COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- The first question said it all.
When Kevin Sumlin took to the podium Thursday for Texas A&M's weekly press conference in advance of the Aggies' season opener against Louisiana Tech, the first question he fielded from reporters was, "So how bad is the season going to be?"
Though the question was meant as a joke, it illustrated the national perception for how the Aggies will fare in their first year as members of the big, bad Southeastern Conference, college football's premier league.
And while it drew laughs around the room and a smile from Sumlin as the reporter followed it up by saying that based on what he's read, the season won't be that good, Texas A&M's head coach didn't hesitate in his response.
"Everybody's got their opinion," Sumlin said. "Nobody really knows what we're getting into. Everybody thinks they do."
While there is much truth in that statement, there are two programs that have at least an idea of what Texas A&M should expect: Arkansas and South Carolina.
It was 20 years ago that those two schools began playing football in the league. The conference expanded in 1991 to add those two programs, both of which began SEC football in 1992. Much has changed since then: The college football landscape has been modified time and again by conference realignment. The popularity of the sport has exploded, as have television revenues. The way the champion is proclaimed has changed, and will change again in two years. And the SEC's success at the highest levels of college football is better now than it was then, as the league boasts the last six BCS national champions.
But it's worth looking at the history of Arkansas and South Carolina and the paths they've traveled since joining the conference.John Sommers II/Icon SMI
South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier hasn't been able to replicate the success he had at Florida from 1990 to 2001.
Neither school's first SEC season was memorable. Arkansas' debut had the makings of a nightmare before the Razorbacks even faced an SEC opponent. They dropped their season opener 10-3 to The Citadel on Sept. 5, 1992. The next day, they had a new head coach: Jack Crowe was out after two-plus seasons, defensive coordinator Joe Kines was in after Crowe and then-athletic director Frank Broyles had a heated exchange that led to Crowe's departure.
The Razorbacks were able to bounce back from the incident and go on the road to crush South Carolina, their first-year SEC counterpart, 45-7, but they proceeded to lose six of their next eight and finished the year 3-6-1 (3-4-1 in the league).
Like Arkansas, South Carolina's first season in the SEC began roughly. The Gamecocks' first two games as SEC members were home conference games, both of which ended badly for the home team. Georgia beat South Carolina 28-6 before 75,060 at Williams-Brice Stadium in the Gamecocks' SEC opener before the Arkansas rout the following week.
The Gamecocks lost their first five games that season --- four of which were SEC games --- under then fourth-year head coach Sparky Woods. However, South Carolina rallied in the second half of the season to avoid having a horrific inaugural league campaign, winning five of their last six to finish 5-6 overall (3-5 in the SEC).
Arkansas made a mild improvement the following season under new coach Danny Ford, going 5-5-1 overall and 3-4-1 in the SEC, though it became 6-4-1 and 4-3-1 after Alabama vacated a win over Arkansas as part of NCAA sanctions the Crimson Tide received. The Razorbacks hit a high point under Ford in 1995, going 8-5 (6-2 in the SEC) and winning their first SEC West Division title. Ford would not oversee another winning season and gave way to Houston Nutt in 1998, who went 75-48 in 10 seasons in Fayetteville.
Arkansas was the SEC West co-champ in 1998 under Nutt, going 9-3 (6-2) that year. Under Nutt, the Razorbacks finished first or tied for first in the SEC West three times. The Razorbacks also saw significant success under the coach who succeeded Nutt, Bobby Petrino. In four seasons, Petrino went 37-14, including two double-digit win seasons in the last two years. The Razorbacks finished ranked 12th in 2010, going 10-3 (6-2 in the SEC West, good for second place) and finished No. 5 in the rankings in 2011, going 11-2 (6-2, third in SEC West) before Petrino was fired this offseason after a motorcycle accident led to the uncovering of an affair he had with an athletic department staff member whom he hired.
South Carolina also had a new coach not long into its SEC membership, as Brad Scott took over in 1994. He oversaw the Gamecocks' first overall winning record as an SEC member, as they went 7-5 (4-4 SEC) in 1994, earning the program's first bowl win (24-21 over West Virginia in the CarQuest Bowl). The Gamecocks would not return to a bowl game under Scott, nor would they post better a record than they did in his first season; his tenure ended with a 1-10 thud in 1998, a campaign in which they went winless in the league (0-8).
The following season brought the introduction of the Lou Holtz era as he came out of retirement to take over the program. His first year, like Scott's last year, was nightmarish, as the Gamecocks bottomed out at 0-11 and went winless in the SEC for the second straight year. But fortunes began to turn in 2000 in Columbia, as Holtz guided them to back-to-back winning seasons, Top 25 finishes, consecutive Outback Bowl appearances and their first years with winning SEC records. Their ninth season in the SEC, 2000, was their first with an above-.500 league mark (5-3), one they would repeat in 2001.
Since 2000, the Gamecocks have been much more competitive than they were in their early league years. Steve Spurrier's arrival in 2005 brought much fanfare, and the Gamecocks have gone 55-35 (.611) under Spurrier and 29-27 in SEC play (.517). The last South Carolina coach to have a winning overall record over a span that long was the late Joe Morrison, who went 39-28-2 from 1983-88.
Like Arkansas, South Carolina has been strong the last two years. In 2010, the Gamecocks won the SEC East and earned their first SEC championship game berth (a 56-17 loss to eventual BCS champion Auburn). In 2011, the Gamecocks finished the season 11-2, with a win over Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl and a top-10 AP ranking (No. 9) for the first time in program history.
In 20 seasons, Arkansas has finished in the top three or tied for one of the top three spots in the SEC West 11 times and finished fourth or lower nine times. The Razorbacks finished first or tied for first in the West four times and made three SEC championship game appearances: 1995, 2002 and 2006. They've been to 12 bowls in that span, going 138-103-2 overall and 78-80-2 in SEC play.
In their two-decade stretch, the Gamecocks have gone 120-117-1 overall and 66-93-1 in SEC play, been to nine bowls, and made one SEC title game appearance (2010). South Carolina has finished in the top three of their division eight times and finished fourth or lower 12 times.
Neither team has won an SEC title, though both have finished in the top 10 in the rankings during their time. There is one BCS bowl appearance between the two teams since joining the league: Arkansas' 2011 Sugar Bowl appearance versus Ohio State.
Patience might be required as the Aggies begin their journey in the league, but Sumlin won't concede to a first year of struggles.
"As I've said since I came here, we owe it to our fans and we owe it to our seniors and current players to try to win now," Sumlin said. "It's coachspeak when you say, 'We've got to take it one week at a time,' but that's the approach that I've always taken as a head coach and that's not going to change.
"We've been guaranteed 12 opportunities to play. And the first opportunity is [Thursday]."