- Sam Khan Jr., ESPN Staff Writer
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Since joining the SEC, Texas A&M football has been building.
Take one walk in front of the Bright Football Complex and evidence is everywhere. While you can hear the echo of quarterbacks barking commands, coaches making critiques and whistles blowing, those familar sounds are sometimes overshadowed by the sound of moving construction vehicle or the engine of an 18-wheeler.
Last year, it was a 20,000-square foot, $9 million football-only weight room. This year, it's a $4 million expansion of the Bright Complex's lobby and the addition of $12 million nutrition center where athletes can dine. Over the next two years, Texas A&M will renovate Kyle Field to the tune of $450 million.
On the field the Aggies are building for what they hope is a special season. With a preseason top-10 ranking, a Heisman Trophy winner returning at quarterback, a handful of returning starters in key spots and a plethora of talented newcomers added to a squad that was 11-2 in its first SEC campaign, hopes have been high for the Aggies this offseason.
When news came to light about an NCAA investigation into allegations that Johnny Manziel profited from signing autographs for brokers, dreams of that historic season required a brief pause. With his eligibility in question, it was uncertain how much field time -- if any -- he would miss. If he missed too much, the Aggies' hopes of an SEC West title, an SEC title, and perhaps even a BCS title, would likely be dashed.
But Wednesday the saga was resolved. The NCAA and Texas A&M released a joint statement indicating that Manziel has a few things to do to restore eligibility, including serve a suspension in the first half of Saturday's season opener against Rice.
What that means for the Aggies is that fans can go back to dreaming about what could be. Since the redshirt sophomore quarterback won't have to miss an extended period of time, he'll be on the field when the Aggies host No. 1 Alabama in a Sept. 14 showdown and every game thereafter as the Aggies attempt to do something they haven't since the last century: win a conference championship, and perhaps a national championship.
"We love being No. 6 in the preseason but we're fighting to be No. 1 in the country," senior defensive back Toney Hurd Jr. said.
The Aggies come into the season ranked sixth in the USA Today coaches poll and seventh in the Associated Press top 25. Those are their highest preseason rankings in those polls since 1995 and 1999, respectively. The No. 5 ranking that Texas A&M finished with in both polls was the highest postseason finish for the Aggies since 1956.
Though they tied for second place in the SEC West Division last season and head coach Kevin Sumlin has been quick to publicly downplay talk of the Aggies having a "target" on their back, there's no question that the chances at making history are realistic.
While the Aggies' 2013 journey begins against an old Southwest Conference foe in Rice at noon on Saturday, the first major test the Aggies face is on Sept. 14. Texas A&M was the only team to defeat BCS champion Alabama last season, escaping with a 29-24 win in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
If the Aggies repeat their feat and beat the Crimson Tide again and come out of the first three games unscathed, you can bet the BCS title game watch will begin. Alabama is the preseason No. 1 team in both polls and a win by Texas A&M would likely vault them into the top three or perhaps even the top two of the rankings, meaning that the Aggies would essentially control their own destiny the rest of the season.
There would still be at least nine games left on the schedule, including road dates at Mississippi (Oct. 12) and LSU (Nov. 23) plus a home game against a Vanderbilt team (Oct. 26) that's on the rise. And even if the Aggies were to tackle all those challenges, they still would have one more hurdle to clear -- the SEC championship game against the SEC East Division champion in Atlanta.
A win in the SEC title game would likely put the Aggies in the BCS title game and in position to battle for their first national championship since 1939.
"From the energy that the 12th Man gives us walking all around campus, the energy that the alumni has, I think as a whole, as a university, we understand that this could be a very special season for us," senior running back Ben Malena said. "From a team aspect, we just take things one game [at a time]. Because if you don't take care of business this game, that whole 'special season' aspect goes out of the window."
The Aggies more than just Manziel, but how he goes will play a large role in how the Aggies fare. With the latest chapter of drama behind him and the team looking forward, Sumlin said he is happy with the way Manziel has dealt with the challenges.
"He's handled it very well," Sumlin said. "He has handled it well from the beginning from a practice standpoint, from a meeting standpoint, he's been very focused. On the field and how he has handled things, meeting-wise, locker room-wise, everything around football, he has been extremely sharp and focused."
Before talks of Manziel making another Heisman run or the Aggies making a title run begin, they must first take care of Rice on Saturday. Either junior Matt Joeckel or true freshman Kenny Hill will start while Manziel serves his suspension in the game's first two quarters. Sumlin has not made public who will take the first snaps for the Aggies.
But Saturday will be less about who is playing quarterback and more about the Aggies getting new players acclimated to new roles. With 31 newcomers on the roster, with as many as 15 that could see the field this season according to Sumlin, the young Aggies must grow up quickly.
Returners such as Malena, sophomore receiver Mike Evans and the three returning starting offensive linemen, plus players such as Hurd, defensive end Julien Obioha and linebacker Donnie Baggs must continue to lead as they have this offseason. Nearly half of each side of the football will be comprised of players who are first-time full-time starters.
If the Aggies are to reach the ultimate dream of taking home a national title, that means Sumlin must make a little history himself and claim his first conference championship. He guided Houston to two Conference USA West Division titles in his four seasons there and made two appearances in the C-USA Championship game, including one in 2011 when the Cougars were 12-0 going into the game, but was denied a title both times.
Sumlin has handled the unique challenges placed in front of him, many of which have been of the off-the-field variety, with a sense of poise and visible confidence that has trickled down to his Texas A&M team.
"Kevin Sumlin is a great leader when it comes to steering this team to be on the right path," Malena said. "Making sure that we don't take anything for granted, making sure that we don't count the number of days, we make the days count."
Perhaps the biggest offseason challenge -- even more so than the drama surrounding Manziel -- was the death of redshirt freshman defensive lineman Polo Manukainiu. The 19-year-old was one of three killed in a car accident in northern New Mexico on July 29, less than a week before the Aggies began training camp.
Prior to the Rice game, Texas A&M will honor the memory of Manukainiu with a ceremony involving his family and players will wear a decal on the back of their helmets with Manukainiu's first name, his number and a Tongan-inspired design.
"I think that was a real eye-opener to a lot of guys," Sumlin said. "Those guys were with him in the locker room and then to come back and to see an empty chair, it took a lot of conversation, a lot of emotion and a lot of inner thought from our football team."
In an offseason where it seemed like almost every topic or headline related to something off the field, Sumlin and the Aggies are ready to get back to simply focusing on football.
"Just like everybody else in the country, it's game week, we're excited, our kids are excited, team's excited, fans are excited, everybody, to finally play," Sumlin said. "I think looking into Saturday, we'll know a lot more about our football team across the board at the end of that game than we do right now."
2dSam Khan and Greg Ostendorf