Texas A&M legend Ryan Swope relives the Aggies’ shocking 2012 upset of No. 1 Alabama

It was just days before the biggest game of Ryan Swope’s career at Texas A&M, the most important game that he and most of his teammates would ever play in while in College Station. And despite the swirling hype around him, the senior wide receiver was trying to stay focused on the task at hand.

It was the fall of 2012 and the Aggies were the darling of college football, the sport’s biggest surprise. Led the quick feet and big arm of Johnny Manziel and a boatload of talent around him, Texas A&M was 7-2 and had climbed all the way to No. 15 in the polls.

But while the hot start was fun, what awaited the Aggies next wasn’t: a trip to face the No. 1 team in the country, the defending national champion Alabama Crimson Tide.

Swope tried to keep himself calm during the team’s early practices that week. He tried to train his mind like he always had before a big game, to make sure not get too hyped early and not to let his true emotions come out until he stepped on the field Saturday.

That was the plan anyway, at least until practice on Tuesday, when offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury shouted something that couldn’t help but get the whole team fired up.

“Kliff Kingsbury said ‘Don’t be surprised when you look up and it’s 21-0 in the first quarter,’” Swope remembered. “He said that on a Tuesday practice before we played Alabama. He said ‘Don’t be surprised when it’s 21-0.’”

Kingsbury proved to be nearly prophetic. The young assistant who told the players to believe they could beat the Crimson Tide then watched them do just that in what remains one of the best college football games in the past 10 years.

That’s the kind of confidence the Aggies’ will need four seasons later as they look to match their 2012 brethren and do the unthinkable this Saturday: Go into Tuscaloosa and beat the Alabama Crimson Tide, the No. 1 team in the country and the defending champion.

As the Aggies’ prepare to try to repeat history, we tracked down Swope (one of the central figures in that upset victory) to relive that matchup.

But to truly understand the magnitude of that game, you can’t go back to that day in Tuscaloosa. Instead, you need to go back to the months before it and take in the full context.

While Texas A&M enters Saturday’s game as the No. 6 team in the country and a bona fide national championship contender under fifth-year head coach Kevin Sumlin, the Aggies were something entirely different back then: an emerging program trying to find itself in its first year in the SEC.

And really, A&M’s arrival in the SEC in the summer of 2012 might be the place to start. Although Sumlin had arrived in the winter before the Aggies’ shocking upset of Alabama, the college football as a whole was still dubious of how Texas A&M would handle its first go-around in college football’s toughest conference.

If Texas A&M had gone 7-6 the year before in the Big 12, what chance did it have playing in the big, bad SEC?

“We went to SEC Media Day and I just remember laughing with Coach Sumlin about some of the questions being asked,” Swope said. “Basically, people wanted to know if they thought we could be a .500 team in the SEC. Could we win four, five games? One question was ‘Do you guys think you’ll even get a win in the SEC?’ That was one of the questions that stood out to me.”

While some mocked the Aggies’ move to the SEC, few knew that a perfect storm was brewing in College Station. The program was invigorated by switching leagues, and Sumlin’s arrival had pumped new-found energy into a long-stagnant program.

Plus, Sumlin had a well-stocked cupboard when he arrived. On offense, there were future NFL stars like Mike Evans, Christine Michael and Luke Joeckel, as well as veterans like Swope, who would leave Texas A&M as the school’s all-time leader in receptions (he was eventually forced to retire from football because of concussions). The defense wasn’t quite as talented, but still had future NFL draftees Sean Porter and Damontre Moore.

“Being a scout team quarterback you are still protected,” Swope said. “He’s still wearing a red jersey; all the rules are the same. Whether it’s the starting quarterback or the fourth-string quarterback, you just don’t touch the quarterback. If our defense gets close to Johnny they don’t touch him, and Johnny doesn’t need to run for his life.”

Therefore, like everyone else in college football, even Manziel’s own teammates were mesmerized when the redshirt freshman took the field for the first time in 2012, and immediately began running over, around and through SEC defenses. Although the Aggies’ lost their opener against Florida, it was clear Manziel was a star. And it completely changed the trajectory of Texas A&M’s first season in the SEC.

“The day we all saw ‘Johnny Football’ is that first, second game of the season when guys are trying to take his head off, and that’s when his instincts, the light switch flipped on,” Swope said. “It was something we, Coach Sumlin, me, Luke Joeckel had never seen. To see it in real life and then go back and watch film, rewind it, 10, 15 times and watch what he could do was incredible. He was just such an incredible athlete, he had so much ability.”

Behind Manziel, the Aggies took the college football world by storm. They jumped out to a 5-1 start, with their second — and final — loss of the year coming to LSU in College Station. They bounced back, winning at Auburn and Mississippi State by a combined score of 101-34 to set up the matchup with Alabama.

Coming into that game, the Aggies’ confidence was through the roof, and it increased after the kickoff. Texas A&M took it right at Alabama, using its high-octane, up-tempo offense to catch the Tide off-guard and pile on points early. Manziel led the Aggies on a scoring drive on their first possession, and after a turnover, Swope was on the receiving end of another touchdown pass following a broken play (which doubled as Manziel’s “Heisman moment” that season).

A third touchdown made the score 20-0 to close out the first quarter, making Kingsbury’s statement earlier in the week look prophetic in hindsight.

“Now granted, I will say we missed an extra point,” Swope joked, unable to give his former offensive coordinator too much credit.

The Crimson Tide battled back. A 20-0 first quarter deficit became 20-14 at halftime, and by the end of the third quarter, the margin had been trimmed to 20-17.

“This was the best team in the country you’re talking about,” Swope said. “So we knew that Coach Saban was going to rally his troops. They’re in Tuscaloosa, and they had to try to figure out how game-plan differently.”

But even as the lead evaporated, the Aggies stayed calm. They kicked a field goal to go up 23-17, and a huge catch over the middle by Swope (he got absolutely clobbered by Alabama safeties Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix and Robert Lester) should have set up more points but a missed field goal kept things at 23-17. Finally, on the next possession, the Aggies got the score that put them over the top for good.

It started with a perfectly executed pass from Manziel to Swope down the sideline for a 42-yard gainer. After getting tackled, Swope immediately jumped up and let out a primal scream, one that could be audibly heard in Bryant-Denny Stadium, which fell silent on the play.

“That’s what I wanted,” Swope said, of both the 42-yard gainer and the catch over the middle when he got clobbered by Alabama’s safeties. “I wanted my name called, I wanted to be that guy to make that play in that big-time situation. … Those were some of the most memorable catches of my career.”

And just one play later, the Aggies put the final nail in Alabama’s coffin. Manziel rolled out and hit Malcolme Kennedy for a touchdown that gave the Aggies a 29-17 lead. Texas A&M held on to win 29-24 — one of the biggest victories in school history and certainly the biggest of Swope’s time in College Station.

“Oh man, I’d do anything to go back and relive that moment,” he said. “I really would. Because that’s the best part, seeing all your teammates, the guys that you love, the guys that you beat up every day in practice [celebrate]. To see them win a big game like that, the comradery is hard to beat.”

Will the 2016 Aggies go into Tuscaloosa and pull off a similar upset? Swope isn’t doubting Texas A&M’s chances.

“I know Coach Sumlin has all those guys focused and they’re excited for this opportunity that lies ahead of them,” Swope said. “I can’t put a number on it [the final score]. Alabama is a great football team, as we are as well. My gut tells me that I think that we’re capable of doing something special again.”

Something just as special as what Swope and his teammates did four seasons ago.