Texas A&M proving it belongs in the SEC
NOV 12, 2012 5:06p ET
Something magical happened on the road to irrelevancy and the weekly pounding that was supposed to come with the SEC relocation. And there's more to it than just Johnny Football. Or, should we say, Johnny Heismanziel.
Texas A&M is college football's new 'It' program. The Aggies were on their way to reestablishing themselves as relevant — there's that word again — before Saturday's program-redefining 'W' at Alabama.
A strong start, a top-15 ranking and the exposure that comes with being in the SEC had A&M on an upward slant. Manziel had also turned plenty of heads, racking up Cam Newton numbers as a freshman.
Yet, the doubts remained. Sure, the Aggies were better, just not SEC-contender better. Close losses to top-10 mates Florida and LSU suggested otherwise, but on a national scope and even within SEC country, those were still losses. The Aggies played good teams close before only to fall flat.
As a New Orleans Times Picayune columnist wrote after the Tigers left Aggieland with a 24-19 victory:
"The Aggies are learning the hard way how hard it is to win football games against SEC heavyweights. Vandy and Ole Miss are one thing. Florida and LSU are entirely different beasts."
The column was titled, "Johnny Who?" Other than the fact Texas A&M hasn't played Vanderbilt, that sentiment echoed across the Aggies' new league and back into their old one. For a program that couldn't compete in the Big 12, life wasn't going to improve in the Conference of Champions.
Knocking off the defending national champions in Tuscaloosa changed all that, as eyes popped open from one coast to the other. (A&M-Alabama was the second-most viewed college game on TV this season.) Not only were casual fans impressed, potential recruits couldn't help but rub their eyes and reconsider, or in many cases, consider A&M.
The image makeover begun by first-year Kevin Sumlin and the SEC went warp after dominating the No. 1 team in the land. The Aggies, in less than four hours Saturday, went from being a high-scoring curiosity to Oregon.
Sumlin's bunch, unranked to start this season, is No. 8 in the BCS standings. A 10-2 regular season and BCS bowl are now in play, with a Texas A&M-Texas revival in the Cotton Bowl as the potential fallback. You'd be hard pressed to find brisket any juicier than that possibility.
Sumlin deserves credit for the on-field makeover. His spread offense, one that wasn't supposed to work on a field of entirely different beasts, has proven quite capable in the SEC with better athletes and the second coming of Doug Flutie/ Ty Detmer as the triggerman. Oh yeah, Manziel is on pace to break Newton's SEC record for total offense on his way to the Heisman.
Sumlin, 48, has brought more than a new offense to College Station. He's an image-changer for a program that's lacked sizzle this century. It goes beyond race, though Sumlin being an African-American can't be ignored when it comes to how Texas A&M football is perceived.
Sumlin also carted over offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury from Houston, a former Mike Leach protégé with NFL experience and GQ style. Kliff slaps backsides, including Sumlin's, after touchdowns with 5 o'clock shadow and Ray-Bans perfectly in place.
The 33-year-old play-caller is already being mentioned as a head-coaching candidate at jobs that are certain to open up, even within the SEC. Might he be the first $1 million-a-year coordinator at A&M? On those lines, defensive coordinator Mark Snyder should be in line for a hefty pay bump, too.
More importantly, Sumlin brings swagger and style and relatability. Catch a YouTube glimpse of Sumlin bouncing around the locker room after the Aggies rallied to beat Ole Miss. Mike Sherman and Dennis Franchione might pull a hamstring just watching it.
Recruits are buying Sumlin much as they did Jackie Sherrill 30 years ago and R.C. Slocum after that. And those Aggies not recruited by Sumlin —just about everyone on the team — bought in quick. Senior receiver Ryan Swope, addressing fans Saturday night after returning from Alabama, sounded as if he's played for Sumlin for four years.
The new coaching blood at Texas A&M, plus the SEC, is opening up doors previously blocked by Texas and Oklahoma in the Big 12. The Aggies have floundered for more than a decade, and that's no fault but their own.
When the chance to bolt the Big 12 opened up, it wasn't about running and hiding. That doesn't happen in the SEC. It was an opportunity to differentiate and rebrand, with an eye at winning and mattering on a nationwide scale and not forsaking Texas in the process. All those Texas-outlined logos on the Aggies' new SEC-stamped uniforms are there for a reason.
The argument made sense. Giving Texas-bred footballers the option to play in a league second only to the NFL in talent and stay in the Lone Star State is a pitch no other school can make. The Aggies bugled that point, along with the SEC's exposure and TV riches. It met with a collective shrug from the dismissive chorus of, "Be careful of what you wish for, Aggies."
Still, no one saw this coming this fast. Not R. Bowen Loftin or Jason Cook or Gene Stallings or any other Texas A&M powerbroker. Beating up 'Bama is the Aggies' American Idol moment. Much like the band, they're instantly internationally famous.
"The attitude around our program has changed," Sumlin said Saturday night.
Previous Aggie coaches didn't fare well in a recruiting room with Mack Brown and Bob Stoops. Sumlin is now standing on top of a table, in a bar with Nick Saban and Les Miles, ready to Karaoke The Spirit of Aggieland.
The Aggies are dressed to kill, whether it's in all black or all white. A power shift is coming, as several national pundits predicted in Saturday's aftermath. That wasn't the tune back in August. It's been a long time coming.
Follow Art Garcia on Twitter: @ArtGarcia92