Aggies Amped for Entry, Descent, and Landing in the SEC

A&M preps for SEC like Curiosity was prepped for Mars

New A&M unis for 2012
New A&M unis for 2012

Early on August 6, NASA's Curiosity approached Martian soil after eight months of travel. Curiosity was and is a rover, created by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

As the Martian science lab the size of a small car began its entry, descent, and landing sequence, it employed all kinds of curious devices — from the strongest supersonic parachute NASA's ever sewn to a jet-propelled "sky crane" — in the name of deceleration.

Curiosity needed to slow from a speed of 13,000 miles per hour at the edge of Mars's atmosphere to a controlled stop on the surface. And all of this had to happen automatically, without help from Earth. In a video released prior to the landing, NASA dubbed the process "seven minutes of terror" because the sequence would outpace even light-speed communication with Earth by a full seven minutes.

Mark Lemmon, an atmospheric science instructor at Texas A&M University, operates one of Curiosity's cameras. So in a way, all Aggies had an interest in the rover's triumphant landing (and it was, by all accounts, triumphant). But Aggies looking forward to the school's debut football season in the Southeastern Conference and anyone speculating on the team's potential success (or delayed success … Aggies never lose, they just run out of time) should stop to compare the lead-up to the new season to the Earth-bound preparations made for Curiosity's launch.

As in any high-stakes endeavor with little margin for error, the team at JPL spent years problem-solving before launching the rover on its journey. "It is the result," said engineer Adam Steltzner, "of reasoned engineering thought." Similarly, Texas A&M has been prepping for entry into the SEC since the close of their last Big 12 season, and those cumulative decisions will determine whether the Aggies land on solid ground or burn out in the conference's heady atmosphere.

After a promising start, Aggie Football went just 7-6 in 2011. A team that started games strong faltered in the second half: the Aggies' self-conscious play and conservative play calling saw halftime leads evaporate in five of six losses. And with Ryan Tannehill headed to the NFL, the team needed to fill a gaping hole at the quarterback position.

So far, the Aggies seem to have addressed their most glaring problems, as well as some anticipated and some purely imagined. After three years and an unacceptable 25-25 record, Texas A&M let coach Mike Sherman go last December. Ten days later, Athletic Director Bill Byrne hired Kevin Sumlin to fill the void. As head football coach at the University of Houston, Sumlin led a confident, high-scoring offense to a 12-1 record.

Sumlin's dramatic style promised to cure the Aggies' timidity, but the team still needed a quarterback capable of piloting the offense. Coach Sumlin waited until August 15 to name his starter, drawing out the competition between Johnny Manziel and early frontrunner Jameill Showers. Manziel, the 2011 National High School Coaches Association Player of the Year, ultimately won the job. Manziel will be the first true freshman quarterback to start for the Aggies since Stephen McGee did so against Texas in 2005.

While all of this was happening, did anyone wonder what the Aggies would wear? Probably not. But over the summer the program tried to create suspense over the team's new Adidas uniforms and finally unveiled the new look to the public in July. Some might suggest the updated uniforms could help in recruiting efforts; the helmets feature anodized maroon paint (that's technical talk for not shiny) and gloves with the school's logo on the palms. A new stripe curves over the players' shoulders, too, but from a distance the Aggies will look almost exactly the same. Which leads me to believe that until conference play actually starts, the Aggies think marketing will do just as much to sway speculation as naming a new head coach or starting quarterback.

No matter what Coach Sumlin plans, no matter how many snaps Manziel takes in practice, no one will really know what the Aggies will show us until Florida hits College Station on September 8, and the team officially lands — or crashes — in the SEC. NASA's Curiosity will spend the next two years trying to answer the question: Was there ever life on Mars? Aggies will know if there's life in the SEC much sooner.

On August 30, Texas A&M takes on Louisiana Tech in Shreveport. The Aggies are 10-0 against the Bulldogs all-time. This early nonconference game should give promising new talent like Johnny Manziel and freshman running back Trey Williams a safe testing ground before the Aggies enter their own seven minutes of terror, as they wait a nail-biting week and a half to explore the surface of the SEC.

But make no mistake: the SEC is coming, and it's coming fast. The Aggies played their last Big 12 game on November 24, 2011, just two days before Curiosity launched from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Like the folks at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab, I'm counting down the days to Tango Delta nominal — that's technical talk for touchdown — and hoping for a soft landing.

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