Leadership, not conference, key for Aggies

ARLINGTON, Texas — A change of scenery has done the Aggies well. Sixteen seasons in the Big 12 Conference produced just one with 10 or more wins, the Aggies’ 1998 conference championship season with 11. Just once in the past five years did the Aggies win more than seven games.

A few notable and publicized alterations and – boom – 11 wins and a thrashing of Oklahoma in the 77th AT&T Cotton Bowl Classic, 41-13.

Those alterations, major contributing factors to this break-through Aggie seasons, had little to do with its move to the SEC.

These Aggies played dominant, big-boy football because of two clear reasons – their Heisman-winning quarterback, Johnny Manziel, and charasmatic head coach, Kevin Sumlin. Those were the engine and 14-inch wide tires of this vehicle.

Playing in the SEC was a new body with a fresh coat of paint.

The SEC move may have been a motivating factor for the Aggies and their fans, especially hearing fan chatter that they may not compete very well there.

But let’s get a few things straight: teams who come off a 7-6 season, change their head coach, who then vows out of summer camp to start a redshirt freshman who’s never taken a collegiate snap,  are not and should not be predicted to win 11 games. Not in the SEC, Big 12, MAC, Sun Belt or Southland Conferences.

“There was reason for people to doubt us. I don’t know why anyone wouldn’t doubt us,” Sumlin agreed after the game of the preseason apprehension abroad. “People were surprised at how well we played early in the year, but right at the end of this game, nobody on that (A&M) sideline was surprised at how this team played.”

There never has been and may never be another freshman who was named college football’s best overall player. Man, has there ever been guys with promise and hype, but no one ever fulfilled it.

Manziel is such a freak of nature, he really didn’t come into this season with much hype at all outside of College Station. Mike Sherman had his butt in a grinder last year and he had Manziel picking daisies on scout team?

What Manziel, Sumlin and the Aggies did this year was as rare and special as an albino bald eagle with a red and blue beak. Not just for a school that changed conferences, but for any college football team at any stage of its existence.

“Everybody acts like I didn’t know what I got myself into when I got here,” Sumlin said. “But we never doubted ourselves.”

So, pardon all the noise from the summer up until September. I’m not sure how much I personally participated in it, but I was definitely thinking it – Texas A&M should not be anything more special than about 7.4 wins in 2012, which is exactly what it averaged from 2000 to 2011.

But speaking for those with no Longhorn-allegiance, or any other Big 12 school, the Aggies’ move to the SEC was not the biggest or second-biggest reason for such skepticism.

“What he does with his feet is just incredibly hard to handle,” OU coach Bob Stoops said after Manziel set an FBS bowl record for rushing yards by a quarterback with 229 on his defense. “Even when guys are in position, he is so quick and strong running, he’s just hard to get to.”

Texas A&M made a rough dismount from the Big 12 last year, losing three home conference games – including to Texas in heart-ripping fashion with a fieldgoal at 0:00.

The transition into the SEC was much smoother and gleeful for Aggie faithful. How that success is maintained in the post-Manziel era, as strange as it is to consider forecasting that future right now, is the true measuring stick of what the move from the Big 12 to the SEC did for Texas A&M as a whole.

With Sumlin and Manziel leading the way, immediate and short-term success was going to happen in whichever conference Texas A&M chose to play.