COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- A year ago at this time, Texas A&M football was at an important crossroads.
The program sought out a new head coach, having dismissed Mike Sherman, who went 25-25 in four seasons there. The crosshairs in the process appeared to be set on Houston's Kevin Sumlin, who went 35-17 through four seasons in Houston and lifted the Cougars high into the national rankings in both 2009 and 2011.
The Aggies were coming off a 6-6 year (which would become 7-6 after a win over Northwestern in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas), one that had high preseason expectations, including a top-10 ranking. A year that was supposed to be filled with success was instead marred with second-half collapses and a wondering about where things were headed. With the transition from the Big 12 to the Southeastern Conference on tap, the leadership felt a new direction was needed. Sumlin was eventually tabbed to lead the Aggies into the SEC -- and since then, things have drastically changed.
The last 365 days, give or take a few, have been transformative for the program. Sumlin has injected an energy and swagger into the program that has fueled the Aggies' 10-2 season. After graduating a top-10, first-round pick at quarterback (Ryan Tannehill), a redshirt freshman named Johnny Manziel has stepped in and shattered records and become a Heisman Trophy candidate. Texas A&M is ranked in the top 10 (No. 9) and the recruiting momentum that the Aggies are building is strong, as they're quickly becoming a premier destination for recruits by offering the combination of quality facilities, college football's premier conference and a chance to win in that conference.
What a difference a year makes.
Some of the things the Aggies accomplished this season seemed like pipe dreams at the start of the year. A potential Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback? Going into fall camp, Sumlin and offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury had not even named a starter at the position, with redshirt sophomores Jameill Showers and Matt Joeckel battling Manziel.
Even for the quarterback himself, often called by his nickname, "Johnny Football," it's a little unbelievable.
"It’s crazy," he said "It’s so surreal for me to even be mentioned in the same category or in the same sentence as the Heisman Trophy. It would be a dream come true for me to even go to New York and sit down, after years and years of watching guys that I looked up to get dressed up and sit on the front row and hope that their name is called. So for me, it would be a dream come true and something that I would cherish forever."
While Manziel has played a major role in the Aggies' success, so has the leadership of the team -- and not just Sumlin and the coaching staff, but the senior class of players. Guys like linebackers Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart, safety Steven Terrell, defensive tackle Spencer Nealy, center Patrick Lewis, receivers Ryan Swope and Uzoma Nwachukwu and cornerback/return specialist Dustin Harris have been a big reason the Aggies are a top-10 team this year.
For starters, Sumlin said, they bought in to what the new coaching staff was selling and the idea that they could be successful in the SEC, despite what others said.
"It really was just guys having faith; belief without proof," Sumlin said. "Coming into the year, we really didn't care what everybody else's expectations were ... I think that what these seniors have done is to really set the tone for how to do things away from Saturday. There was a big change in that type of culture."
Sherman said something interesting in his final news conference as the Aggies' coach, after flatly stating that he felt he didn't deserved to be fired.
"I feel like the program is definitely headed in the right direction and I hope the next coach appreciates the opportunity he's going to get to work with these players," he said.
Though some changes fueled this signature season, the first since 1998 in which the Aggies have won 10 games, it turns out Sherman was right.
While many had questions about what could be for the Aggies in the SEC, the players were confident. When asked after the final game of the season whether he could have imagined the season turning out the way it has, Porter took it a step further, demonstrating the confidence the team carried throughout the year.
"It's not as good as I thought it could be," Porter said. "Like Jonathan said, we thought we were going to win all of our games. We truthfully thought that. A lot of people were giving us crap about it at the beginning of the season. I remember going into SEC media day and all those guys in there were looking at me like we were going to be some kind of doormat or something, but this entire time we've had a lot of confidence, and we have confidence in the type of players that we have. I've said it since the beginning of the season: We have the same caliber of athletes as anybody does in the nation. I think this was a great season for us to come out and prove that, and A&M is just going to go up from here."