COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Texas A&M already had its introduction to Southeastern Conference football.
It wasn't a successful debut for the Aggies but it was a respectable one, a 20-17 home loss to Florida on Sept. 8. With a redshirt freshman quarterback making his first collegiate start and a coaching staff making its debut in Aggieland with new offensive and defensive schemes in tow, the Aggies showed signs of what could be with deficiencies that prevented them from winning, things they've worked to correct since then.
More than five weeks have passed since that day and much has changed. The Aggies (5-1) haven't lost a game since and in that span have collected their first two SEC wins. Johnny Manziel has gone from largely unknown to one of the nation's most exciting offensive players. And a lot of questions are being answered from whether the offense would work (it has), to whether the defense would improve (it has, the 59-57 thriller against Louisiana Tech notwithstanding) to whether the Aggies could close games and fix the second-half collapses that plagued them in 2011 (so far, they have).
On Saturday, the Aggies get an introduction of a different kind -- one to a top-10 SEC team -- the LSU Tigers when they enter Kyle Field at 11 a.m. on Saturday.
Florida is No. 2 in the BCS standings now but was 23rd in the Associated Press poll when the Aggies met the Gators. The No. 6 Tigers, thought to be a national title contender before the season began, have largely been viewed as one of the two most significant challenges on the Aggies' inaugural SEC schedule (No. 1 Alabama being the other).
It's one of 12 games on the schedule -- and Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin will likely emphasize that point in interviews this week -- but make no mistake, it's a big one.
Not only do both teams come in ranked (the Aggies debuted at No. 18 in the first 2012 BCS standings on Sunday), but both are fighting for the same thing -- to climb the ladder in the SEC West -- and both have a conference loss to their name (both lost to Florida).
For LSU, they want to not only stay in the hunt for the division title, but also in the BCS championship picture. For the Aggies, it's a chance to make an impression on several levels.
Which brings us back to one of the original questions: Will the offense work?
When Sumlin and offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury, running backs coach Clarence McKinney and offensive line coach B.J. Anderson arrived from Houston, they brought with them an up-tempo, wide-open spread offense rooted in Air Raid principles. It helped Houston break records and rank No. 1 nationally in total offense in 2011 and 2009, and was one of the driving forces behind the Cougars' near-BCS busting season, in which they vaulted into the top 10 and started 12-0.
But that was a different team in a different league, one not known for its defense, like the SEC is. The caliber of athletes in the SEC is generally higher, evidenced by the number of NFL draft picks that come from SEC teams. So far, the Aggies offense has been good enough to rank sixth nationally and beat two SEC squads (Arkansas and Mississippi). Against Florida, the Aggies were good enough offensively to score 17 points in the first half but struggled in the second half and were shut out.
So Saturday will be a chance for the Aggies to right some of the wrongs of their season-opening loss to Florida and it will be a barometer for what Manziel and the Aggies offense can do against what is considered to be an elite defense. LSU ranks second in the country in total defense, allowing a meager 219.5 yards per game, less than half of what Texas A&M has averaged in its first six games [543.6].
It will also be a big game on the recruiting front. The Aggies will have plenty of visitors and are expecting several of their top targets in both the 2013 and 2014 class, including ESPN 150 receiver Ricky Seals-Jones (Sealy, Texas/Sealy) and linebacker Mike Mitchell (Plano, Texas/Prestonwood Christian). ESPN 150 defensive tackle Justin Manning is also a possibility, but said on Monday night that he wasn't yet for sure if he was going to make the trip. ESPN Watch List members Tony Brown (Beaumont, Texas/Ozen), and Arlington (Texas) Mansfield teammates Ed Paris and Brandon Simmons are among the expected 2014 visitors.
The season opener against Florida brought dozens of visitors, including 20 of the Aggies' 2013 commitments as well as several uncommitted 2013 and 2014 standouts. The impressions from the recruits were virtually all positive, so the Aggies are hoping for similar sentiments coming out of this weekend's tilt. If that atmosphere meets or exceeds that of the Florida game, it could bode well for the Aggies, particularly if they're able to pull off a victory.