowl bid.
"It's been fun for 12 years. We've had a lot of great moments. We've lost those right now," said Brown, who earns $5 million a year and hasn't had a losing season since 1989 at North Carolina. "You've got to fight your guts out to get them back."
The stunning part of the collapse is that no one thought it could happen here.
There was too much coaching experience on the sideline. Too many blue-chippers in the recruiting pipeline to have to suffer through a dreaded "rebuilding year."
Other top programs — Oklahoma and USC, for example — might have the occasional one-season dip, but Texas looked like a machine geared for one of the great runs in history. The Longhorns won at least 10 games for nine consecutive seasons, second only to Florida State's NCAA-record 14 in a row from 1987-2000.
Rebuilding years may be acceptable at other schools, but not at Texas, Brown said.
"I thought we were beyond that. I thought we had enough depth here, I thought we had the confidence," Brown said.
So what went wrong?
Texas was easily the most overrated team of the preseason. The Longhorns debuted at No. 5 after last season's 13-1 finish despite losing two-time Heisman Trophy finalist quarterback Colt McCoy, record-setting receiver Jordan Shipley and four NFL draft picks from the defense.
On offense, Texas returned nine players who started at least four games in 2009. McCoy's replacement, Garrett Gilbert, was one of the top quarterback recruits in the country.
The defense, even with the loss of so much talent, was so supposed to be so good that Brown suggested it could be his best ever.
But the first depth chart showed 13 redshirt or true freshmen in the two-deep lineup. Some called it proof of the talent in Brown's last two recruiting classes. It looks now more like a fire alarm nobody wanted to hear.
Brown saw early warning signs. The Longhorns lacked passion in training camp and there was a lackluster season-opening win at Rice.
A 3-0 start quickly unraveled in a 34-12 loss to UCLA, the worst home defeat in Brown's 13 seasons at Texas.
Texas lost the next week at Oklahoma, then rebounded on the road to beat Nebraska on Oct. 16. That win which looks like a fluke a month later, after Iowa State beat Texas for the first time ever and Baylor beat the Longhorns for the first time since 1997.
Then came a 39-14 loss at Kansas State, a game the Wildcats led 39-0 despite attempting only four passes the entire game. The Wildcats ripped defensive coordinator — and head coach-in-waiting — Will Muschamp's defense for 261 yards rushing.
The offense has been even worse.
From 1998-2009, Texas averaged at least 34 points. But after losing to Alabama in the BCS title game, Brown wanted offensive coordinator Greg Davis to revamp Texas' wide-open passing attack for a more balanced approach with power running.
The change has been a disaster. The offense hasn't scored more than four touchdowns in a game and is averaging 22 points, not nearly enough in the high-scoring Big 12. Gilbert's five interceptions against Kansas State tied a school record and he has 14 on the season with only seven touchdowns.
The players have refused to point fingers at each other.
"I don't think any of us has lost trust in each other," safety Blake Gideon said. "We're all still brothers in the locker room."
Brown has tried everything he can think of to fix the problems. He has yelled at his players one week, then coddled and encouraged them the next.
But there have been few roster changes. Even when Gilbert threw those five picks, Brown didn't pull him.
"We don't have a waiver wire," Brown said. "We can't get rid of everybody right now."
After Texas lost to Iowa State, Brown sounded like he was putting his assistant coaches on notice when he said, "if one of your guys is playing bad, I can change them. If three of your guys are playing bad, I change you."
Davis, who has coached with Brown for 16 years at Tulane and Texas, has been the target for disgruntled Longhorns fans even during the their best seasons. Before the Baylor game, a plane flew around the stadium with a banner that read "Greg Davis Is Not Our Standard."
Davis acknowledged that he's "disappointed in the job I've done this year. My job is to do one thing: score points."
Asked to evaluate himself, Muschamp said, "It's a bottom-line profession and we're not winning."Comment on this story
Texas won't expect to be down for long. Brown is lining up another top recruiting class and the nation's richest athletic program is on the verge of signing a lucrative deal to launch its own Longhorn television network.
Texas lost five games in Brown's second season but the Longhorns still won the Big 12 South division. The current three-game losing streak is the first in the regular season since 1997 when Texas finished 4-7 and coach John Mackovic was fired.
A loss Saturday night to No. 12 Oklahoma State would be the fourth in a row at home. That hasn't happened in single season since 1956.
"In the big picture, we have to win two of the next three," Gideon said. "It starts this week against Oklahoma State."