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September 9, 2013

If A&M beats Alabama,

Well, it's finally here. The Alabama game. We've been talking about it ever since the 2012 season ended: a rematch of the national champions and the Heisman Trophy winner, a trophy that was won largely because of A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel's performance against the Tide. It was a game for the ages and one of the biggest wins in A&M history.

Now, that doesn't matter any longer. The Aggies are no longer an upstart program seeking validation. Instead, they are playing in a national championship elimination bout, something that the program simply isn't used to doing. Fans have termed various Big 12 contests over the years as "Super Bowls" but those really didn't measure up to that stakes that the Aggies are facing this week. I've been following A&M football for 40 plus years and the most recent game that I can think of in that regard that comes close to meeting those criteria is the A&M/Colorado game in 1995. The Aggies were ranked number three and the Buffaloes were ranked number eight nationally; it was supposed to be the culmination of everything head coach R.C. Slocum had been working for and the Aggies had won six Southwest Conference championships in eight years and no more worlds left to conquer. A&M lost the game, finished 9-3 on the year, and hasn't played a game like that since.

But even then, that game doesn't do this one justice. You really have to dig deep in the archives -- 1975 -- to come up with a situation that really parallels this one. That was a nationally televised Thanksgiving Day game with arch rival Texas, a matchup of the second ranked Aggies and fifth ranked Longhorns. A win over Texas would provide A&M with at least a share of the Southwest Conference and both hadn't occurred since 1967. In addition, the game meant that A&M would stay alive in the national title hunt. In addition, the Aggies could have clinched the conference title the year before in Austin and had self destructed in a 32-3 loss. Texas' head coach Darrell Royal had made the wishbone famous but it was Aggie head coach Emory Bellard who actually devised the formation while an assistant under Royal. Using it, Texas had won SWC championships from 1968 to 1973 while Bellard had slowly built the Aggies into a national power from a 3-8 start in his first campaign. The game represented a possible changing of the guard as Royal's grip on the conference was starting slip with new recruiting rules put in place during the early 1970's that included scholarship restrictions and freshman eligibility which spread talent around more evenly.

It was the brutal, nasty affair that civil wars always are -- brother against brother -- except that so much more was on the line this time. It was the usurper against the king, a coming of age school that was exploding in enrollment to the point that students had to live in tents versus the establishment, and a win meant that A&M kept its national title hopes alive, an enormous leap for a program that hadn't even won a conference title in nearly a decade.

Texas quarterback Marty Akin had a bad knee and A&M defenders hit it on the first series of the game and knocked him out of the contest. Texas declared it was on purpose; A&M declared it was accidental. However, without him all Texas could not manufacture an offensive touchdown against the country's top ranked defense that sent everyone to the NFL (they got one on a punt return). Running back Bubba Bean's long run in the fourth quarter set up a field goal that clinched a 20-10 A&M win and Bean and the Aggies made the cover of Sports Illustrated the following week. Back then, without Sportscenter, that kind of publicity meant that you had arrived.

However, the emotional build up to the game did the Aggies in the following week when a 31-6 loss to Arkansas derailed their national title and even Cotton Bowl hopes. With nothing seemingly left to play for, they followed that up with a 20-0 loss to USC in the Liberty Bowl.

That sequence turned out to be a bittersweet moment for A&M and for some the start or even continuation of a trend of A&M football not living up to expectations when the bright lights come on. Nonetheless, that game turned out to be a turning point of sorts for the program as it made a leap forward. That game put A&M in the national consciousness for the first time ever in the modern era and the program gained a measure of respect that was previously lacking. The Aggies went from afterthought to regional and national power; that meant that sometimes they were overrated in pre season magazines but now they were at least included in those conversations. A&M also backed up that perception on the field more often than not; the Aggies had won just one SWC title between 1940 and 1974 but they won seven between 1975 and 1993. In addition, their facilities, money, and fan base gave them the resources to toe to toe with a school like Texas in recruiting and head to head matchups; the Aggies won just three games against the Horns between 1940 and 1974; they had a 19 to 18 edge from 1975 to 2011 when the series ended as A&M moved to the Southeastern Conference.

