Texas A&M's most-hyped football season in 12 years opens tonight, with players vowing to remain focused on SMU no matter how often the Kyle Field crowd makes reference to the Southeastern Conference.
The eighth-ranked Aggies are a team in transition, from a conference affiliation standpoint, after university President R. Bowen Loftin officially notified the Big 12 on Wednesday of plans to withdraw, pending an invitation to another league. Loftin has acknowledged talks with officials from the SEC, a potential move that caused attendees at the school's Aug. 13 summer graduation ceremony to chant, "SEC! SEC!" when Loftin took the stage.
A&M has yet to apply for SEC membership, a step that is expected this week. But the potential move has been a hot topic of campus conversation despite players' desire to concentrate on tonight's matchup against SMU (6:30 p.m., FSSW). The Mustangs return 18 starters from a 7-7 team that played in last year's Conference USA championship game.
"When you have a team focused on championships, you can't listen to those things or focus on those things," said receiver Uzoma Nwachukwu, who admits to receiving daily SEC-related updates from classmates.
He added that "everyone is encouraging" about the possibilities for an A&M team coming off a 9-4 record and starting with its first Top-10 preseason ranking since 1999. A&M announced this week that its only remaining tickets for the 2011 football season will come from allotments returned by visiting teams.
Safety Trent Hunter, one of the Aggies' team captains, said the buzz around town is nice but the team must focus on the job at hand.
"I think Sunday will speak for itself," Hunter said. "Being ranked where we are won't get us a win. We're going to have to go out and play this game."
SMU's strength is offense, where 10 starters return. The list includes quarterback Kyle Padron, a Southlake Carroll graduate. With A&M rebuilding its pass rush without Von Miller, the Big 12 sack leader for the past two seasons, defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter admits A&M could have scheduled a less daunting challenge for the season opener.
"This is not a 'warm-up' game by any stretch," DeRuyter said. "This is a team that could challenge anyone in our league."
A&M quarterback Ryan Tannehill said the Aggies embrace tonight's opportunity as a Top-10 team and understand its implications.
"We're glad to be back in the spotlight," Tannehill said. "We want to prove those expectations are well-deserved. But that's all they are -- expectations. Nothing's been proved. Now, it's our job to prove that."
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