- Sam Khan Jr., ESPN Staff Writer
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Texas A&M senior linebacker Sean Porter remembers what the perception of the Aggies seemed to be in July in Birmingham, Ala.
It was the Aggies' formal introduction into the Southeastern Conference, and everyone wondered what to make of Texas A&M, one of the two new programs. Many dismissed the Aggies' chances of being a serious factor in the conference. At least, that's what Porter inferred from the tone of some of the questions he was asked.
"I remember going to SEC media day," Porter said. "All those guys in there were looking at us like we were going to be some kind of doormat."
A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said plainly on Saturday, "We didn't care what everyone else's expectations were."
With that disregard and an optimism ushered in by new everything -- coaching staff, league, schemes, some players and even the uniforms -- the Aggies set out to rewrite the narrative some had already written. With their latest win, a 59-29 crushing of Missouri on Saturday at Kyle Field that put a bow on their regular season, they have done just that.
The win locked the No. 9 Aggies into a tie for second place in the SEC West with LSU. Texas A&M (10-2, 6-2 SEC) will finish the regular season in the top 10 and has won 10 games for the first time since 1998. The Aggies did it in part because of the confidence they carried, instilled by Sumlin and the coaching staff from the start.
"We thought we were going to win all of our games," Porter said. "We truthfully thought that."
A big part also was played by their wunderkind quarterback, redshirt freshman Johnny Manziel. The Kerrville (Texas) Tivy product exceeded just about everyone's expectations, compiling an SEC single-season-record 4,600 total yards in 12 games, eclipsing the mark set by Auburn's Cam Newton in 14 games in 2010. He was his usual dazzling self Saturday, throwing for 372 yards and three touchdowns and rushing for two more, eating up 439 total yards.
His season was good enough to put him into consideration for the Heisman Trophy, and he could be the front-runner going into the season's final weekend. The Aggies won't play, so his case has been made, and his coaches and teammates believe Manziel is worthy.
"I think you put Johnny's numbers up against anybody in a single season -- not just this year, but any year, anybody who has ever played the game -- and they speak for themselves," Sumlin said. "The voters are going to recognize that. ... You put that in perspective with the league we're playing in, I think the combination of those two things will tell you all the things you need to know about voting."
It isn't just the numbers, but also the way Manziel put them up. On Saturday, he had several highlight-worthy throws that involved him zigzagging around the Missouri defense. He did so despite suffering a knee injury in the second quarter. After he sat out briefly, the training staff determined it wasn't serious and Manziel was back in the game with a brace, doing the things that have earned him the nickname "Johnny Football."
"Johnny is the most exciting player in the world," senior defensive tackle Spencer Nealy said. "Johnny deserves it, and he has competed consistently. He is an incredible player and a good guy, too."
And Manziel hasn't done it alone. Far from it. Questions coming into the season about the defensive line were answered resoundingly by Nealy and junior Damontre Moore in particular. Moore spent much of the season in the national lead in sacks and tackles for loss, and Nealy has been an integral part of the line's success, moving from defensive end to defensive tackle and doing so successfully, taking on double-teams and still having an impact. On Saturday, Nealy finished with seven tackles, two for loss, with a quarterback hurry and a pass breakup.
"What you saw tonight was a culmination of him every week," Sumlin said. "I can remember in the spring and in two-a-days going, 'Wow, we're going to move him inside and play D-tackle?' The guy week after week after week has played with incredible energy and has been another catalyst for us on this team."
Senior leadership was a big part of it, too. From guys such as receiver Ryan Swope, linebackers Porter and Jonathan Stewart, safety Steven Terrell, and center Patrick Lewis, the Aggies bought in to what Sumlin and the new staff preached, something Sumlin called, "Belief without proof."
Those players produced and paved the way for what has been a memorable season and a statement year for the Aggies in their inaugural SEC campaign.
"As a coaching staff, we're forever grateful for them because they didn't sign up for us," Sumlin said. "They could have easily said 'You know what, I'm tired of this,' and they didn't do that. There's no way that we could have won half as many games as we did this year if those guys didn't buy in and lead this football team."
23mDerek Tyson and Erik McKinney
19hSam Khan Jr.