Now, A&M is seeking something of a transformation again. It's the sixth ranked Aggies against a storied program that's ranked number one. The subplots alone make this matchup the game of the year; a brash newcomer to the SEC versus an established king, freewheeling Johnny Manziel versus meticulous Nick Saban, Alabama going for an unprecedented four national titles in five years, a revenge factor for the Tide who lost at home to A&M and it seemed for a while a chance to win back to back national titles, the most talked about player in college football history coming out from under NCAA investigation in August to play in September; speed versus power, and all of the connections between the schools (three different men have served as head coaches at both programs). ESPN Gameday will be in College Station and it's CBS' first telecast of the year for a national television audience.

I talked to someone on campus last week who said that this was the biggest home game in A&M history and I thought back to 1975 and initially disagreed with him. However, in looking at what's at ahead, I'm beginning to change my mind. There's more at stake this time and here's why.

The Aggies joined the SEC for the 2012, leaving behind opponents that they had been playing since college football came to the Southwest. The move itself was scrutinized in the press every day for weeks on end; A&M president Bowen Loftin and his assistant Jason Cook skillfully negotiated the tumultuous waters of conference realignment to land the Aggies in a conference that was more of a cultural fit than the one that they left. More importantly, it offered far more money and exposure. A&M benefited right away as its conference opener was the scene of ESPN Gameday and the network broadcast the game against Florida nationally. The SEC Network is coming in 2014 which will bring the Aggies perhaps ten of millions of dollars in revenues every year.

The Aggies also succeeded right off the bat (when so many pundits thought that they would struggle) by winning 11 games and having the first freshman in Johnny Manziel ever to win the Heisman Trophy. Manziel's frantic, fearless style captured the hearts of college football fans everywhere. In addition, he became more than just a college football player; he crossed over into becoming a personality and his antics sharply divided people into critics and followers. The scrutiny became even more intense in August when it was discovered that he was the subject of a NCAA investigation.

However, everything Manziel did -- no matter whether you describe it as being good or bad -- brought unprecedented publicity to the university by extension. ESPN broadcast A&M's spring game and his appearance at the SEC media days nationally; they even showed up for head coach Kevin Sumlin's first press conference of the season.

Thanks to the move to the SEC and Manziel, A&M's profile has never been higher. The Aggies used all of that to rally the fan base and garner the money to not just renovate Kyle Field but turn it into the finest college football stadium in the world. The stadium will cost approximately $425 million and the suites and seats for it have basically been sold out years in advance of its completion.

With all of that in play, there's now three reasons I've come around to my friend's way of thinking and I'm using that 1975 Texas game for some parallels. First and most importantly, an A&M win would give the Aggies control of their own destiny in the SEC West which means a trip to the SEC title game and by extension an eventual shot at the BCS title game. The Aggies literally haven't been in this position since that 1975 game versus Texas.

Second…and this is where we start to gain some perspective….the Aggies would join the upper echelon of the SEC on something of a permanent basis. The win over Texas meant that when you discussed the cream of the SWC in those days, A&M's name came up. A second straight win over the Tide would cement the belief that last year was not a fluke and that the Aggies are going to be an annual contender for the SEC West title, a status currently afforded Alabama and LSU.

Third…and this is where the preceding really begins to pay off…the Aggies would gain a dominant position in the state of Texas recruiting on something of a semi-permanent basis. The Aggies already had the best class in Texas for 2013 per Rivals.com and are currently ranked higher than any other Texas-based school in 2014 as well. The A&M staff is expecting probably the largest and most talent laden turnout of prospects ever for the Alabama game and if all of those athletes witness an A&M victory, an A&M offer will become more valuable than gold for years to come. In addition, it will enable them to sell themselves across the Southeast and even nationally as the Alabama win did last year to prospects who would have never considered A&M prior to that. Such dominance translates into top five classes nationally and the type of talent that allows you to continue to play games like the one we're about to witness.

A&M fans waited years, seemingly even decades, for a transcendent player like Johnny Manziel to come along. He's here, and a result A&M fans are finally getting a real Super Bowl, a game with national title implications that -- as the 1975 game with Texas -- could change the face of A&M forever.


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