In a season marked by memorable firsts for the Texas A&M football program, veteran players embrace the significance of tonight's Big 12 reunion rumble at the AT&T Cotton Bowl Classic.
No. 9 A&M (10-2) caps its debut season as a Southeastern Conference member with a chance to reach the 11-win plateau for only the fourth time in school history by knocking off No. 11 Oklahoma (10-2), the Aggies' rival for the past 16 seasons when both were Big 12 members. On the way out the Big 12 door, A&M officials cited SEC membership as an opportunity to elevate and rebrand their program at the national level after failing to win any Big 12 titles since 1998.
The Aggies' debut season in the SEC has included the school's first Heisman Trophy winner in 55 years (quarterback Johnny Manziel), its first Outland Trophy winner (left tackle Luke Joeckel) and a 29-24 victory over No. 2 Alabama (12-1), which will play top-ranked Notre Dame (12-0) in Monday's BCS National Championship Game.
To cap the season with a victory over Oklahoma, which shared the Big 12 championship with No. 5 Kansas State, would mark an appropriate ending to A&M's transition season, senior cornerback Dustin Harris said.
"To be able to dominate in the SEC and to come back and play a Big 12 opponent in the bowl game is going to be fun. Because now, we get to prove why we moved to the SEC," Harris said.
"I feel like this is our goodbye to the Big 12. And we've got to leave the Big 12 on a good mark," said starting defensive tackle Spencer Nealy, a senior who played a major role on last year's 7-6 team that finished as a Big 12 also-ran.
"Last year, it was a nasty taste. It's still pretty gross in my mouth talking about it.... It's almost like it was destiny for us to go to the Cotton Bowl, where we could play a Big 12 team. It's like we're shutting the door."
Preferably with a loud, victorious slam in Cowboys Stadium that underscores the progress A&M made during the 2012 season, senior receiver Ryan Swope said.
"We've got a chip on our shoulder. We came into this league with everyone doubting us," Swope said. "We want to make a statement. We left the Big 12 to go play in the SEC. It's going to be a personal game for both sides."
Oklahoma players and coaches concur, with the Sooners making it clear that they're tired of hearing about the elevated level of play in the SEC -- home of the last six BCS national champions -- from players at a school the Sooners have defeated in eight of the last nine seasons as Big 12 foes. The list includes last year's 41-25 triumph in Norman, Okla.
OU receiver Kenny Stills said coach Bob Stoops has emphasized the importance of defending the Big 12's honor in a postseason matchup that has seen the SEC team win eight of the last nine Cotton Bowls.
"That's been stressed, over and over again, since we were selected to be here," Stills said. "People continue to talk about how great the SEC is. And we've got our chance to prove what our conference is about. Coach Stoops has been talking about how big it is."
The national perception regarding the two leagues does not sit well with Sooners receiver Trey Metoyer.
"When people say the SEC, they automatically put them on top of the Big 12," Metoyer said. "Coming into this game, SEC or Big 12, it really doesn't matter. They're going to have to play, just like us."
In particular, the Aggies' defense will be tested by an OU offense that ranks 10th nationally in total yards (505.9 per game). During the regular season, the Aggies faced only one team with a top 10 offense and surrendered 615 yards in a 59-57 shootout victory over Louisiana Tech, which runs roughly the same spread offense as Oklahoma.
In the ground-oriented SEC, the top offense A&M faced this season belonged to Alabama, which ranks 39th nationally in total offense. Oklahoma will wing it tonight, much like Louisiana Tech did while racking up 450 passing yards against the Aggies -- a challenge that catches the attention of Nealy.
"This offense is very similar to Louisiana Tech. And I know whenever I see that score, I cringe," Nealy said. "They're a lot different than a lot of the SEC teams we play."
But the Sooners' offense is very similar to the wide-open attack run by A&M, which defenders see on a daily basis in practice. Harris envisions that carryover being an asset in a statement game for the A&M program.
"Big time," Harris said. "Our defense is ready. We've been ready for a while now. We actually can't wait to get to the game."
Neither can the Sooners, who long to add to A&M's list of season firsts: the school's first loss to a Big 12 team since joining the SEC.
"We're here to represent the Big 12 Conference well and win a football game," OU center Gabe Ikard said.
"We blocked every single guy they have on defense last year. We're not going to be caught off-guard by anything."
Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760