Saturday’s score not as important as 2017′s season score for Kevin Sumlin
In 2012, the Aggies’ first season departed from the Big 12, Texas A&M set the standard for its future football success in the Southeastern Conference with a 29-24 win over top-ranked Alabama.
Five seasons later and hot off three 8-5 campaigns, the upset win in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, remains the apex of A&M’s young stint in its new conference home.
The 2017 edition of this matchup, which has historical connections that run as deep as the Gulf of Mexico, is another mile marker for the Aggies but for very different reasons.
The honeymoon phase is over between A&M, its new conference and the coach that brought the Aggies into this promised land of college football. If Kevin Sumlin will remain the head coach in Aggieland past this season, he needs to make a splash in the SEC akin to that 2012 cannonball of 11 wins.
“In order to win that many games, you’re going to have to win games like that,” Sumlin said of the 2012 Alabama victory.
Naturally, a win over the Crimson Tide remains Sumlin’s easiest route to job security this season. Beyond that, the road has become more challenging, with regional rival LSU suffering from a slow start under new head coach Ed Orgeron. A win over the Tigers would have been the sexiest W beyond one over Alabama had LSU lived up to traditional expectations.
Does A&M have the firepower to pull it off Saturday?
No, and that lack of firepower is exactly what sets Nick Saban’s program apart from the field in the SEC.
When the Aggies line up against the Crimson Tide at 6:15 p.m. Saturday, they will square off against a team dripping in experience. On defense, Alabama’s two-deep features 14 upperclassmen. Offensively, the Crimson Tide returned 12 upperclassmen on the first and second teams. Only two freshmen are listed as possible starters — right tackle Jedrick Wills Jr. and wide receiver Jerry Jeudy.
The Aggies’ depth chart lists 15 upperclassman on offense and defense combined, including just two starting seniors on offense.
That, Sumlin said, is what has made the Crimson Tide roll through the last decade winning an FBS-leading 117 games.
“Nick does a great job of player education and really understands what the third and fourth year is about,” Sumlin said. “When you have a program like that ... and you see the number of freshmen that they are playing on special teams, which jumped out to me a couple years ago ... those guys are getting meaningful reps during the week and are playing as backups and are waiting their turn. In a program that has won consistently like that over those last few years, those freshmen aren’t starting. They are going to wait their turn to play.”
It’s not like Alabama’s green players don’t see the field. Sixteen true freshmen have played this season for the Crimson Tide, which ranks as the seventh-most in the country. A&M’s 18 is third.
But like Sumlin points out, Alabama’s freshmen are just learning to swim this season. A&M’s are hauling freight.
So the Aggies’ upperclassmen become even more important during a week like this one.
Senior running back Keith Ford has taken it upon himself to be a veteran voice for the Aggies, not necessarily in the huddle but in the head of every young offensive player. The change in his game has come from setting goals and not being deterred from reaching them.
“I have to show them, regardless of anything, you have to move past it,” said Ford, who has tallied two or more rushing touchdowns in three of A&M’s five games this season. “You have to prepare and learn from your mistakes. Humanly, a lot of people like to dwell in the past and dwell on your mistakes, and in this game, you can’t do that. Every week is a new week. Every week is a new opponent. We have to keep our minds straightforward and focus on what we want to accomplish.”
Ford’s, the upperclassmen’s and the coaching staff’s message throughout the Bright Football Complex is simple: Lean on the few veterans A&M has who have been in a game like Saturday’s.
“Being in situations where you’re given no chance, that can wear on you, too, because there are some people who will read that in the room and believe it,” Sumlin said. “They are kids. They are young adults. They are 18-23. They are going to believe either scenario.”
And A&M has been given no chance. Installed Sunday as a 21-point underdog, the Aggies have found no believers willing to spend their money on their faith in the maroon and white. By Wednesday afternoon, the betting fan had pushed the number to 26.5.
But the real indication of where this program is a half-decade into its tenure in the SEC won’t be the final score that hangs in Kyle Field against a program that will be playing its 56th game ranked No. 1 under Saban. Consider it only a checkpoint reached if the Aggies continue rolling down the road to the nine-win level after hitting Saturday’s midseason speed bump.