ARLINGTON _ As the curtain drops on Texas A&M’s dreamy debut season as a member of the Southeastern Conference, the Aggies will carry the following souvenirs into the off-season and recruiting campaign after a 41-13 rout of Oklahoma in the AT&T Cotton Bowl Classic:
-- No. 9 A&M (11-2) will finish with the best record of any major-college football team in Texas and is headed to a Top 10 finish in the post-season polls for the first time since the 1994 season.
-- The Aggies will welcome back the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner, redshirt freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel, who racked up 516 yards (229 rushing, 287 passing) and accounted for four touchdowns in Friday night’s romp over No. 11 Oklahoma (10-3) at Cowboys Stadium.
-- By dusting the Big 12 co-champion to end the season, coupled with a long list of impact returning starters, the Aggies will begin next year on a short list of schools as favorites to claim the 2013 national championship.
-- The Aggies finished the 2012 season as arguably the hottest team in college football. A&M did not trail in any of its final six games, a stretch that included victories over then-No. 1 Alabama, then-No. 15 Mississippi State and No. 11 Oklahoma. A&M began those six contests with a combined salvo of 175-0, seizing leads of 28-0 (Auburn), 31-0 (Mississippi State), 20-0 (Alabama), 47-0 (Sam Houston State), 42-0 (Missouri) and 7-0 (Oklahoma) before the opponent answered.
-- Against Oklahoma, an A&M team known for second-half collapses during a 7-6 campaign in 2011 finished with a 27-0 flurry in the second half that underscored one significant point to first-year coach Kevin Sumlin.
The Aggies, said Sumlin, became “a different team” as the 2012 season unfolded, erasing legions of doubters in the process.
“There was reason for people to doubt us,” said Sumlin, who inherited a program that finished 25-25 under predecessor Mike Sherman and won its lone Big 12 football title in 1998. “Moving into a new league, a .500 program over the last 10 years … One game doesn’t define your program. Your body of work does. This game (against OU) was indicative of how these guys have played all year. Our guys expected to win. That’s probably the biggest change that we’ve made over the course of the last six months.”
Manziel said the Aggies “played with a lot of heart” and showed no rust from the layoff between their regular-season finale _ a Nov. 24 victory over Missouri _ and Friday’s bowl appearance while securing only the fourth season with 11 or more wins in school history. Even better, Manziel said, was doing so against the Big 12 co-champion in A&M’s first season after moving from the Big 12 to the SEC.
“To come in and go against a Big 12 rival and do everything we wanted as a team, we couldn’t feel any better,” Manziel said. “We came out and played one of our best games all year. This is the kind of game that turned the page again. To go out and win 11 games and do what we’ve done is impressive.”
In the near future, A&M will learn whether its two All-America offensive tackles _ juniors Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews _ will join defensive end Damontre Moore in making themselves available in the 2013 NFL Draft. Joeckel, an Arlington High School graduate who won the 2012 Outland Trophy, is projected as possibly the top overall selection in April, with Matthews also pegged as a first-round talent.
Regardless of who protects him next season, Manziel will be back in 2013. After Friday’s contest, NFL.com analyst Gil Brandt, the Dallas Cowboys’ former vice-president of player personnel, posted a tweet calling Manziel’s effort the “best performance” he’d ever seen by a college football player.
On his Twitter account, Brandt wrote: “Best performance by player I’ve ever seen. @JManziel2 was unbelievable. Better than Cam vs. Bama in 2010.”
As for the future, Manziel said: “I’m not really worried about the future right now. I’m really enjoying this. It’s been crazy … how we’ve progressed as a team, how we’ve continued to get better every week.”
All the way to being the best college football team in Texas during the Aggies’ debut season as an SEC member.
_ Jimmy Burch