- Sam Khan Jr., ESPN Staff Writer
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Going into the final week of the regular season, Texas A&M is in the top 10, near the top of its division and going for its 10th win, which would be a first since 1998.
Spirits are high in Aggieland with the team's record-setting quarterback taking his league by storm and respect being paid across the country for the resurgence of Texas A&M football.
This is what many Aggies thought it would be like a year ago.
Going into the 2011 season, Texas A&M was ranked in the top 10 and a BCS bowl-caliber team. Then after a slew of second-half collapses, the season's high hopes were deflated, as was the team.
Coming into this season with a new coach (Kevin Sumlin), a new league (the Southeastern Conference), new uniforms and a new feeling, the Aggies swore it was different. A season-opening loss to Florida that involved Texas A&M relinquishing a second-half lead made some wonder whether it was just talk and if these were the same Aggies.
Now 11 games into the season and coming off its ninth win, a 47-28 victory over the FCS's third-ranked team, Sam Houston State, one thing is clear: this team is different.
"With all the criticism and people trying to talk about what happened in the past in the second half and all the other stuff, these guys didn't let that affect them this year," Sumlin said. "I think every week we've gotten a little bit better. It sets you up for the last game of the year and who knows what will happen?
"You've got Missouri coming in here for a conference football game and you win that game, who knows?"
On Saturday, the game was never in any real doubt for the 87,101 on hand. The No. 8 Aggies, who were coming fresh off an upset road win over then-No. 1 Alabama, were heavily favored against their lower-division foes. It took a quarter for things to click, but once they did, the Aggies looked like they have all season.
The offense was fast and furious, with Heisman Trophy candidate Johnny Manziel leading the charge. The defense was aggressive and performed well, holding the Bearkats without a point in the first half. The first-team defense didn't give up a point, though the Bearkats compiled four touchdowns against the second and third units.
Manziel, who was brilliant against Alabama, did little to hurt his Heisman chances. That is, unless, you count his unglamorous missed point-after-touchdown kick attempt in the third quarter.
Sumlin allowed his redshirt freshman quarterback to try the kick after he threw an 89-yard touchdown pass to Uzoma Nwachukwu on the first play of the third quarter to give the Aggies a 40-0 lead. Manziel, who lined up straight behind the ball like an old-fashioned kicker, missed the PAT attempt wide right.
"It's a long season," Sumlin said. "We've gone 11 straight weeks without a bye. There's different things that go on and we try to keep the energy level up, keep it fun. It was something that he had been working on for a couple of weeks and he made one the other day. He made one on Thursday. We thought we'd give it a shot."
Sumlin laughed at the notion that the fluttering wide-right attempt would cost Manziel votes.
"I don't know that it'll cost him anything," Sumlin said. "Like I said, there are things that go on within the game, within the week just to keep guys having fun. I think what you see about this team more than anything else is that they're playing with a lot of energy, particularly the guys that played all year in some really tough ballgames."
Manziel finished 14-of-20 for 267 yards with three touchdowns and an interception and ran for 100 yards and two more touchdowns on 16 carries. He became the first SEC player, first freshman in FBS history to throw for 3,000 yards and rush for 1,000 in a season. He's the fifth FBS player to do it after Vince Young (Texas), Dan LeFevour (Central Michigan), Colin Kaepernick (Nevada) and Chandler Harnish (Northern Illinois).
Record breaking has been the norm for the dual-threat sensation, and his teammates are hopeful that Manziel can win the award not just for himself, but for the team.
"We just try to play hard for him," senior center Patrick Lewis said. "We want to block hard for any quarterback that's back there and knowing all the things that he can do with the football, we just try to block to the whistle. We want him to win the Heisman. That would be good for him and also good for us because we helped him get there. We just play hard and we don't worry about it. If it comes, it comes. If it doesn't, then we'll probably be a little disappointed but we'll be alright."
Because of the deflating finish to the 2011 season, the graduation of a first-round pick at quarterback (Ryan Tannehill) and the entry into college football's premier conference, expectations by observers nationwide weren't high for this year's Aggies. But the coaches and players had expectations of their own and with one more win to go until they hit 10, they seem to be meeting their own and righting some of the wrongs of last season in the process.
"It's amazing," senior linebacker Sean Porter said. "We're very, very excited about it. We went through a lot of ups and downs last year and we thought we had a really good team last year, too. It was kind of the same feeling before this season. But last year we couldn't do it and [now] we just feel like we're on the right track."
3dSharon Katz, ESPN Stats & Information
4dEdward Aschoff and Greg Ostendorf