When Texas A&M jumped ship from the shrinking Big 12 to the surging Southeastern Conference, Aggie fans lamented the loss of natural rivalry games like Texas, Baylor, Texas Tech, TCU… you get the point. In a football-obsessed state, it seemed ludicrous that one of the biggest programs around would stop playing nearby schools and start facing off against new teams like Arkansas, LSU and Alabama.
The Aggies contended that heading to a more challenging conference would lead to more competitive football, and they were right. In 2012, their first season in the rugged SEC West, the Aggies opened against No. 24 Florida, hosted No. 6 LSU and went to Tuscaloosa to face No. 1 Alabama for the first time since the late 1980s. Talk about baptism by fire.
Despite a disappointing loss to Florida to kick off their SEC tenure and another close loss at home to LSU, the Aggies flew into Alabama ranked No. 15 in the nation while riding the sensational quarterback Johnny Manziel to national relevance. Still: Bama had won the national championship in 2011 and was on the way to a second title that January thanks to the nation's best defense.
It was a marquee matchup, though host Alabama was a two-touchdown favorite the week of the game. That was a conservative spread for a Tide team that had steamrolled opponents all season, including a 52-0 shutout of SEC rival Arkansas at Razorback Stadium and 30-plus point victories over Michigan, Missouri and Tennessee.
So, of course, the Aggies marched into Alabama and escaped with a shocking 29-24 victory that put A&M, Manziel and coach Kevin Sumlin squarely on the map of college football. The Aggies had not joined the SEC to become a perennial doormat, and with access to Texas' fertile recruiting and the SEC's massive drawing power, it was clear the Aggies had arrived.
In 2013, things got even crazier. The Tide came to Kyle Field as the top-ranked team in college football, fresh off consecutive national titles and looking to avenge their only loss in 2012. The Aggies had reigning Heisman Trophy winner Manziel back, and had dumped 117 points on their first two opponents with a high-octane offense that looked nigh unstoppable.
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In a true barnburner, the Aggies leapt ahead by two touchdowns and looked to be cruising to a program-defining victory. Apparently the Tide had A&M just where they wanted them, as they strung together four consecutive touchdowns to head to the half with their own two-TD lead. In the second half, the fireworks simply would not cease. Bama ran back an interception 73 yards for a TD before Manziel connected with Mike Evans on a 95-yard TD pass. Haymakers flew in the fourth, as A&M roared back to make it a 42-35 game with eight minutes left. Alabama scored once more to make it 49-35, and a last-gasp Manziel TD pass was not enough as the Tide walked out with a 49-42 victory.
In two games, the Aggies and Tide had established a rivalry that looked like it would simmer for decades to come. Though 2014 was a forgettable affair for Texas A&M (a 59-0 shellacking in Tuscaloosa), this year's edition promises to be more evenly matched. The undefeated Aggies are No. 9 in the nation and host the 10th-ranked Tide, with each team looking for a signature victory to carry them to the SEC Championship Game and beyond.