The Transition from I-AA to I-A Football: Texas State Bobcats

Taking_the_Leap_header

The State of the Program Entering I-A

Texas State, which has exploded in enrollment to become the fifth largest public university in the football-mad state of Texas, had but spurts of glory throughout their history in the lower divisions. A two-time national champion at the Division II level in the 1980s, the Bobcats are a team that has been either wildly successful or frustratingly inept throughout its history leading up to its rise to the FBS level.

Texas_State_helmet

TEXAS STATE BOBCATS

YEAR OF TRANSITION: 2012

CONFERENCE HISTORY:

  • WAC (2012)
  • Sun Belt (2013- )

I-A RECORD: 4-8-0 (.333)

Jim Wacker’s four years at the school from 1979 to 1982 marked the greatest period in the history of Bobcats football to date. The team would go 7-4 in his first season at the school before claiming the first of three straight Lone Star Conference titles in 1980 with an 8-3 record.

The following year, Southwest Texas State (as they were then known) repeated as outright conference champs with a 6-1 league record. They would romp through the playoffs, knocking off Wacker’s former team North Dakota State in the final 42-13 to win the 1981 Division II national championship.

1982 will be remembered as the perfect season in San Marcos. The Bobcats cruised through their Lone Star slate and went undefeated in the regular season. Back in the playoffs, Texas State would successfully defend their championship, going back-to-back with a 34-9 win in the title game over UC-Davis to cap an undefeated 14-0 campaign.

Wacker would leave after the second straight championship to take the head coaching position at TCU, and the Bobcats handed the reins to former Baylor position coach John O’Hara. The team would win another share of the Lone Star championship in 1983, their last in the conference and at the Division II level. The Bobcats would move to I-AA in 1984, joining the Gulf Star Conference that would eventually be absorbed after three seasons into the Southland Conference. O’Hara would last seven seasons in the leadership role before leaving to take a position under Hayden Fry at Iowa.

Taking over in his first stint in San Marcos was Dennis Franchione. In two seasons, Franchione would post 6-5 and 7-4 seasons to turn the Bobcats into a mid-tier Southland team before moving west to the I-A coaching ranks with New Mexico. Promoted from his jack-of-all-trades position as quarterbacks, offensive line and wide receivers coach to replace Franchione was Jim Bob Helduser.

Over five seasons, Helduser would post a 20-34-1 record before being replaced in turn by Minnesota offensive coordinator and Texas State alumnus Bob DeBesse. Despite his personal connection to the university, another underwhelming half-decade of mediocrity awaited the Bobcats, as they failed to seriously challenge for either a Southland title or a spot in the expanding bracket of the I-AA national tournament. DeBesse would be let go after six seasons following the 2002 campaign, replaced by Manny Matsakis for one unspectacular 4-8 season in 2003.

David Bailiff, the TCU defensive coordinator who had served in the same capacity in San Marcos from 1997 to 2000, returned to take over the reins at Texas State in 2004. His first season at the helm would result in a 5-6 record, though the team improved to 3-2 in conference — good enough for third in the Southland standings. The coach’s sophomore campaign would proved charmed, as the Bobcats rolled to a 9-2 regular season and a share of the league title. Qualifying for their first postseason since Wacker’s back-to-back title campaigns in the early 1980s, Texas State enjoyed home turf as they knocked off Georgia Southern and Cal Poly. But, despite still playing at home, they would fall in a semifinal shootout 40-37 to Northern Iowa. Bailiff would fail to build on the momentum, returning to 5-6 mediocrity in 2006 before jumping ship to take over at Rice.

Brad Wright, Bailiff’s running backs coach, would replace his former boss in San Marcos instead of following him to the Owls in 2007. His sophomore season would see Texas State win their first and only outright Southland Conference crown, a 6-2 league record and 8-4 overall earning a place in the I-AA championship tournament for the second time in four seasons. The Bobcats wouldn’t replicate the magic of 2005, though, as they fell in the opening round 31-13 to eventual finalist Montana. Two more seasons of mediocrity followed before Wright returned to coaching in the Texas high school ranks.

The school, which by this time had surpassed 34,000 enrolled students, dug into their past history for the man to lead the team into its I-A transition. Franchione, who had gone on after his two seasons at Texas State in the early 1990s to enjoy a colorful career with stops at New Mexico, TCU, Alabama and Texas A&M, came back to San Marcos in 2011. The team would go 6-6 in his first season back, their schedule dominated by I-AA competition. The .500 campaign allowed Franchione to settle in with his personnel and instill confidence in his new roster ahead of the actual transition year.

 

The First Season

The Bobcats would make the move up in 2012, joining the Western Athletic Conference in its final season of existence as a football league. Their first game at the new level offered hope for the future. Traveling to Houston to take on a Cougars team adjusting to life after Case Keenum’s graduation and Kevin Sumlin’s departure to take over at Texas A&M, Texas State surprised the nation with a 30-13 victory. Tailback Marcus Curry would steal the show, rushing for 131 yards, catching two passes for 23 more and scoring three combined touchdowns.

The Bobcats would begin their life at the I-A level victorious, upsetting the Cougars on opening weekend in Houston, before falling back to the pack in a 4-8 inaugural season in 2012.

The Bobcats would begin their life at the I-A level victorious, upsetting the Cougars on opening weekend in Houston, before falling back to the pack in a 4-8 inaugural season in 2012.

Their inaugural I-A home game against Texas Tech was far less enjoyable for the Bobcats. Dominated by Tommy Tuberville’s Red Raider defense, Texas State totaled less than 300 yards of offense despite enjoying the advantage in time of possession. They would return to a winning record by beating former I-AA rival Stephen F. Austin on September 22, but a home game against Nevada resulted in a 34-21 loss to put the Bobcats at 2-2 at the beginning of October.

Franchione’s team would fall below .500 on October 6 as they visited one of his former homes, Albuquerque, and fell 35-14 to the Lobos. At home against Idaho the next Saturday, Texas State returned to a level record by knocking off the visitors in a runaway 38-7 performance in their first conference game. The Bobcats would gain over 500 yards on the Vandals defense, as quarterback Shaun Rutherford efficiently guided the Bobcat offense both in the air (14-of-19 for 182 yards and one touchdown) and on the ground (15 carries for 85 yards and one touchdown).

The good feelings of beginning their short WAC career 1-0 would last through a bye week. But as soon as Texas State returned to play on October 27 at San Jose State, they fell back under .500 in a 31-20 defeat. It would be the start of a five-game losing streak, with the Bobcats losing conference mismatches against Utah State and Louisiana Tech at the beginning of November before falling 21-10 at West Point on the 17th.

Things came to their nadir on November 24, as the Bobcats met fellow I-A newcomer UT-San Antonio and fell 38-31 in the Alamodome. But they would win their final WAC game on the first day of December, trouncing New Mexico State 66-28 in San Marcos to finish the season on a high note at 4-8.

 

Outlook for the Future

Franchione remains at the helm in San Marcos as Texas State shifts to the Sun Belt Conference in 2013. With a new series of league rivals, the adjustment period continues for the Bobcats. Their inaugural season provided legitimate reason for fans of the team to look forward to a promising future as they gain notice in a talent-rich state.