If you sat in one of the media rooms here in Hoover yesterday and just listened to the questions, you would have thought that Texas A&M spent the last decade playing in the Lone Star Conference or the SWAC instead of the Big 12. A&M’s representatives at the event, head coach Kevin Sumlin and players Ryan Swope, Sean Porter and Luke Joeckel, were bombarded with questions all day about whether or not they could compete in the SEC.
He may have been all smiles, but Kevin Sumlin is tired of being asked if his team can compete in the SEC.
These were, of course, the ultimate loaded questions. Could a player or coach really come out and say that the Big 12 could compete with the SEC and that they think they’re completely ready? Even worse would have been to say no, that they didn’t believe they could compete in the league. So for several hours in the afternoon here in Alabama, the Aggies walked the line. We heard words like “adjustment period” and “transition,” and listened to players try to simultaneously give praise to the SEC while not discounting their own chances.
But there was something behind the answers. The media here might not have even noticed because they don’t interview these guys all the time, but we do. Despite the constant attempts all day to get the players to admit that college football doesn’t exist outside of the SEC, the Aggie players held their ground. And for the first time since the move to the SEC was announced, you got the feeling that these Aggies truly believe they can win in the SEC. Not in ten years after Kyle Field is built, not in three years when the recruiting classes of ‘12 and ‘13 are upperclassmen. But now.
Between the coached up answers about the speed of SEC defenses and defending the power run game, there were moments where the players and their coach flat out said it.
“What are my realistic expectations this year? My realistic expectations are to win,” said Sumlin. “I said that from day one. Everybody talks to me and acts like I didn't know what I was getting into when I took the job. We had already entered into the SEC under the agreement when I took the job.”
But there were also more subtle moments. A slight sigh when yet another local SEC journalist asked if they were ready to compete or a slight smile when their own offense was brought up.
“After spring and going through with Coach Sumlin, I expect a very fast‐paced offense,” said Swope. “We conditioned and Coach Jackson, our strength coach, has us in the best shape that we’ve ever been in. He’s put us in a really good position to be very successful. They’ve pushed us in practice. I’ve never run as much in my life as in Coach Sumlin’s offense.We just run, run, run. It’s going to be interesting to see how those SEC defenses react to this different kind of scheme that we run.”
That’s the approach that A&M has to have. Let’s face it, in their bigger games against LSU and Alabama this season the Aggies are going to face a sizable talent gap. But against teams like Arkansas, Missouri, and Auburn the gap isn’t as much in talent as it is in belief. Those teams expect to win, something that A&M really never has. The Aggie players have to believe that each week is as much about the opponent preparing for them as it is them preparing for the opponent. If they can truly believe that, then perhaps A&M has a ceiling a bit higher than most believe coming into the year.
It’s going to be an “all hands on deck” year though, and not just among the players. Every time any Aggie talks, he mentions a team member that they’re counting on to have an impact this year, the 12th Man.
“We bring the same kind of (SEC) atmosphere, I believe,” Joeckel said. “Kyle Field is a lot like the SEC schools and brings the same kind of excitement to football and it’s a great atmosphere. 12th Man is certainly the best fans in the country, so I think we’ll fit in really well there.”
He added, “and I think we have a pretty good football team also.”