The Aggie Butterfly Effect: What if A&M Had Stayed?
Does Texas A&M’s Cotton Bowl dominance of Oklahoma mean the Aggies would have had an even better season had they stayed in the Big 12? No.
University of Texas fans are understandably tired of hearing about Texas A&M’s first season in the Southeastern Conference–from the Alabama upset to Johnny Manziel’s Heisman Trophy to the Cotton Bowl. Hey, now they know how Aggies felt for most of the last 40 years.
But portions of the Longhorns fan base, as well as Texas sports pundits who still hate the UT/A&M divorce, have settled on an unconvincing trope to make the case that A&M should not have left the Big 12 for the SEC. Instead of simply pointing out that any program which considers a third-place conference finish to be one of its all-time memorable seasons does still have a ways to go (even if that ignores the fact that sports are about narrative as much as won-lost records), the most popular attempt at trash-talk has been something along the lines of:
“Hey Aggie, the joke’s on you (like it always is), because if you stayed in the Big 12, you would have won it!”
So if Aggies had stayed in the Big 12, they would’ve/could’ve run the table…and we’ve seen what they can do against Alabama.
— Derek Ryan (@longhornderek) January 8, 2013
— Jerome Solomon (@JeromeSolomon) January 8, 2013
In other words: “If you hadn’t joined the SEC, you would have beat our seriously disappointing Longhorns team, and all the other ones as well. Na-na-na-na-na!”
But as anyone who’s ever seen a movie–let’s say Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure–knows, this is totally fallacious. If you change one thing that happened in the past, you potentially change everything. There’s no way we can know what really would have happened had the Aggies stayed–though such thinking is understandable coming from a constituency that is still 100% sure UT wins the 2009 BCS championship game against Alabama if Colt McCoy does not get hurt.
Baseball fans are also quite fond of this optimistic logic: nobody ever says, “if the ump doesn’t blow that call at first, the runner would have been out on a double play next batter!” But alternate realties are not that simple.
So here’s what I think might have happened if the Aggies hadn’t joined the SEC. It’s ridiculous, but no less so than assuming that they would have met up against ‘Bama in the BCS.
THE SHERMAN EFFECT
First off, these woulda-shouldas are completely based on the idea that the very same Kevin Sumlin-coached Texas A&M team that we saw in the SEC would have been in the Big 12. But there’s little reason to believe that would have been the case, which changes everything. Here are some scenarios:
1. Mike Sherman keeps his job because the 2011 team goes 9-4 instead of 7-6.
We all know football teams are not supposed to look ahead to next week. But arguably, Sherman’s 2011 A&M squad, which began the season ranked #9 by the Associated Press, was looking ahead to next year. It was all “S-E-C!,” all the time. Without the distraction/hype of, respectively, “SEC Preview” and “Last Meeting Ever,” maybe they beat Arkansas in Arlington and Texas at Kyle Field. Then Kevin Sumlin’s coaching Arizona State.
2. Mike Sherman keeps his job because Bill Byrne did.
It’s believed by many college football writers that the former A&M athletic director was not driving the SEC train. Had A&M not left the Big 12, Byrne probably sticks around, and stands by Sherman too. Even with that disappointing 7-6 season, there was a legitimate argument that Sherman deserved a fifth year to try and make the most out of his junior and senior recruiting classes. You may have noticed they were pretty good. But it was best to start from scratch in a new conference.
3. Johnny Manziel’s not the quarterback.
New coaches embrace big changes. Old coaches stick with what they know. When it came to the Aggies’ pre-season QB battle, Sherman could have easily gone with Ryan Tannehill’s back-up, Jameill Showers, out of loyalty alone. Or he might have opted for Matt Joeckel, a more traditional NFL-style pocket passer than Manziel, as Sherman is and was an NFL offensive mind.
