"Would you rather—right now, at this point—ride a bull or play quarterback for A&M?" – CBS analyst Gary Danielson, riffing off a promo Verne Lundquist had read moments before to fill the time in a 52-point game with four minutes remaining in the third quarter.
"We're both reaching here. Right?" —Lundquist, stating the obvious a few seconds later.
COLLEGE STATION, Texas—Defensive end Julien Obioha bridged the gap between two diverging opinions among Texas A&M players. Which was worse? Living through a 59–0 beatdown at Alabama? Or having each mistake repeatedly (and publicly) critiqued at a full-squad meeting after the Aggies returned home?
"I wouldn't put my worst enemy in either of those situations," Obioha, now a senior, said.
How horrible was Texas A&M's visit to Alabama last Oct. 11? Here a few stats.
• With 5:21 left in the second quarter, A&M had 45 total yards. Alabama had run 45 plays and led 31–0.
• Alabama tailback T.J. Yeldon gained 159 yards from scrimmage. Texas A&M's entire offense gained 172 yards from scrimmage.
• Texas A&M made two first downs in the first half and didn't cross the 50-yard line until the third quarter.
• Alabama averaged 8.8 yards a play in the first half.
"It was so bad," senior center Mike Matthews said. "There wasn't even one specific thing. Everything went wrong that could have gone wrong."
How horrible was the team's video review session? Maybe worse.
Cornerback Deshazor Everett dropped an interception he probably would have returned for a touchdown on Alabama's first drive. The Crimson Tide went on to kick a field goal. When Texas A&M got the ball, tight end Cam Clear earned the distinction of lining up in the wrong place on all three plays of a three-and-out. The second play was particularly amazing. Clear was supposed to line up attached to left tackle Cedric Ogbuehi. Instead, he lined up attached to right tackle Germain Ifedi. Clear then blocked as if he'd lined up on the left side. For all of the Aggies, it only got uglier from there.
Strangely, though, Obioha and his teammates now seem glad that they endured an epic embarrassment on national television. "It's weird to say, but I think that's one of the better things that happened to the team last year," Obioha said. "One of the things coach [Kevin] Sumlin reiterates is the small things matter. It just showed us that the small things matter." That loss taught the Aggies several lessons they needed to learn. It also helped identify the players who cared and paved the way for a reinvention that has produced a team that might be able to handle an undefeated 5–0 record or a top-10 ranking in the AP Poll. Saturday, ninth-ranked Texas A&M's players will try to show how much they've matured since that beating when No. 10 Alabama comes to Kyle Field. The Crimson Tide (5–1), who lost to Ole Miss on Sept. 19, need a win to stay in the SEC West race. The Aggies can either take control of their destiny in the West or let the Tide—winners of the division in five of the past seven seasons—push their way right back into the fray.
The quarterback who will lead Texas A&M against Alabama wasn't even sure he wanted to play in last year's game. "I was sitting on the sidelines almost hoping I didn't have to go in because it was such a massacre," sophomore Kyle Allen said. He did not get his wish. Early in the fourth quarter, Allen replaced Kenny Hill, who looked less trilled with each snap in Tuscaloosa. Alabama led by 52, and the Aggies had the ball on their own three-yard line. The first snap confirmed Allen's fears. "Mike [Matthews] snaps it over my head into the end zone," Allen said. "I was like, 'You've got to be kidding me. This is still happening?'"
Allen scooped up the ball and threw it away but kept it close enough to tailback Brandon Williams so he didn't get called for intentional grounding—which would have produced a safety. The play was quickly forgotten given the totality of the bloodbath, but it did say something about Allen's ability to stay calm when things go wrong. The following week, Texas A&M coaches would consider this and all of Allen's other traits as they pondered a quarterback change.
The Aggies had a bye week after the Alabama game, but they didn't treat it like one. In the middle of the week, they donned full pads and ran a 100-play scrimmage light on schematic innovation and heavy on base plays. "It was, 'Let's see who can be the most physical guy on the field,'" Allen said. "Other guys obviously didn't want to have a full-contact scrimmage after playing four quarters against Alabama, but for me it was an opportunity." It was an opportunity because after the Alabama game, Allen had gone to A&M offensive coordinator Jake Spavital and asked for another shot to win the starting job. Sumlin had no qualms about throwing open the competition. In fact, he declared every position open prior to the scrimmage.
The bye week the Aggies enjoyed last week in no way resembled the one described above. Last year, the Alabama loss simply shone a light on Texas A&M's myriad issues. The Aggies had gotten full of themselves after starting the season 5–0. The loved reading about themselves and watching their highlights on ESPN. "That's what everyone was about," Allen said. "They were about getting in the news." After the hot start, A&M made the wrong kind of news by losing to Mississippi State and Ole Miss by a combined score of 83–59. The Alabama loss was simply a final, emphatic reminder that the 2014 Aggies weren't mature enough.
Texas A&M's leaders feel a different vibe this season, and the reason is fairly obvious. "We were like this last year—5–0," senior tailback-turned-cornerback Williams said. "Then we got the brakes beat off us." The Aggies haven't imagined the possibilities in 2015, because those can evaporate with a few bad weeks. "It's about winning our matchup that week," Allen said. "I haven't heard anybody talk about winning an SEC championship or winning a national championship." Said Obioha: "They understand 5–0 can turn into 8–4 or 7–5 real quick."
An improved attitude won't beat a team that won by 59 last year, though. For the Aggies to stand a chance against the Crimson Tide, they'll have to prove they have improved on the field against an opponent that leaves little margin for error. That's especially true for the offensive line, which will face one of the nation's best front sevens. "You're not going to move them. That's just how it is," Matthews said. "You're not going to move guys of that size. Their job is to get a stalemate with you. … What you've really got to do is get your hands in the right place, get your head on the right side and hope the running back gets by. When they reach out to tackle him, then you can try to finish him."
Texas A&M will also have to prove its defensive improvement under first-year coordinator John Chavis can continue against superior competition. The Aggies are giving up half a yard less per play against SEC opponents than they did last year, but that still means they're allowing 6.4 yards a play. (Alabama, on the other hand, has allowed five yards a play against SEC foes.) Texas A&M, which ranks fourth in the nation in sacks with 3.8 a game, will need defensive ends Myles Garrett and Daeshon Hall to harass Alabama quarterback Jake Coker into making mistakes. Alabama committed five turnovers in its 43–37 loss to Ole Miss, and the only touchdown Arkansas scored before garbage time in its 27–14 loss at Alabama last week was set up by a Coker interception.
The Aggies believe their depth has made them better. "There's competition at all the spots," Obioha said. "If you have a bad game, you may not play as much the next game. Before, if you had a bad game, you were still starting the next game." In the past, coaches had to keep playing players who made mental errors and had poor attitudes because there were no other semi-capable options. Now, with four of Sumlin's recruiting classes on the roster, Texas A&M can finally use the bench as motivation.
This week, the Aggies have extra motivation. They want to prove they aren't the team that laid down in Tuscaloosa anymore. "We didn't belong on the field with them last year," Allen said. But that beating might have been the medicine the Aggies needed. "Believe it or not, it made us a stronger team," Williams said. "Nobody on this team wants to feel that way again." The only way to avoid that feeling is to stand toe-to-toe with the team that humiliated them last year and take happiness by force. "We haven't gotten complacent," Matthews said. "We haven't coasted. We've pushed on the pedal harder. We aren't going to let what happened last year happen this year."