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September 12, 2013After Kevin Sumlin's first season as an assistant at the University of Oklahoma, then-LSU head coach Nick Saban contacted him with an interesting proposition: would he be interested in joining his staff in Baton Rouge?
"I went down to visit, and I walked in the room and it wasn't just him; it was Jimbo Fisher, Will Muschamp and Derek Dooley were all in there. That's a pretty good group," Sumlin said of the now-head coaches at Florida State, Florida and Cal. "At the end of the season, we played them in the national championship game and one of the assistants -- I think it was Jimbo Fisher -- came over and said, 'Yeah, you were going to be all right either way.'"
Sumlin said the "timing wasn't right" for him to join Saban's staff more than a decade a go, but their paths will cross again Saturday as Sumlin's Texas Aggies take on Saban's defending champion Alabama Crimson Tide.
"I have a lot of respect for coach Saban," Sumlin said. "It's hard to argue they're not the standard in college football right now. We're in year two."
Early in his tenure at A&M or not, Sumlin finds himself coaching in what is almost universally regarded as the game of the year as the Aggies look to knock off Alabama for a second consecutive year. Not only is the game nationally televised on CBS, the media attention given to the game could well be greater than anything short of the BCS National Championship Game. Even though he's aware of radio and TV crews taking up residence on campus, Sumlin says he's not interested in contributing to the hubbub. Instead, he's trying to have his team approach the game like it's simply the first conference game of the year.
"I think it is important internally for us to remain consistent in our approach and our players feel that," he said. "It's fine for our fans. I want them to be as excited as they've ever been. I want this place to be as loud as it's ever been on Saturday afternoon. I'm glad to hear our players reflecting that approach."
Sumlin's message appears to have been received by his players, as they've taken the "one game at a time" approach.
"It feels like another game; it feels like week three of the season," quarterback Johnny Manziel said. "Having a full lineup and all of our guys back will be nice, but for us, we have to continue to get better like we did last year and see how things go."
Right tackle Cedric Ogbuehi took a similar approach.
"If we win this game and lose the next game, it doesn't matter that we won this one," he said. "This is our first game in the SEC this year. We're looking to start 1-0 in conference. We'll just keep trucking afterward. It's the third game of the year. We still have nine more games left."
When asked about A&M's Saturday opponent, Sumlin made it clear he respects more about the Crimson Tide than just their head coach.
"They've got really good skilled players. Alabama is a great defensive football team, they've got great players. They've had a week of extra preparation. They're going to understand what they're doing," he said. "I think where people are getting it confused is they struggled a little bit on offense two weeks ago. They've got tremendous weapons on the parameter at wide receiver and a fabulous running back in TJ Yeldon, who has played in big games. They have the potential with home run threats across the board and with a quarterback who understands what they're doing. They're an overall team and that's what Alabama has been known to do ... They're a great team."
Even though Sumlin reiterated several times that the Aggies remain newcomers to the SEC, he's aware of the boost succeeding in the nation's toughest conference has given the A&M program.
"It's already had an impact. We've got a large number of prospects that are going to be here (Saturday). The move to the SEC has been a boost for us," he said. "I think the ability to compete and win in this league has really helped us out in recruiting. You don't have a stage like this for this weekend if you're not a competitive program."
With dozens of the nation's best recruits on campus and a huge TV audience watching, the potential would certainly exist for Sumlin to place greater emphasis on Saturday's game. Instead, he said, Alabama remains just one hurdle between the Aggies and their ultimate goal.
"For us, it's our first league game, and our goal is to win the West and get to Atlanta and win the SEC Championship," he said. "In order to do that, you start with your league, in particularly your division. This week becomes our first league game. Our fans are excited, obviously our guys are excited, and it's going to be a heck of a game."
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