But okay: let’s allow that none of the above happened: that the Aggies coaching staff and players that we saw this year were all in place. This choose-your own adventure still goes somewhere else:
4. The Aggies lose a game they shouldn’t.
Even if A&M was in the Big 12 with this incredible team, that would not have made their coronation automatic. College football is a land of upsets (just ask Alabama). The only team that didn’t lose a game they were supposed to win this year was Notre Dame. ‘Bama wasn’t even supposed to survive their loss to A&M, because there was just NO WAY that Oregon and Kansas State, or at least one of them, would NOT go undefeated.
Anyway, by definition, the A&M team that was good enough to upset Alabama and destroy the Sooners only got that way by losing games to Florida and LSU. They learned. And they were tested by the SEC. For all we know, had they been five games into a Big 12 schedule instead of five games into an SEC schedule, they might drop one to Louisiana Tech.
Not because the Big 12 is a weaker conference. Just a different path.
Shoot, in this alternate reality, maybe Hurricane Isaac doesn’t happen, and the Aggies stumble in their opener against the Bulldogs.
5. Or the Aggies lose to Arkansas.
Another possibility. Because, obviously, it was the turmoil of conference realignment that drove Razorbacks head coach Bobby Petrino into the arms of a young university athletics foundation fundraiser. If an ironclad relationship like UT/A&M could just get tossed away, well . . . anything goes!
But if the Aggies and Longhorns had settled their differences? Petrino keeps his moral compass, doesn’t lose his job and Arkansas (which would have once again played A&M in Arlington) actually lives up to its preseason ranking instead of going 4-8.
THE LONGHORNS FACTOR
6. The University of Texas doesn’t lose to West Virgina or TCU.
Obviously, because they aren’t on the Big 12 schedule.
7. The Aggies beat Oklahoma.
For the purpose of this exercise, let’s concede this match-up would have gone exactly the same way.
8. And Texas doesn’t.
Hey, what else is new? But it’s a whole lot closer.
And in this reality, the Horns already upset Kansas State (which would have taken West Virginia’s spot on the schedule, itself a date–this does get real confusing–that originally belonged to Pac-12 exile Colorado).
On top of that, Horns defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat doesn’t get hurt against the Sooners, and Manny Diaz’s defense, its psyche less damaged for lack of facing West Virginia’s Geno Smith and Andrew Buie, comes into its own.
9. UT plays A&M.
Which means that on Thanksgiving Day, the Horns (10-1, 7-1 Big 12) host Texas A&M (10-1, 8-0 Big 12). The Aggies are the better team, but this is college football, and a rivalry game no less. Strange things tend to happen.
The Aggies have the ball with the game tied 21-21 late in the fourth quarter when Manziel scrambles 15 yards but is caught from behind by Jeffcoat, who forces a fumble that Kenny Vaccaro recovers at the UT 35. The Aggies stop the Horns on first and second down, but on 3rd and 12, a David Ash/Johnathan Gray Statue-of-Liberty puts the ball in range for Anthony Fera, who wins the game with his 17th straight successful field goal attempt, a 47-yarder in the final seconds.
Then, the following week, when Oklahoma loses to Oklahoma State, UT becomes the Big 12 champion, and edges out Notre Dame for the right to take on LSU–that’s right, the Tigers did beat Alabama–in the BCS game.
So there you have it, sports fans. If only Texas A&M hadn’t left the Big 12 for the SEC, Mack Brown’s Longhorns might have played LSU for the national championship! Oh, but wait… there’s still one more loose end:
10. Johnny Manziel wins the Heisman
C’mon. Have you seen those Big 12 defenses?
Actually, I don’t believe this. Without the power of the SEC–both its reputation as the toughest conference and its media voting bloc–Manziel probably loses to Notre Dame linebacker Manti T’eo, especially with the Irish undefeated.
Which only proves the point. Nobody can really know what would have happened had the Aggies played in the Big 12 this year, but anything short of a national championship would not be equal to the unique joy of Manziel’s Heisman, the Alabama upset or the whole “first-date” experience with a conference that is plainly such a cultural fit.
And while one season does not a program make, the combination of Sumlin’s coaching prowess and the undeniable recruiting hammer of being in the state of Texas and a member of the SEC is scary . . . maybe even to Nick Saban. Which is why the UT/A&M hatred remains as strong as ever.