A year of pomp, preening and projecting about Texas A&M's readiness to play football at a Southeastern Conference level ends today in College Station.
No. 24 Florida (1-0) will apply the measuring stick at 2:30 p.m. in Kyle Field, with a standing-room-only crowd on hand to judge whether the Aggies' initial foray into its new league truly will be "a decision we will relish today, and every day, for 100 years or more."
Those were the words uttered last September by A&M President R. Bowen Loftin in announcing the Aggies' move from the Big 12 to the SEC. They were meant to offer a long-term perspective.
But this is college football season in Texas, where legions of fans draw binding conclusions every Saturday. And this is a Saturday that A&M supporters and players have anticipated for quite some time.
"We didn't come to the SEC to be pushed around," A&M offensive tackle Jake Matthews said earlier this week. "We're not just happy to be here. We came here to compete and do well."
For a team coming off a 7-6 season and a coaching change, as A&M is doing, the definition of doing "well" in a league that boasts college football's past six national champions could be open to interpretation.
But not today. Florida, like A&M, was a 7-6 team last season and this is a winnable game for the Aggies. Around the country, knee-jerk conclusions will be drawn about A&M's SEC mettle -- or lack thereof -- depending on what happens in Kyle Field. That's inevitable.
And valid, at least for one week.
That also raises the level of intrigue in regard to the Aggies, whose scheduled opener against Louisiana Tech was postponed until Oct. 13 because of Hurricane Isaac. That means quarterback Johnny Manziel, a redshirt freshman, draws his first career start today in front of an overflow crowd with ESPN's College GameDay crew in town.
"For us as a coaching staff, the challenge will be that we don't know how guys are going to react in certain circumstances. We haven't been around this team," first-year A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said. "There's adversity in every football game. The only way to know how guys are going to react... is to see them in those kinds of situations. But from a practice standpoint to a game standpoint, they're two different things."
Color these Aggies unpredictable, then, as they prepare to make their first statement about whether they will be a top-shelf or SEC-ond tier football program in their new neighborhood. And place Manziel in the eye of the storm as the guy seeking to raise the level of play at a school that won its only Big 12 title in 1998 and is 68-64 over the past 10 seasons.
Not exactly starter-kit numbers for an SEC title contender. But nothing to sneeze at if you're Florida, walking into a place where 90,000 screaming, towel-waving zealots have played a role in past upsets of better teams than these Gators. You need look no further than a 9-6 victory over No. 8 Nebraska in front of a stadium-record crowd (90,079) in 2010 to see the potential for an epic moment in A&M history.
Sumlin plans to unveil a new, up-tempo team entrance to the playing field to inspire the crowd. Linebacker Jonathan Stewart can't wait.
"The 12th Man is going to be more fired up than it has been for any other game," Stewart said. "It's going to be electric."
But it won't resonate nationally unless the Aggies win. Nor will it stop the smirking of former Big 12 rivals convinced the Aggies will hit the water belly first, and bowl-free, as an SEC newbie in 2012.
Especially not after school officials added references to two national titles (1919, 1927) and two conference titles (1997, 2010) to the outside of Kyle Field this off-season. None of the titles was listed last year and the conference titles referenced are from seasons when A&M won or shared Big 12 divisional titles but did not win the league.
Also, a billboard went up this week in Gainesville, Fla. declaring that the Gators' hometown had been "annexed by Aggie Nation. The Best Academics & Cleanest Program in the SEC. Whoop! Real Football. Real Tradition." The billboard was quickly removed after A&M officials objected, denied involvement and vowed to launch an investigation to find the perpetrator.
Against that backdrop, a disproportionate burden of proof falls on Manziel (6-foot-1, 200 pounds), a dual-threat player who won the quarterback job because of his moxie and intangibles.
"He has the feel of a kid that has always expected this moment. He acts like it's his team and he's never played a [college] game. I like that confidence," A&M offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury said. "He's one of those kids that has that type of vibe about him that nothing's too big for him."
Today is huge for the A&M football program. We'll soon know if Manziel and the Aggies are ready for some SEC football.
Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760