COLLEGE STATION — From the players’ lounge in the Texas A&M football complex, it requires only a short walk to discover tangible evidence of excitement about the program.Construction crews are busy with a $450 million expansion that will make Kyle Field the state’s largest football stadium by 2015 (capacity 102,500).Blueprints call for construction of Champions Hall, where the 2012 Heisman Trophy given to A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel will wind up on permanent display.By the time the expansion is complete, members of this year’s team envision fans being able to view more than Manziel’s historic Heisman, the first awarded to a freshman.They foresee significant recognition and, hopefully, a BCS crystal football heading to College Station after a 2013 season that will begin with A&M’s loftiest preseason perch in the college football polls since 1995 and “Johnny Football” back under center.Assuming, of course, that Manziel is available to play the full season in light of allegations that he accepted compensation for signing memorabilia in violation of NCAA rules.“A lot of people say this is the biggest year for Texas A&M. We’re just embracing everything that comes with it,” said safety Toney Hurd Jr., one of 10 seniors projected as major contributors on the preseason depth chart. “We’re very, very dedicated to being good — not only being good but being great. Winning the national championship, of course, is a goal of ours.”Hurd stressed the need to take goals in sequential order, starting with a season-opening victory over Rice on Saturday followed by an SEC title before honing in on the possibility of the school’s first national championship since 1939.But no one in Aggieland, least of all the high-profile quarterback, is downplaying expectations for a team coming off an 11-2 season that included a 29-24 victory over Alabama, last year’s national champ.“I don’t think you avoid it. Those are your goals and what you want to do,” said Manziel, whose off-field exploits during the off-season generated lots of national attention. “The guys in the locker room all want to win a national championship. Our goal is not to lose a game and to win every time we’re on the field. All the people who are doubting A&M, all the people who are doubting me, saying last year was a fluke. … That’s a chip on my shoulder.”If we’ve learned nothing else about Manziel in the past year, we’ve seen that he loves playing with a mental chip on his shoulder. And he plays his best when he places it there.So, where will that take the 2013 Aggies?Realistically, much will come down to whether Manziel’s newfound celebrity status — from talk show appearances to social media missteps — creates dissension on a team that leaned heavily on his 5,116 yards of total offense last season.Teammates dismiss that possibility, with offensive tackle Jake Matthews saying Manziel is too driven to excel to accept anything less for himself or his team, especially in pressure-packed moments.“It’s amazing how calm he is,” Matthews said. “You can just tell when you look at him that he’s not afraid of the moment. He’s a competitor, he’s a great player and I’m glad to be blocking for him.”Asked if off-field attention given to Manziel could divide the team, Hurd said: “I wouldn’t say it’s a distraction. We love everything that comes with Johnny Football. It’s helping Texas A&M out. It’s putting us on the map.”It’s also made A&M a trendy choice to win this year’s national championship primarily because the team’s season-defining game against Alabama (Sept. 14) will be played in College Station.Coach Kevin Sumlin called it a good thing to be dealing with lofty expectations but acknowledged the Aggies’ depth, especially in the defensive line, is not up to elite SEC standards.“We’re getting there, but we’ve still got a ways to go,” said Sumlin, who envisions another big season as long as the Aggies minimize injuries in depth-depleted areas. “There’s a reason for us to be excited about football this season.”Excited enough to warrant the national title chatter by fans and players?Sure, if the injury bug doesn’t bite and the Alabama game winds up in the win column.Matthews said A&M “gained a little bit of acceptance” as an elite team last season but admits more on-field strides are necessary.“This year, our biggest thing is to prove it,” Matthews said. “We went out there and we showed what we could do last year. Now, we’ve got to prove that we’re the same team, that we can keep doing those things.”If they do, the 2013 Aggies could contribute several notable trophies to the collection being assembled for display once construction is completed in Champions Hall, starting with the shiniest one of all: the BCS crystal football.
Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760 Twitter: @Jimmy_Burch