What a difference a year – and a conference and a coach – made for Texas A&M.
A year ago, Texas A&M finished No. 21 in the national recruiting rankings by Scout.com. Not too shabby, but well behind No. 1 Texas and No. 10 Oklahoma.
As this is written, the latest rankings by Scout.com have the Aggies in a tie for fifth with LSU. Oklahoma plummeted to No. 18 while Texas is all the way down at No. 23, just ahead of Oklahoma State and Baylor.
Another national recruiting service put the Aggies at No. 8 nationally. That’s rare air when you can rub shoulders with the likes of Alabama, LSU and Florida and LSU on national signing day.
But then, rubbing shoulders with the best of the SEC is a big reason why A&M has catapulted itself to national prominence since last winter.
The Aggies just completed their first season in the SEC and more than held their own against what is widely revered as the top college football conference in the country.
The Aggies surprised nearly everyone, including a few who bleed maroon, by finishing 6-2 in their first season in the SEC. They upset eventual national champion Alabama on the road and produced the Heisman Trophy winner in quarterback Johnny Manziel.
Then, to put icing on the SEC cake, Texas A&M dominated Oklahoma, one of the power teams in its former conference, the Big 12, in the AT&T Cotton Bowl.
The Aggies couldn’t have written a better script to advertise their assimilation into the nation’s top football conference. They not only proved they belonged, they proved an Aggie could win the Heisman Trophy as redshirt freshman, i.e. not a lot of preseason hype.
And then they proved they could whip one of the best teams in the Big 12 in one of the season’s most-anticipated bowl matchups.
All that was missing was a chance to pound arch rival Texas, but the Aggies have beaten the Longhorns in so many other ways it’s not a contest that would have much appeal at this point.
It was certainly no contest in recruiting. Membership in the SEC has given Texas A&M the leg up it lost when the Big 12 was formed.
When the Big 12 began play in 1996, A&M was still riding a wave of success under R.C. Slocum. The wave began to lose momentum with the arrivals of Mack Brown at Texas and Bob Stoops at Oklahoma.
Brown, in particular, was a force of nature in recruiting. Stoops re-established Oklahoma as a national power. Texas and Oklahoma’s gains seemed to come at the expense of Texas A&M, which never played for a Big 12 title after 1998.
Now, the script has been flipped. It’s Texas A&M’s surge that is seemingly drawing strength from Texas and Oklahoma in recruiting.
There’s no doubt it’s helped having a smart, youthful coach like Kevin Sumlin, who just finished his first season in College Station. And having Johnny Football for, potentially, another three seasons is another draw to recruits.
But the recruiting rankings prove that, year in and year out, kids want to play in the SEC. They want to prove themselves against the best and play in the biggest games. The ultimate goal for them is to make themselves NFL-worthy, but it doesn’t hurt that the SEC fills its stadiums and its teams are followed with a fervor unmatched just about anywhere else.
Now, Texas kids can stay in-state and play in the best football conference in the land.
Big 12 proponents feared that A&M’s departure would open the state’s recruiting gates to the SEC. That may be true to some extent, but the more immediate result is that SEC membership has opened a lot of doors for the Aggies, too.