After nearly a decade as Texas A&M's athletic director, there was no need to explain the Aggies' potential to Bill Byrne. He understood the potential power of the place. He saw the rich recruiting grounds within a few hours' drive of campus, the passion of a vast base of fans and former students and the modern facilities springing up everywhere.
For myriad reasons, Texas A&M wasn't a football power; the Aggies were occasionally good, rarely great. That didn't mean it couldn't become great, especially when the school decided in 2011 to abandon its longtime home in the Big 12 and the shadow of archrival Texas for the soaring SEC.
This, Byrne believed, was a great fit, a great future. Still, he wasn't naïve. It wouldn't happen overnight, he figured, a belief cemented when he hired a new coach last December, Kevin Sumlin from the University of Houston, to take over a 7-6 team.
He preached patience to the fans.
[Road to Saturday: Texas A&M to take on Alabama]
"My concern was our depth up front, especially on the defensive line," Byrne said Thursday from College Station, where after retiring last summer, he is now Aggie fan in chief. "I thought once we get into it, we can compete, but it's going to take a while to build."
So he was wrong.
"I didn't see this coming," he said, with a laugh of delight.
"This" is the 7-2 Aggies, the 4-2 in-the-SEC Aggies, the 15th-ranked Aggies, the-wind-at their-backs Aggies who play Saturday at No. 1 Alabama in exactly the kind of nationally relevant game they've dreamed about.
This is Johnny Football, the mesmerizing freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel and his 31 touchdowns (16 passing, 15 rushing), this is Sumlin, 48 and already proving to be the perfect hire. This, much to Byrne's pleasant surprise, is a defense with enough depth to average three sacks and just 21 points allowed per game.
Perhaps most of all, this is the instantaneous proof to all the critics who claimed the Aggies were delusional that a program, which, for decades mostly settled into the middle of the Southwest Conference/Big Eight/Big 12 pack, could swim in the SEC deep end.
"It's been a great decision," Byrne said. "I'm so excited about it."
Everyone at A&M is excited, although maybe the best sign is that excitement doesn't equate to satisfaction. Sumlin, for one, doesn't see proving they belong in the SEC as the end goal, not even in Year One.
"We haven't really accomplished anything yet," Sumlin said. "What they have done is play good enough football to put us in a position to play meaningful games in November. And that's all you can ask for as a coach."
There are winners and losers in conference realignment but perhaps no one has made out like the Aggies. Some decisions were no brainers – TCU jumping from the Mountain West to the Big 12. Others were risky and made out of fear for the future – such as Pitt and Syracuse jumping to the ACC next season.
Texas A&M controlled its own decision, leaving the safe and comfortable for the bold and potentially difficult. Overconfident? Spiteful? Fueled by pure hate of the University of Texas?
Well, in the end, the record is the record, and the two Aggie losses say as much about the program as the victories. No. 7 Florida beat them by three. No. 9 LSU got them by five. That's it. Their four SEC victories are by an average of 29.5 points. In many games they've been able to play backups in the second half, allowing that lack of depth to remain fresh.
"It's a reward," Sumlin said.
The Aggies aren't the best team in the league, and maybe they won't be for a long time. But they belong. And there isn't anyone, even a Longhorns fan, who doesn't realize that giving Sumlin an SEC membership to sell on the recruiting trails of the Lone Star State has some serious potential.
"I think it's an advantage for us to be the only SEC school in the state," Byrne said. "When I was looking at hiring Kevin, one of things I really evaluate coaches on is how they recruit. The fact he had recruited 100 percent of our players while the head coach at Houston, I knew he would be perfect for this opportunity."
In the midst of a tough season, the Auburn Tigers desperately needed a win against the New Mexico State Aggies last Saturday.
Both teams entered the game with identical 1-7 records. With Auburn holding a 14-0 lead early in the third quarter, New Mexico State began to drive down the field, but a wild play completely changed the game.
On first down from the Auburn 41-yard line, Aggies quarterback Andrew Manley faked a handoff to running back Germi Morrison and then tried to avoid blitzing Tigers defensive back Demetruce McNeal. McNeal hit Manley, and the ball flew forward five yards, rolling right into the hands of linebacker Daren Bates.
Bates scooped up the ball near the Auburn 38 and immediately shook off a tackle by tight end Trevor Walls. He eluded the Aggies for 40 yards before cutting left and coming face-to-face with Morrison at the New Mexico State 20. Bates used the best stiff-arm move of the season to fling Morrison down to the ground and clear an easy path to the end zone.
The touchdown put the Tigers ahead 21-0. Auburn went on to win 42-7 and improve to 2-7.
– Mike Patton
The bitterness with Texas remains. This has been a season of puffed-out Aggie chests. There's a lot of pride in proving the team could succeed against so many doubts and excitement over the new rivalries and battles.
A&M always struggled trying to compete directly with the Longhorns. Everyone would. It's nearly impossible to out-Texas Texas. The Longhorns have the best of just about everything. By stepping into the SEC, Texas A&M can be Texas A&M. It can offer its many benefits and then something the Horns can't: access to the most-hyped conference in the country.
Texas will still be Texas. The Big 12 will still be an excellent place to play football. None of that is going to change. It's just there are more than enough players around the way for Texas A&M to be great too.
Byrne claims Texas is so aware of the Aggies' potential that the Longhorns asked the other Big 12 schools to never again schedule them in any sport. That way recruits could be told that, unlike in the Big 12, they won't get to play games across the state.
"I had a group of recruits in my office and their parents were bringing that up," Byrne said. "I opened the blinds on the window, pointed out and said, ‘We're still living in College Station. You'll play at least half your games in Texas.' "
In such a geographically vast state, it's a concern. The Big 12 offered outposts all over the place. In football there remains a series with SMU, which this year was played in Dallas. And the annual game against Arkansas, now a SEC West clash, will take place in Cowboys Stadium in Arlington through 2024. So A&M feels comfortable with its Texas-ness.
Mostly though, winning and excitement and dynamic coaching trump the proximity of a road game to a recruit's home. The Aggies have all of that right now, as well as trips to places like Tuscaloosa, Ala., which aren't so bad, either. The Aggies' No. 10 Rivals.com national recruiting ranking isn't a coincidence.
A&M was bashed and mocked and written off when it decided to take itself to the biggest game in town with a new, unproven-on-the-big-stage coach.
The only ones laughing now are the Aggies themselves.
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