GatorZone.com Senior Writer
From the sounds of Sumlin and his Aggies players, SEC hype is trending big time in College Station, Texas, in anticipation of the program’s jump to its new league after 16 seasons in the Big 12.
“It’s very electric back there,” senior linebacker Sean Porter said. “We already feel welcome. Even though we get a lot of, ‘You’re from the Big 12, so you’ve never played football like this before.’ But we feel like people are excited to have us in the SEC, just like we’re excited to be in it. We can’t wait to play.”
They won’t have to wait long at all to get a taste of the conference that’s won the last six national championships. And it just so happens the University of Florida won’t have to wait too long to meet its newest SEC brother, either.
UF and A&M will usher in the expanded 14-team SEC when the Gators invade historic Kyle Field on Sept. 8. That same day, fellow league newbie Missouri will play host to Georgia in what should be the conference’s freshest day since welcoming Arkansas and South Carolina following the last wave of expansion back in 1992.
The Aggies are ready.
“We’re not going to be intimidated like the new kid on the block,” senior wide receiver Ryan Swope said. “We’re going to represent the state of Texas -- and win games.”
Of course that’s the goal, and should be for the program that groomed Paul “Bear” Bryant for the jump to Alabama. The Aggies began playing football in 1894, joined the Southwest Conference as a charter member in 1915 and won 17 league titles before jumping to the Big 12 in 1996. A&M shared six division titles over the next 16 years, with one win in the conference title game in ’98.
The Aggies have played in bowl games five of the last six seasons, but a penchant for losing fourth-quarter leads (oh, and three losses to Texas over the previous four games) led to a coaching change. Out went Mike Sherman and in came Sumlin, by way of Houston, where he was twice a finalist for National Coach of the Year, including the 2011 season when he went 13-1 and lost in the Conference USA title game.
Sumlin’s expectations entering college football’s version of the paddlewheel? Simple.
“To win,” said Sumlin, whose inaugural SEC schedule pits him against all six of those aforementioned previous national champions. “Everybody talks to me and acts like I didn’t know what I was getting into when I took the job.”
The Aggies return 14 starters from a team that went 7-6 (4-5 in conference play). Don’t be deceived by the record. Along the way, they lost by one to Oklahoma State, four at Arkansas, seven against Missouri, three at Kansas State and two versus Texas. Several of those defeats came after A&M blew cushy second-half leads.
Now here comes Sumlin, with a reputation for high-powered offenses; not that Sherman didn’t get the ball up and down the field.
But Sumlin knows how to score and apparently how to put his players in a position to finish games.
"I’ve never run as much in my life as in Coach Sumlin’s offense,” said Swope, an second-team All-Big 12 selection last fall after catching 89 passes for 1,207 yards and 11 touchdowns. “We just run, run, run, so it’s going to be interesting to see how those SEC defenses react to this different kind of scheme that we run.”
The Gators, who should have nine (possibly 10) starters back from the league’s fifth-ranked defense, will be that first football test. As for game-day atmosphere, the Aggies will pass that exam with flying maroon-and-white colors.
While the SEC takes pride in its passion and tradition, it’s never claimed to have the market cornered on color and pageantry. On that front, Texas A&M will fit right into the SEC template.
"Kyle Field is like a lot of SEC stadiums,” offensive tackle Luke Joeckel said.
In some cases, even better.
The night before home games, as many as 25,000 fans will come to Kyle Field at midnight for the tradition of “Yell Practice,” which serves as a warm-up for the game.
A&M’s “12th Man” is one of the richest traditions in the land. The student body section stays on its feet for the entire game, putting their repetitions from Yell Practice to good use.
And each year, a student is selected by the football coaching staff through tryouts to make the team as a walk-on whose sole job is to play on the kickoff team, thus extending the student body into the actual game.
“I’m glad [SEC teams] get to come and see our 12th man,” Porter said. “They get to experience it all Year 1.”
The Gators get it SEC Game 1.
Sumlin, in fact, was asked about Florida coming to town to get it all started. His answer was very SEC-coach like.
“Our most important game is our first game -- Louisiana Tech,” Sumlin said of A&M’s Aug. 30 opener on the road against a very competitive mid-major FBS program. “There’s not doubt our fans are extremely excited about our home opener against Florida. All you have to do is look at our season-ticket sales and excitement level. That’s going to be a big night for us.”
Big night for the league, too.
Maybe even a trending one.
MEET TEXAS A&M
Location: College Station, Texas
Colors: Maroon and white
Stadium: Kyle Field (83,002)
All-time record: 681-450-48 (.598)
Bowl record: 14-19 (.424) - Last: Beat Northwestern 33-22 in 2011 Meinecke Car Care Bowl.
5 famous athletic alumni: Texas Governor Rick Perry; musician Lyle Lovett; actor Rip Torn; syndicated radio talk show host Neil Boortz; infamous 1999 espionage suspect Wen Ho Lee
5 famous non-athletic alumni: 1957 Heisman Trophy winner John David Crow; former Alabama and NFL coach Gene Stallings; Oakland Raiders punter Shane Lechler; former Miami Dolphins offensive tackle Richmond Webb; MLB second baseman Chuck Knoblauch
Fun fact: One of the traditions that dates to the 1890s is for students to greet other students with the official A&M greeting -- a friendly "Howdy!"