TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- In July, Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin stood behind a lectern at a hotel about an hour's drive from Bryant-Denny Stadium and tried to maintain his patience as reporter after reporter asked him how scared the Aggies were of diving into the shark tank of the SEC. OK, they didn't ask quite so directly. But the line of questioning was consistent.
Do you have to make any adjustments going against the SEC defenses?
What is your assessment of playing in the SEC West this year, especially with this division producing the last three BCS national champions?
Even in the midst of you playing against Alabama, LSU, Arkansas, this is your first year in the SEC. What are your realistic expectations this season?
After Sumlin bearhugged his players Saturday to celebrate Texas A&M shocking top-ranked Alabama with a 29-24 win that will echo far beyond the SEC, he should have readdressed those questions. These would have been his answers had someone magically stripped him of the ability to use coachspeak.
No. They have to adjust to us.
It's tough, but those two programs that won the past three titles? We beat them by a combined score of 92-45. On the road.
If the league office had let us play Kentucky instead of Florida, we'd be making plans to to play in Atlanta on Dec. 1.
Alabama coach Nick Saban tried to warn anyone who would listen of the gathering storm in College Station. Still, every one of the 101,821 fans in Bryant-Denny Stadium -- including the Texas A&M contingent -- seemed stunned as Aggies quarterback Johnny Manziel piloted Texas A&M down the field for touchdowns on his first three possessions. Manziel and the Aggies converted their first seven third-down attempts, and the Crimson Tide, which entered the day ranked first in the nation in scoring defense, dug a hole out of which it would never climb.
"We'll be fine in the SEC," Texas A&M offensive tackle Luke Joeckel said.
The win served notice that Sumlin's up-tempo spread, when run with the type of elite players Texas A&M will be able to recruit, can score on even the stingiest defense. As Steve Spurrier's Fun 'n' Gun revolutionized the league in the '90s, so might Sumlin's offense in this decade. The Aggies' victory also did something else that should make the fans of other leagues -- even in the Big 12, where they hate Texas A&M for leaving -- deliriously happy. It probably ended the SEC's BCS title streak at six seasons. The SEC exited Saturday with three one-loss teams (Alabama, Florida, Georgia), but if any two of Oregon, Kansas State and Notre Dame finish the season undefeated, the SEC will get shut out of the BCS title game. So, in proving themselves to the rest of the league, the Aggies may have ended the league's proudest streak. By bringing in Texas A&M, the SEC added the massive population of Texas and all its television sets to its footprint and created the demand for its own television network. The move will bring in millions for the conference. All it may cost is the national title streak.
But the Aggies proved Saturday they were more than a mere cash grab. They have the talent and the recruiting base to be a major player in the SEC. Sumlin respected Alabama, but he knew the Crimson Tide were beatable. He told his players early in the week that they wouldn't have to play a perfect game. They would, however, have to play a complete game. Let's take a look at how completely they won.
Manziel was everything Saban warned of and more. When Alabama's defenders broke contain and tried to tackle Manziel as he scrambled, he tore off for huge gains early. "He must have had 50 yards rushing in the second quarter," Saban said. Actually, Manziel gained 74 of his 92 rushing yards in the first quarter as the Aggies built a 20-0 lead. But that wasn't going to be enough playing against some of the game's best defensive minds coaching some of the game's best defensive players.
Alabama found its discipline after that opening salvo. The Tide brought more pressure off the edge and forced Manziel to step up into the pocket instead of tearing around the corner. Offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury adjusted by calling more plays that allowed Texas A&M to move the pocket and give Manziel room to throw. His accuracy devastated Alabama. He completed 15 of his first 16 throws and wound up completing 24-of-31 passes for 253 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions. Meanwhile, receiver Ryan Swope (11 catches, 111 yards, one touchdown) caught passes while getting smothered by Alabama defensive backs. The Aggies could never duplicate their first-quarter success, but they moved the ball just enough in the second half to keep Alabama at bay. When it seemed the Crimson Tide would claw their way back into the game midway through the fourth quarter, Manziel hit Swope for a 42-yard gain and then found Malcome Kennedy down the left sideline for a 24-yard touchdown that extended the Aggies' lead to 12.
