Aggies, Tigers ready for SEC battles
HOOVER, Ala. -- Growing up in Arlington, Texas, Luke Joeckel cheered for the Big 12 and listened to stories about the old Southwest Conference told by his father, David Joeckel, who played at Texas Tech from 1979 to 1982.
A junior offensive tackle at Texas A&M, Luke Joeckel got a crash course on the SEC this summer, as the Aggies prepare to play their first season in the new league.
"It's definitely a little weird," Joeckel said. "I grew up a Big 12 fan and my dad played in the Southwest Conference. It's weird not to be in that region and not playing Texas and Texas Tech and Baylor. It's going to be weird not getting on a bus to go play games."
Instead, Missouri and Texas A&M will be loading onto more airplanes to trek their way through the SEC, which expands to 14 teams for the first time this season.
Indeed, what's old is new in college football this season: another year, another round of expansion. And conference realignment finally touches the SEC, which has produced the sport's last six national champions.
While the Aggies and Tigers will stretch the SEC's footprint farther west, how well they will compete in their new league remains to be seen.
Auburn coach Gene Chizik, who was Texas' defensive coordinator and Iowa State's head coach before guiding the Tigers to the 2010 BCS national championship, said the former Big 12 schools should fit right in their new conference.
"I'll tell you what, I don't think a lot of people are giving Texas A&M and Missouri the credit they deserve," Chizik said. "I say that because for four years I played in that league. Missouri and Texas A&M aren't coming into the SEC with their hat in the hand saying, 'Thank you for letting me be here.' They're coming in here to compete and play their tail off on the football field. You can bank on that one."
Everything will be seemingly new at Texas A&M in 2012. The Aggies have a new coach, new quarterback and new conference home. Former Houston coach Kevin Sumlin, who guided the Cougars to a 12-0 record during the regular season in 2011, takes over for Mike Sherman, who was fired after compiling a 25-25 record in four seasons. Sumlin has to replace former Aggies quarterback Ryan Tannehill, the No. 8 choice in this year's NFL draft by the Miami Dolphins, and he's installing a more up-tempo offense and a 4-3 defense.
"What are my realistic expectations this year?" Sumlin said. "My realistic expectations are to win. I said that from day one. Everybody talks to me and acts like I didn't know what I was getting into when I took the job. We had already entered into the SEC under the agreement when I took the job. I'm not a weatherman. I've been on really good teams. I've been on some bad teams. I'm not a guy that goes out and circles games on the schedule before the year happens, whether we've won every game or lost one game or lost them all. It changes."
The Aggies hope their new address will change their recent on-field results. Sumlin is Texas A&M's third coach since 2007, and the Aggies produced only two winning conference records in their final seven seasons in the Big 12. They won only one conference championship since 1996, upsetting Kansas State 36-33 in double-overtime in the 1998 Big 12 championship game. Texas A&M finished a season ranked in the final coaches' Top 25 poll only once in the past 12 seasons; it was No. 21 after a 9-4 finish in 2010.
It only figures to get tougher for the Aggies in the SEC, where they will play heavyweights like Alabama, Arkansas and LSU in the SEC West every season. They will play their first SEC game against Florida at Kyle Field on Sept. 8.
"The whole team is excited," linebacker Sean Porter said. "We feel like we're competitors. My team loves to compete and this league has some of the best players in the country. So we want to be able to gauge ourselves against those guys and compare ourselves to those guys and be on the field with them at the same time. I want to go against the best tackles in the country, the best quarterbacks and the best running backs. That's what we were looking forward to about the SEC. Now we're a part of it."
The Aggies are coming off one of their most frustrating seasons in 2011. They were favored to win 11 of 12 games, but limped to a 6-6 finish in the regular season. Texas A&M blew halftime leads five times, including a nine-point cushion in a crushing 27-25 loss to rival Texas on Thanksgiving night.
They play 60-minute games in the SEC, too, so the Aggies will need to finish what they start.
"We don't want anyone marking us as a win right now," Aggies receiver Ryan Swope said. "We're not training to be one of the bottom teams in the league. I'm a little tired of hearing about how great the SEC is, but we're excited to be playing in the SEC. We're anxious to see how we stack up against those guys."
So is Missouri, which has played in seven consecutive bowl games under coach Gary Pinkel. Among SEC teams, only Alabama, Florida, Georgia and LSU have longer streaks. Pinkel has guided the Tigers to one of their best stretches in school history, winning 10 games or more in three of the past five seasons. Missouri went 12-2 and finished No. 5 in the coaches' poll in 2007.
The Tigers play their first SEC game against Georgia at Faurot Field on Sept. 8.
"I'd be disappointed if we were intimidated," Pinkel said. "We played in a pretty good football league ourselves. We understand the great league we're coming into. It's all going to play out. We all know how it works. It's in the process. How is Missouri and Texas A&M going to do in the SEC? There's going to be an analysis every single week. You have to go out and play and compete. That's the way it should be. It's going to be decided on the football field. We're excited about doing that."
Pinkel said the Tigers won't change the structure of their program simply because they're playing in a new league.
"We're doing things we never thought we'd be doing in this transition that's taking place and will continue to take place," Pinkel said. "But yet I think the continuity of our staff has been important. We have a system in place. Are we changing how we recruit? No. Do we change how we train our players? No. We believe in what we do. Certainly we'll be tested."
The Tigers and Aggies start their entrance exams in less than a month.
"There's a lot of tradition, a lot of pride," Chizik said. "This is a great league, it's a tough league, and we all know that. To think that Missouri and Texas A&M are going to come in here and all of a sudden they're going to have their eyes open to football, that's insane. These are two dang good football teams with dang good football coaches. They've got players. They've got coaches. They've got great venues. They've got great backing. It's a perfect fit for our league. They're going to fit right in here."
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