The Best of Times, the Worst of Times

A look back at Texas A&M and Missouri's first season in the SEC

The Best of Times, the Worst of Times

Saturday night at Kyle Field, the Aggies put an emphatic stamp on a season that exceeded everyone's expectations but Aggieland's. With the win, Texas A&M finished the regular season 10-2, winning 10 games for the first time since Bill Clinton hosted the Spice Girls at the White House.

Quarterback Johnny Manziel bolstered his Heisman Trophy candidacy (and encouraged profligate use of his nickname TM) with another solid performance. He led the Aggies to 42 points in the first half alone, and to 59 points before his curtain call early in the fourth quarter. Manziel rushed for 68 yards on 12 carries and passed for 372 yards, completing 32 of 44 attempts with one interception. Johnny Football, aka Captain Amazing, aka Heismanziel, accounted for five of the Aggies' eight touchdowns.

Kicker Taylor Bertolet turned in a perfect game, punching in eight extra points and connecting on a 50-yard field goal in the third quarter.

The Aggies' "lotsa heart" guy, No. 99 Spencer Nealy, had a big game on defense, logging five unassisted tackles and two tackles for loss. And as time expired, Damontre Moore dumped a cooler full of ice on first-year coach Kevin Sumlin.

Meanwhile the Missouri Tigers, also finishing their first season in the SEC, claimed a pitiable 5-7 record with Saturday's loss. The Tigers managed just two conference wins for fifth place in the SEC East. Missouri failed to achieve bowl eligibility for the first time in eight years.

The Tigers didn't score until late in the first half, when Kendial Lawrence found the end zone on a four-yard carry. By then Missouri trailed by 42 points, and both the game and the season had slipped through the fingers of their newly-designed-for-the-SEC gloves.

Both the Aggies and the Tigers seemed doomed to mediocrity coming into the 2012 season; early on, both teams fielded plenty of condescending questions about how they would compete with the "big boys" of the nation's toughest football conference. Given the two teams' final records, it's worth looking at where, exactly, these Big XII transplants diverged: how the Aggies lost their starting quarterback to the NFL and still managed to quiet the naysayers, while the Tigers finished behind Vanderbilt — yes, that Vanderbilt — in the SEC East.

First, the bad news: Missouri suffered their first losing season since 2004. The Tigers came close against Syracuse, versus a surprisingly respectable Vanderbilt team, and even to Florida, but got walloped by Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, and Texas A&M.

That last one had to sting a bit. The Tigers had won their previous two contests at Kyle Field, and A&M's seniors had never bested Mizzou.

Missouri coach Gary Pinkel blamed an injury-plagued season for the poor showing; six of Mizzou's 10 offensive linemen — including five starters — suffered injuries this season, while starting quarterback James Franklin missed games with knee and shoulder injuries and a concussion.

The absences in the line forced players to fill new roles throughout the season, and Franklin's absences brought redshirt freshman QB Corbin Berkstresser off the bench earlier than Missouri would have liked. Mizzou finished just 96th in total offense behind Washington State.

The Missouri defense wasn't terrible, but it wasn't good, either. Ranked 56th in the FBS, they certainly couldn't compensate for the Tigers' gimpy offense.

The good news for Aggie fans is that while Texas A&M's defense didn't quite live up to the SEC's (or the Wrecking Crew's) high standard, either, the squad led by junior Moore held opponents to about half the points of Kliff Kingsbury's offense.

For Texas A&M, offense ruled this season. Senior receiver Ryan Swope came on strong in the second half of the schedule, rebounding from a concussion suffered against Louisiana Tech and a disappointing loss at LSU to lead the Aggies to five straight wins.

In the season opener against Florida, Swope caught just five passes for 16 yards. Against LSU he caught 10 balls for 81 yards. And in the win over Alabama, Swope pulled in 11 passes for 111 yards. The hits No. 25 took along the way suggest he's made of the same iron as the train line bisecting the A&M campus.

But the story of the year, not just for the Aggies, but for all of college football, is how a redshirt freshman quarterback named Johnny Manziel turned his team into a contender, College Station into the coolest town in Texas (well, almost), and condensed effort, attitude, and moxie into historically hardcore statistics.

In the process he gave himself a chance to become the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy. If he does take home the prize, he'll be the first Aggie to win it since halfback John David Crow took the honor in 1957. It's about time, Ags.

Whether Manziel wins or not, both College Station and Columbia are different places than they were just a few months ago. The conference shake-up that landed Texas A&M and Mizzou in the SEC promised to change college football; for better or worse, the transition also marked the teams and their programs, for success or failure, for years to come.

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More by Emily Bevan
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Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M football, Taylor Bertolet, Spencer Nealy, Damontre Moore, Kevin Sumlin, Kliff Kingsbury

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