The three opening touchdowns alternated with three Alabama possessions that produced only one first down. The second Crimson Tide possession ended after Texas A&M safety Howard Matthews crushed Alabama receiver Kenny Bell over the middle, causing AJ McCarron's pass to pop up and into the hands of Aggies linebacker Sean Porter. The interception was McCarron's first of the season and his first in 292 attempts.
But like Alabama's defense, Alabama's offense adjusted to the Aggies. In the second quarter, Alabama hogged the ball for nearly nine minutes and mounted touchdown drives of 13 and 10 plays to cut the deficit to 20-14. The roar that came from the Alabama faithful after that second touchdown seemed like the sound of a return to the status quo. After figuring out the Aggies couldn't stop the Crimson Tide's running and play-action game, Alabama would roll in the second half. Wouldn't it?
Against the 2011 Aggies, yes. Maybe even against the group that lost squeakers to Florida and LSU earlier this season. But Texas A&M has gotten better with every game, and these Aggies refused to choke. "Kevin Sumlin is our football coach," Porter said. "He won't accept that. He won't accept second-half letdowns."
Still, as the fourth quarter wore on, Texas A&M seemed on the verge of collapse. After Manziel's touchdown pass stretched the lead to 12, Alabama's Amari Cooper zoomed past Matthews, and McCarron hit Cooper for a 54-yard touchdown. On Alabama's next offensive play, McCarron hit Kenny Bell for a 54-gain to the six-yard line. On the field, Porter remembered something former Texas A&M defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter used to say. "Forget it," Porter said, "and drive on."
The Aggies flushed McCarron tackled him for no gain on first down. Eddie Lacy gained one yard on second down. McCarron seemed headed for the end zone on third down, but Dustin Harris dropped McCarron at the two-yard line, setting up a fourth down with less than two minutes remaining to decide the game. On the sideline, Joeckel watched his defense strap up and couldn't help but think of all the heartbreak in similar situations in past years. "Last year, I was in so many of those games, and they didn't go the right way," Joeckel said. "I've got a little better feeling about this team."
Joeckel's gut proved prescient. McCarron took the snap and sprinted right. He threw for Kenny Bell in the front right corner of the end zone, but cornerback Deshazor Everett -- who had barely missed an interception on a close out-of-bounds call two plays before the Cooper touchdown -- jumped the route and picked off McCarron to end the threat.
The Aggies special teams units didn't have the best night. They missed an extra point and a field goal. But when they needed to put away the win, special teams coach Brian Polian had just the call. After the Everett interception, Alabama's defense stopped Texas A&M on three plays, forcing a punt on fourth-and-one. Well aware that McCarron had shredded LSU's defense on a game-winning drive a week earlier in Baton Rouge, the Aggies did not want to give McCarron the ball. "We can Bob him," punt team members told Polian. In Polian's parlance, a "Bob" is a double cadence designed to draw the punt return team offsides. Polian ordered the "Bob" and watched as the left side of Alabama's line jumped when they thought A&M would snap. Flags flew. The Aggies pointed at the Crimson Tide, and when referee Tom Ritter indicated the penalty was on Alabama, the Aggies celebrated. Swope grabbed Kingsbury and lifted him off the ground. The band played. The Yell Leaders yelled, and the rest of Bryant-Denny Stadium fell silent. When he returned to the locker room, Polian, who coached at Stanford in 2010-11, turned on his phone to find it flooded with text messages. "I've had that forever," Polian said. "About 20 Stanford kids texted me and said 'You Bobbed them!'"
Later, the Texas A&M graduate assistants and operations employees would pass out cigars and take pictures on the field. In the immediate aftermath of the win, the Aggies piled the corner of the stadium where Texas A&M's band and fans celebrated one of the biggest wins in program history. One fan had even scribbled a new poster. It read: YOU'RE WELCOME, OREGON. Then, as the Aggies jogged off the field to party in the locker room, those fans started chanting.
S-E-C! S-E-C! S-E-C!
Texas A&M earned the right to chant those letters Saturday. But here's the twist. That recitation from that clutch of fans in that corner of Bryant-Denny Stadium might be the last time that chant rings out this season after a game with any bearing on the national title race.