The surest way for the new kid on the block to realize he’s made an impression is to gauge how he’s viewed by the neighborhood bully.
Using that measuring stick, you’d have to say the Texas A&M football program has arrived. Alabama, the two-time defending BCS champion, has placed A&M squarely in its cross-hairs during the off-season.
Photos began appearing on Twitter this week of the Alabama weight room adorned with A&M logos and showing Aggies highlights on televisions mounted on the walls. A&M players who attended the SEC media days, including the team’s high-profile quarterback, found it interesting that the Crimson Tide seemed to be paying so much midsummer attention to the SEC newbies in maroon.
Alabama players and administrators spent Thursday tapping the brakes on the notion that the Tide is spending too many July days focusing on its Sept. 14 trip to College Station in quest of payback for last year’s 29-24 loss that left the lone blemish on a 13-1 record.
It has long been an Alabama practice, players said, for coach Nick Saban to set aside one week each summer to spotlight each of the team’s 12 opponents and inundate players with reminders of that foe.
“That’s all about creating a mindset and having a mental edge,” said linebacker C.J. Mosley, noting that A&M week has run its course. “It’s a reminder that, this week, we’re trying to beat this team in the summer. So when the season comes, it’s like we’ve already played this game.”
Let’s be honest: No college coach works the mind game better with his players than Saban.
No team seems to better embody the boring-but-effective bromide of taking things “one game at a time” than Alabama, which will be seeking its third consecutive national championship — and fourth in five years — this season.
Yet scratch beneath the surface and there are subtle indicators that the Aggies occupy a larger part of Bama’s summer focus than the champs are willing to acknowledge. Consider:
During Saban’s 1,422-word preamble before Thursday’s first question, he mentioned four upcoming opponents. Only A&M, with two mentions, surfaced more than once. In singling out three defining moments from last year’s championship season, Saban pointed to a failed fourth-and-2 play against A&M and surmised that this year’s trip to College Station is “obviously going to be very challenging.”
Anthony Steen, the team’s standout offensive lineman, took it a step further in discussing the trip to Kyle Field, where he’s never played.
“I’m kind of nervous about it, to be honest with you,” Steen said. “I’ve heard it’s a really loud place.”
Asked if the Aggies were in Alabama players’ heads more than at this time last season, Steen said: “You might be right. We might have more of a grudge or a revenge-type emotion because it’s early in the season.”
So, last year’s loss still haunts you?
“Oh, yeah. It definitely bothers me,” Steen said. “I wish I could go back and play that whole game all over again.”
Crimson Tide players also would have preferred to see their quarterback, two-time national champ A.J. McCarron, receive first-team honors on the preseason All-SEC squad released Thursday. But that distinction went to A&M’s Johnny Manziel, triggering some interesting thoughts from McCarron.
“Being under the radar for me is great,” McCarron said. “I’ve never been the type of guy to ask for the spotlight. I’m a team player ... I’m just trying to not ever bring any type of bad light on my last name or the university in any type of way.”
Hmmmm. Have any former camp roommates of McCarron’s generated some negative headlines lately? And how about McCarron’s TDs-to-interceptions ratio last season (30-3) compared with Manziel’s (26-9)?
“I really don’t know. I don’t watch a whole lot of TV about Manziel getting in trouble or A.J.’s stats or anything like that,” Steen said. “I’m more of a guy that just wants to go out there and play.”
He’ll get his chance against A&M on Sept. 14. From all indications, the Bama players are ready now. Which is fine with their A&M counterparts, who found it — er, curious —to see A&M logos in the Alabama weight room when they checked their Twitter accounts earlier this seek.
“They have other games on their schedule, too. If they want to spend all that time preparing for us, then bring it on. We’ll be ready,” Manziel said before heading to Los Angeles to claim an ESPY on Wednesday night.
“Whatever it takes to get you ramped up,” said A&M defensive back Toney Hurd Jr. “In our weight room, we’ve got A&M stuff, too.”
Asked if the Aggies’ weight room featured any Alabama memorabilia, Hurd shook his head.
“Just Aggie logos,” he said, smiling.
Sounds like the makings for a genuine rivalry in the Aggies’ SEC neighborhood. The new kids have arrived. The neighborhood bully has noticed them.