COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Are they good enough?
That is a question that many fans, observers and pundits posed or tried to answer when Texas A&M initially announced it was moving to the Southeastern Conference.
Are the Aggies good enough to compete with the best the SEC -- college football's premier league -- has to offer? There were many skeptics and there still will be some after the No. 18 Aggies' 24-19 loss to No. 6 LSU on Saturday at Kyle Field.
But if you watched closely, one thing became evident as the events unfolded in front of the 87,429 in the building. Not only are the Aggies good enough to compete with a top-10 team from the SEC, they're good enough to beat said team.
The Aggies lost for many reasons, some self-inflicted, some imposed by the Tigers. But it wasn't because they were outclassed or simply weren't good enough. The Aggies proved to be more than up to snuff against the physicality of one of the SEC's traditional powers, LSU, a two-time BCS champion since 2003.
Saturday was evidence that Texas A&M, by the looks of it, is ready to go toe-to-toe with the SEC's big boys. But it was also evidence that the Aggies have a long way to go.
"This one hurts a lot," senior center Patrick Lewis, a Louisiana native, said. "I know a lot of those guys on that team and it would have been real nice to get a win, not only for myself but for our team and for Kyle Field. It's a win that Texas A&M has needed for a real long time. But we've got to get over it. We have a lot of ball to play. We go on the road next week in another hostile environment. We're going to learn from the mistakes we made today and we're going to continue to get better."
The Aggies left points on the board when a chop block penalty on offensive lineman Jarvis Harrison and Luke Joeckel erased a throwback screen pass to Ben Malena that would have been a 34-yard first-quarter touchdown. That would have given Texas A&M a possible 13-0 lead fewer than 10 minutes into the game.
Instead, it had to settle for a field goal and it took until the 7:24 mark in the second quarter before the Aggies pushed the lead to double digits.
Redshirt freshman kicker Taylor Bertolet missed 2-of-4 field goals, one of which came from 33 yards in the fourth quarter after a 76-yard kickoff return by freshman Trey Williams. So after starting from the LSU 16-yard line and cutting into a 17-12 Tigers lead, the Aggies came away with no points.
"We left some points out there, obviously, with a couple missed field goals," Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said. "Against a team like that, you want to score touchdowns in the red zone."
And Saturday was also a learning experience for redshirt freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel, who has dazzled onlookers with his ability to improvise and make plays with his legs and his right arm and appeared on the verge of taking college by storm.
The Kerrville (Texas) Tivy product still showed some of his signature playmaking ability, but LSU kept the young man dubbed "Johnny Football" from breaking the game open. The speed of the Tigers defense was able to run him down and prevent big ground gains (he finished with a season-low 27 yards on 17 carries) and when he tried to force passes while scrambling -- like the one Tharold Simon picked off with 3:20 to go in the game -- they made him pay.
Earlier this season when the Aggies defeated SMU, Manziel made one of many highlight-worthy plays when he was able to spin out of a sack, throw off one foot and complete a touchdown pass to Kenric McNeal. Against LSU, there was a moment where Manziel scrambled left, switch the ball to his left hand and threw it and was nearly intercepted by an LSU defender.
It was a learning experience for the young quarterback, who was appearing in just his seventh game.
"He learns from everything," Sumlin said. "He learns from every series. Every experience is a learning experience for him right now. This is game seven for him. It's a completely different environment. He's as hard on himself as we are as coaches. [Offensive coordinator] Kliff [Kingsbury's] doing a great job with him. We just have to keep getting better and he'll continue to do that."
Sumlin said the mistakes can be attributed to a combination of youth, lack of execution and the caliber of the Aggies opponent.
"Where we have to get over the hump is execution and being consistent," he said. "It's no different than what I've said from Game One. Against a very talented team the margin for error gets really, really slim. We made too many today."
It's clear that the Aggies aren't there yet, but potential for success against the SEC's elite is there if the mistakes made on Saturday are corrected.
"I think we're very close," Aggies senior receiver Uzoma Nwachukwu said. "We're a team that defensively, they're excited, they're jumping around, they're running to the ball. We have a great defense and offensively, the sky is the limit for us. We just have to focus down on the little things that make great things: turnovers, penalties and things like that. We have to harp on that and if we want to get to elite status, that's what we have to do."