Kevin Sumlin and Co. turning stigma into legacy for Fightin’ Texas Aggies

Welcome to the Lockr Room. Each week, former Texas A&M QB David Walker will highlight and provide insight into Aggies football.

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Photo: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Photo: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

The Texas A&M Aggies’ season is now underway offensively, literally, and the starting defense is expected to rejoin the squad at 2:30 Central this Saturday. It comes at an opportune time since the Aggies have a real game on tap. The Crimson Tide of Alabama, the Number 1 team in the land, struts into the Brazos Valley for the first time since the final regular season game in 1988.

The ’88 game was one of those beautiful, clear winter nights that define college football. It was nationally televised and Coach Jackie Sherrill’s white Twelfth Man towels were swirling throughout the Maroon-packed stadium. The game had been postponed from earlier in the year because of the threat of, you guessed it, a hurricane. It would be the only game the Aggies would lose on their home turf in ‘88, yet the defeat had no effect on the rankings or bowl selections. A&M had been deemed ineligible for both prior to the start of the season.

Alabama, ranked 20th on this night, won easily, 30-10, in a game that would be the Crimson Tide alum’s final game as head football coach for the Texas Aggies. Even though Sherrill left A&M under something of a dark cloud, he was propelled into icon status among most Aggies following his three consecutive Southwest Conference championships prior to the ‘88 season. To this day, he still enjoys this lofty position in the minds of most Aggies, particularly after his creation of the Twelfth Man Football Team, its book publishing and subsequently a Foundation for university fund raising.

Alabama and Texas A&M have played previously on the date of September 14 — in the season opener in 1985 in Birmingham. Alabama was ranked No. 20 coming into this game and beat Sherrill’s eventual Cotton Bowl champions, 23-10. The Aggies went on to a 10-2 season and a final national ranking of No. 6. It stood as the highest season-ending A.P. ranking for an A&M football team since 1956, and wasn’t topped until the 2012 team completed its season at No. 5 following the Cotton Bowl.

Modern day college football began in 1972 when true freshmen were first allowed to play on varsity football teams after a 25-year prohibition. Since then the Aggies haven’t played many Top 10 opponents this early in the season, and the Crimson Tide looms as the next one in line.

During the mid to late 70’s the Aggies were 3-0 in these matchups, beating No. 7 LSU in ’74 at Tiger Stadium; No. 7 Texas Tech in Lubbock in ’77; and No. 6 Penn State in Happy Valley in 1979. Since the 70’s, however, the Aggies haven’t had much success in these situations. In fact, A&M has lost its last five running. The last victory over a Top 10 team within the first three games of a season occurred in 1989 when they beat No. 7 LSU in the season opener in College Station.

Now Alabama is a conference game and the landscape at A&M, including its brand new, revamped golf course, has undergone a tremendous makeover. This A&M football team continues to demolish previous stigmas that have dogged the program — and has done so at a pace that corresponds with the seamless demolition of one of history’s all-time favorite basketball gyms, G. Rollie White.

Manziel Straddle1

Johnny Manziel after bowling over a Bearkat to get near the end zone

With these tremendous accomplishments, which are being pushed along by some of the greatest examples of momentum ever seen at the university, come even greater expectations. Aggies need only look back two years to what was a summer of tremendous anticipation. Mike Sherman and Ryan Tannehill were expected to have the season to end all seasons in 2011, but after falling to No. 7 Oklahoma State at home in the third game in dramatic fold-up fashion, these hopes and dreams were dashed.

In fact, since 1972 no eligible Aggie football team has ever been crowned outright champion without first winning every conference game at home. It’s one and done in the history of A&M. While winning every conference game at home didn’t necessarily assure an outright title to each team who did so, the loss of just one game, historically, has assured there would be no challenge to mount.

The only times in the past forty years that Texas A&M won every conference game at home and did not win an outright conference title were in 1974 and 1975. Ah yes, I remember them well.

The other A&M team that missed out on a conference championship after sweeping its home schedule was the 1997 team, but they played in a different format. That team captured its South Division Championship, but then lost the Big 12 Championship game to Nebraska, so perhaps it deserves an asterisk.

Manziel shushes a Sam Houston player

Manziel shushes a Sam Houston player

All the other Aggie teams through the years who went undefeated at home did win their championships, including Sherrill’s ’85, ’86 and ’87 teams. These talented squads were later joined by RC Slocum’s four championship teams from ’91, ’92, ’93 and ’98, respectively. All seven were undefeated and untied at home in conference play.

1998 is the last season a Texas A&M football team has swept its home conference schedule, but, as I mentioned, this team coached by Kevin Sumlin and quarterbacked by Johnny Manziel is destroying all stigmas. You need to look no further than last season’s big wins at No. 1 Alabama in the team’s third consecutive SEC road game and a season-ending victory in the Cotton Bowl over very-hard-to-beat Oklahoma. Each were rare occurrences in Aggieland.

Now the big game is suddenly becoming a reality for the fans while Johnny Football sees it in his mind as the next game on the schedule. What he means by this is regardless of who the opponent is, the execution of the offense will always win out.

Words won’t describe what a win in this game will mean to Aggies and this university — perhaps for years to come. Once again A&M faces the Number 1 team in the country, but this time it’s not in Tuscaloosa.This time there are no surprises and no “shocking the world.”This is just straight-up, best team wins football, SEC style.

History has not been kind, but history has never seen this style of offense, this kind of quarterbacking choreography, or this cool of a customer at head coach. History is about to get turned on its ear, and will most assuredly be smiling broadly as it happens.

It’s the biggest game in the land, and the average ticket price of $750 bears this out. Meanwhile, the wise guys have placed a 7-point underdog tag on the Aggies. It will be the third time A&M has lined up in its own stadium as an SEC underdog. They dropped the previous two to Florida and LSU in very close, exciting games after holding double-digit leads in each. Aggies lament the fact that had they been victorious in either, they could have eventually gone all the way.

Stigmas upon stigmas seem to pop up everywhere, but these are valiant times in Aggieland. The populace appears reinvigorated from just watching some football again…Aggie football as they now know it. There have been few disappointments and a whole lot of upside. Worry and anxiety have transformed into excitement and enthusiasm. Anticipation is back at the level where it was last season following the Cotton Bowl victory over OU. A&M is united again as one — and the giant killers still roam its halls.

A&M sits in fourth place on the wagering boards in Vegas at 12 to 1 odds to win the BCS Championship, just as Johnny did last season to win the Heisman. Every Aggie knows that 12 is a pretty cool number. Alabama is No. 1 on the list, Ohio State is second and Oregon is No. 3. If you truly believe the Aggies will repeat their performance from last November in Bear’s country, then you better take advantage of these odds while they’re still available. By the end of the regular season last year, you had to lay 5 to win one on Manziel, which isn’t nearly as much fun.

The stigmas, once powerful and omnipotent, are systematically becoming exposed as imposters and brushed aside in Aggieland. Stigmas are turning into legacies as surely as that ugly duckling finally became a swan. We’ve got one more left to handle, and this one lies in the hands of our young, talented receiving corps. They’re about to meet up with some real athletes and their ability to create separation will determine the outcome.

Before heading to the campus to welcome the team home after the ‘Bama game last season, I wrote: “Somewhere the Bear is smiling, marking September 14 on his calendar, taking one more drag on his smoke, and one last shot of whiskey.”

Well, it’s almost here. Gig ‘em, and let’s Beat the Hell out of ‘Bama!