Johnny Manziel Takes Texas A&M on Tour
We traveled through SEC country: through Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia, up into the Carolinas, and back to Texas by way of Tennessee. We didn't tour any schools in Mississippi (insert Mississippi joke here), but we saw the University of Alabama, and I still remember the bottle-green gleam of its tree-studded campus.
While I eventually educated myself closer to home, the trip itself succeeded for a number of reasons. I still remember the beauty and prestige of the colleges we visited. I enjoyed the time with my family, too: we spent seven days crowded together in the van, and within the identical egg-white walls of every Hampton Inn in the U.S. Southeastern region, and, at least in my now-distant memory, suffered little to no discord. But more than anything, that trip through the South opened my eyes to the world outside my home state, showed me what waited in a broad swath of the U.S., and helped me make a decision about where to attend college.
For the Texas A&M Aggies, a similar journey began last week, as they set off on a three-game out-of-town quest into the heart of the SEC. The football team travels not in search of potential colleges, of course, but they seek an intangible element similarly defining. Before the 2012 season even started, this autumnal interlude, taking the Aggies to Auburn, Mississippi State, and Alabama, promised to determine just how competitive A&M would be in the SEC in the near future.
Since then, redshirt freshman Johnny Manziel has raised everyone's expectations of what this team could and should be. The Aggies are 6-2 on the year, their two losses close misses against Top 10 SEC rivals Florida and LSU. A&M closed out two tough games on the road, beating Ole Miss in Oxford and Louisiana Tech in Shreveport. And while the Aggies were favored in both of those contests, their ability to finish those games set the program apart from a 2011 team that never managed to win on its own terms.
Through eight games, the 2012 Aggies, young as they are, have managed to raise expectations for the current season and those to come. The tough thing about expectation is, it's a little like the speed limit on I-20: construction and road work annoy more in a 70 than a 40. The higher the expectation, the more setbacks are likely to frustrate.
So, just how many bridges need building, how many potholes need filling, before Texas A&M can talk about conference championships and (I'm not the first to say it) Heisman Trophies? The Aggies destroyed Auburn Saturday night 63-21, but given the Tigers' abysmal record and the doomsday omen of Auburn sage Pat Dye, who damned the Tigers' season seven games in, it's hard to glean much from that particular college tour. What the Aggies did achieve at Auburn was a preseason-like outing of the second and third strings and some good game-time experience for on-again, off-again kicker Taylor Bertolet.
However, in the next two weeks, A&M travels to Mississippi State and then to Tuscaloosa to face the Crimson Tide. So far this season, 15th-ranked Mississippi State has given up only one game, and that came Saturday in Alabama, where the Tide ate the Bulldogs like a sack of Funyuns they found under the back seat. Performance suggests the Aggies, ranked 16th in this week's BCS standings, should win in Mississippi. Doing so would help distance the 2012 Aggies from their 2011 counterparts; one thing the 2011 Aggies couldn't do was win the close games in which they were favored.
A victory at Mississippi State would also give courage to an Aggie team charged with slaying the proverbial giant. Confident or no, it's unlikely the Aggies will win in Tuscaloosa, but doing so isn't an imperative, not yet. Win or lose, the Crimson Tide is likely to serve up A&M's young soul on a plate in November, just in time for Thanksgiving.
The Aggies didn't choose their schedule this year, but this particular test suits their mentality. The established, the comfortable, the content: they don't pack their bags and leave home, looking for themselves. It's the young, the undefined, the restless and insecure that hit the road in search of identity, redemption, or both. In travel we strip ourselves of the superficial labels of home and past and cut to the pith of ourselves. Or, like that trip I took with my family back in the mid-Nineties, we simply find out what, exactly, we are not.
When the Aggies return home in November to face Sam Houston State and Missouri, they (and everyone else in the SEC) will know exactly who they are.