By Chris Mahr
As I look back on Texas A&M’s 29–24 upset at top-ranked Alabama this past Saturday, I don’t just think about how the Crimson Tide may have cost itself a shot at a third BCS championship in four years. I also think about how this might become the game that allows the Aggies to become a new SEC football power.
Which is the last thing I expected when A&M (along with Missouri) moved to its new, rough-and-tumble home (at least when it comes to football) in July. A&M had to break in a new QB to take over for No. 8 overall NFL draft pick Ryan Tannehill. In Kevin Sumlin’s first season as the head coach of a BCS conference team, no less.
Yet here we are in mid-November. All that separates the 8–2, eighth-ranked Aggies from a 10-win season are two imminently winnable home games against Sam Houston State and Mizzou. With enough chaos amid the seven teams ranked higher than it is, A&M could be looking at a BCS bowl bid.
Even if that BCS scenario doesn’t come to fruition, A&M can boast three characteristics that lend themselves to perennially contending in the nation’s toughest football conference.
No. 1: Location, Location, Location
While other states in the SEC — namely Florida, Louisiana, Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina — boast some of the finest high school football pedigrees in the country, none of those states take it as seriously as Texas. Scores of recruits each year come out of the Lonestar State seemingly ready made for the college game, particularly at quarterback.
And now, A&M is the only Texas program that can boast to potential in-state recruits that it plays in the toughest and most highly regarded conference in college football. Not to mention the one which produces more NFL draft picks than any other league.
That last factor is particularly important. Today’s highest profile recruits habitually have one eye beyond college before they even step foot on campus. If a big-time recruit from Texas is going to weigh all his entreaties from in-state teams, that’ll be a big one.
The Longhorns may have the tradition, but the Aggies play on the biggest stage – both when it comes to impressing pro scouts and exposure in the college football world at large. Every other conference’s football slate just pales in comparison to the SEC’s (the unlikelihood of a seventh straight BCS championship notwithstanding).
No. 2: A Fast-Rising Coach
Kevin Sumlin has proven why he was such a hot candidate for a bigger job during the latter part of his tenure with Houston.
Taking the wisdom that he accumulated as an assistant with high scoring teams at Purdue (1998–2000) and Oklahoma (2003–2007) and used to great effect with the Cougars, the 48-year-old Sumlin — a Boilermakers linebacker in the mid-1980s — is one of the brightest offensive head coaches in the sport today along with Oregon’s Chip Kelly and West Virginia’s Dana Holgorsen.
What has been equally encouraging for Aggie Nation in 2012 is how Sumlin has never shied away from the brighter spotlight that comes with being an SEC coach. Home losses to Florida and LSU were no doubt tough, but Sumlin and his team have never been down for long. You don’t run the table on your schedule of road games if losses have a habit of lingering with you.
In addition, doesn’t Sumlin seem to genuinely enjoy coaching and those aforementioned big moments? If he were treating his profession in a humdrum Saban-esque manner, he wouldn’t tear around his team’s locker room like a wild hyena after a big win.
If 2012 is any indication, Sumlin will be with A&M for the foreseeable future. Which is more than Texas fans can confidently say about Mack Brown and his teetering hold on the Longhorns’ head coaching job. That could be another factor in more in-state recruits shifting their focus from Austin to College Station.
No. 3: A Program-Changing Player
I freely admit to being the 1,372nd person in the three days since A&M shocked the college football world to wax poetic on the folk hero-like rise of freshman QB Johnny Manziel.
The Aggies have had their share of star players in past years, including the aforementioned Tannehill and pass-rushing demon Von Miller, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft. But neither can say they had the cult hero status that Manziel has already garnered as just a redshirt freshman.
If A&M is lucky, they’ll have Johnny Football lining up under center — or more likely in the shotgun, since this is the Air Raid Offense we’re talking about — for another three years. Three more years for the legend to grow and for starry-eyed high school players around the country to be a part of the tradition he brought back.
SEC pundits and fans have grown used to discussing who among Alabama, LSU, Florida, Georgia and South Carolina would be the conference’s heavyweight from year to year. But there’s a fair chance that they’ll have to get used to the Aggies giggin’ ‘em all.
Chris Mahr is the managing editor of Lost Lettermen. His column appears Tuesdays and Thursdays. You can follow him on Twitter at @CMahrtian.