In the school’s fifth season in the SEC, No. 6 Texas A&M gets an opportunity Saturday to separate itself from the other college football programs in the Lone Star State based on something more than potential.
The Aggies (6-0, 4-0 SEC), who have received their share of signing-day publicity under coach Kevin Sumlin since joining the league, face top-ranked Alabama (7-0, 4-0) in a winner-take-all battle to control the SEC West Division standings during the November stretch run.
In this matchup of the SEC’s only remaining undefeated teams, A&M must win in Tuscaloosa, Ala., in front of a national television audience to deliver the loud, clear statement that the school has emerged as a viable title threat in its new neighborhood. No message would be more roundly embraced in Aggieland, where fans seek to show their former Big 12 peers that they can survive and thrive as an SEC member.
But the school must earn that distinction on the field, not by distributing souvenir apparel with WRTS hashtags or by signing five-star quarterbacks who finish their careers at other colleges. The Aggies, like every other team, must validate their SEC pedigree on the field. A win would expedite that process like nothing else in school history, especially with the Aggies heading into the contest as 18-point underdogs.
A&M had a similar opportunity last season in College Station but Alabama won that matchup of top-10 teams, 41-23, triggering the Aggies’ 3-5 tailspin to the finish line after a promising 5-0 start. Another 5-0 start in 2014 dissipated with an 0-3 record in October, capped by the Aggies’ 59-0 loss to the Tide in their most recent trip to Tuscaloosa.
This time, the Aggies vow things will be different.
“Nothing’s the same as it was before and we’re looking forward to showing that,” A&M defensive end Myles Garrett said at Tuesday’s news conference in College Station.
Asked about the “enormity” of the matchup, A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said: “I’m not concerned about enormity. Enormity is not a football word … Every week that we play, it becomes a big game.”
The last time A&M knocked off a top-ranked team was in 2012, when the Aggies rolled into Tuscaloosa and prevailed during one of Alabama’s national-championship seasons. But that year, the Aggies arrived as a team with two losses in the SEC standings. They played the week following Alabama’s 21-17 victory over LSU that essentially sealed an SEC title and, in the minds of most Alabama fans, triggered an emotional letdown that contributed to A&M’s 29-24 victory behind quarterback Johnny Manziel.
Understandably, A&M fans quibble with that assessment.
But no one can argue with this: Saturday’s matchup marks the first time A&M has reached a game in the back half of the season with an undefeated record and control of its destiny in the SEC race. That offers a program-defining moment.
Even better, the Aggies will face an Alabama team with comparable credentials. No post-game asterisks can be applied to this result. Both teams understand the College Football Playoff implications and A&M is well-rested after last week’s open date following a 45-38 victory over then-undefeated Tennessee.
A narrow loss by either team should keep that school in the playoff mix as a wild-card option if it finishes 11-1. From an A&M standpoint, the timing of a Saturday triumph would offer delicious irony because it would occur during the same week as Monday’s bungled expansion fiasco by the Big 12, the league A&M fled in search of a more stable environment after the 2011-12 school year.
The challenge is huge. So, too, would be the reward. That is the focus of A&M receiver Christian Kirk, who cited the Aggies’ lopsided underdog status as fuel for his emotional fire.
“Beating the No. 1 team in the country on the road would be big-time and would set up the rest of the year for us,” Kirk said.
Offensive lineman Jermaine Eluemunor said: “We’re pumped for this. I remember when we lost 59-0. This team is more together … We know that we’re tough. And we know that we’re good. We wouldn’t be 6-0 if we weren’t.”
Reaching 7-0 would mean walking out of Tuscaloosa with control of the SEC West standings, an unprecedented late-October feat by any A&M team. It also would provide proof to naysayers that A&M can, indeed, survive and thrive in its new football neighborhood.