Many parts of Texas A&M's first two seasons in its new conference home, the SEC, have been dreamlike.
It has included top-10 rankings, a Heisman Trophy, historic wins, huge crowds, big television ratings and, at times, the eyes of the college football world.
But on Saturday in Baton Rouge, La., the Aggies were dealt a dose of cold, harsh reality during a 34-10 loss to LSU in what were, well, cold and harsh conditions. Life in the SEC is tough. For everyone.
Texas A&M's success in the nation's premier conference came much more quickly than people outside College Station anticipated and even faster than some wearing maroon-colored glasses could have pictured. Coming off a 7-6 season in its final Big 12 Conference campaign, it was widely thought the Aggies would, as Kevin Sumlin has said before, "get their brains kicked in."
That didn't happen. The Aggies went 11-2 in their first season in the league, beat No. 1 Alabama and took home sports' most prestigious individual award, the Heisman Trophy, which went to quarterback Johnny Manziel.
And even though there remained a window of hope this season for attaining a berth to a BCS bowl for the first time since 1998 and potentially a second Heisman for Manziel, LSU ended those hopes emphatically on Saturday.
It helped illustrate two points: (1) The Aggies still have a ways to go to reach the level of the league's very best programs, and (2) once you get to the top, it's hard to stay there.
Take LSU as an example. The Tigers have been consistently among the SEC elite for the last decade-plus. They've won four SEC championships since the turn of the century (2001, 2003, 2007, 2011) and two BCS national championships (2003 and 2007). But the Tigers currently have the same 2013 record as the Aggies (8-3), the team they just beat.
Two weeks prior to Saturday, LSU was beaten and battered at the hands of No. 1 Alabama. The second half of the Crimson Tide's 38-17 win, and in particular the fourth quarter, was intriguing to watch as the Tide asserted its will on both sides of the football.
That was done to a program that's 92-24 in the Les Miles era.
Florida (4-7), is by all accounts, a mess right now. Florida was in the Sugar Bowl last season and was ranked No. 3 before taking a beating from Louisville. It's also a program with two BCS national titles in the last decade (2006 and 2008).
Building a program that succeeds at the level of Alabama and LSU takes time. It takes talent and years of strong recruiting classes. It takes stability in the coaching staff.
Early in their SEC membership, the Aggies are taking steps in that direction. The work on a $450 million renovation of Kyle Field, to turn it into a 102,500-seat palace, is under way and scheduled for completion in time for the 2015 season. The Aggies had the country's eighth-ranked recruiting class in the 2013 cycle, and they currently have the sixth-ranked class in 2014.
After a strong debut season in Aggieland, Texas A&M took care of head coach Kevin Sumlin with a raise to take his annually salary to $3.1 million, so that commitment is in place. Whether Sumlin, whose name is thrown around for other jobs almost annually, chooses to stay or make another move is another matter, but if he chooses to remain at A&M the potential for a power program under his watch appears to be there.
As for the current squad, Saturday's result and the Aggies' losses to Alabama and Auburn earlier this season have made a few things evident. The depth and experience needed on defense for consistent SEC success is not present yet. The Aggies are recruiting heavily on the defensive line, but it will take time for those players to be ready to contribute. The way Alabama, Auburn and LSU were able to run the ball (not to mention several other teams) when they had to shows the need for growth there.
The offense, while usually productive in its first two SEC seasons and even in the losses to the Tide and Auburn, can still improve. Even with a one-of-a-kind player like Manziel, who can mask deficiencies with his playmaking ability, the Aggies weren't able to fool LSU, a team with speed at all three levels on defense and a well-respected defensive coordinator, John Chavis. And Manziel likely won't be around next year, so the Aggies will have to progress with another quarterback, whether it's one of the current backups, Matt Joeckel or Kenny Hill, or incoming ESPN 300 recruit Kyle Allen.
It's not a given that all of those things will work out. Fortunes can change fast in this league, as Auburn and Florida have shown us this year. But regardless of how the Aggies end this season, they've had two winning campaigns to start their membership in the SEC. Dreams of BCS bowls, SEC championships and national championships apparently have to wait. In this league, it takes time.