When Nebraska left the Big 12 for the Big Ten, few questioned the Huskers ability to compete in their new league. Being one of college football's most storied programs with five national titles in 40 years carries with it respect.
But Texas A&M?
The Aggies move has drawn criticism from plenty as the historic underachievers (relative to resources), and have plotted a move to college football's top conference.
The program hasn't enjoyed a 10-win season since 1998, but the best way to combat those criticisms?
The answer for everything in college football: Win.
A&M's move isn't official yet, but much more so than Nebraska, Utah, Colorado, Boise State or TCU's recent moves, the perception of Texas A&M's decision will be heavily colored by its results in 2011.
The Aggies closed the regular season in 2010 in style, with six consecutive wins. But early struggles prevented the Aggies from truly winning big.
"Our offensive line didn’t really jell. We just put in a new defense, we had a freshman tackle, we had a young group of linemen," coach Mike Sherman said. "We just put our defense in that spring, and we were feeling our way through that as well."
Texas A&M lost close contests to Oklahoma State and Arkansas before being blown out by Missouri on its home field. At 3-3, the Aggies looked like they were headed for another disappointing season and a third consecutive losing season under Sherman.
"They didn’t panic. They continued to work hard. They looked to the next game. They didn’t wallow and feel sorry for themselves. I thought they demonstrated an eagerness to pull themselves out of it," Sherman said. "I’m as proud of them in those three weeks in how they worked and how they prepared as I was in the ensuing weeks when they won."
That freshman left tackle, Luke Joeckel, emerged as one of the league's best at his position. The Aggies benched an injured Jerrod Johnson for Ryan Tannehill. And the defense further grasped new coordinator Tim DeRuyter's 3-4 defensed, buoyed by the leadership from Johnson and linebacker Von Miller, whose freakish athleticism spurred the defense, too.
"The tempo picked up," running back Cyrus Gray said. "The main thing I don’t think people realize is our offensive line jelled. They were able to help open running lanes and help protect the quarterback even better, so it was a big thing for our team."
But those early struggles are what prevented the Aggies from winning the Big 12 South outright. Instead, they settled for a share of the division and a night at home while Oklahoma battled for a Big 12 title and a spot in the BCS.
"We learned we can fight through adversity. A lot of teams can’t do that. We beat some good opponents," Gray said. "The 12th man really helped us. You can see, like in the Nebraska game, they really helped pull that game out for us."
If Texas A&M is going to exit the league in style, it has to avoid those kinds of early struggles.
The good news about this year's team? It's simple make-up is built to avoid those same pitfalls from a year ago.
"We’re a little bit more experienced. When you start the season and you’re playing with a true freshman at left tackle and we really haven’t solidified the offensive line and we had a brand-new defense in there, and that won’t be the case this year," Sherman said. "That element should not be a problem for us. ... . Even still, with everybody coming back, you still haven’t played a game against an opponent in some time, and until you step on that field, you really don’t know where you’re at. We’ll find out Sunday night."
The Aggies national reputation depends on it.