A&M-LSU rivalry still evolving as high-stakes November showdown

11/19/2013 8:11 PM

11/20/2013 10:26 AM

The snarky T-shirts, a staple of any vibrant college football rivalry, have circulated for months in souvenir shops near the Texas A&M campus.

One of the most popular features a drawing of the world’s most interesting man from the imported beer commercials, raising a glass as if to make a toast. But the message emblazoned on the maroon shirt reads: “I don’t often hate, but when I do … I prefer to hate the LSU Tigers.”

Kinder, gentler versions are available. There’s also the “House Divided” shirt featuring approved logos from both schools and a blended maroon-and-purple color scheme for families caught in the crossfire of rivalry weekend.

Without question, these are changing times in college football. That will be driven home Saturday when No. 12 A&M (8-2, 4-2 in SEC) makes its first November trip to Baton Rouge, La., to play No. 22 LSU (7-3, 3-3) in front of a national TV audience (2:30 p.m., KTVT/Ch. 11).

For years, LSU matchups were September staples on A&M nonconference schedules. But the season-defining November rivalry game involved sawing off horns, not twisting tiger tails.

Realignment changed that. As second-year SEC members, the Aggies are preparing for Saturday’s first taste of November football against LSU before the series involves annual Thanksgiving weekend skirmishes, starting in 2014.

But will this rekindled rivalry invoke the same level of intensity as the one against Texas that stoked emotional embers for more than a century?

“I don’t know,” A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said Tuesday. “I think for our fans, it has the potential for that. For our current players, it’s probably different.”

In Sumlin’s estimation, it is too early for a team comprised primarily of players from Texas high schools to emotionally lock in on a rival that plays in a Louisiana stadium they have never seen. The Aggies last played in Tiger Stadium in 1994, when most current players were preschoolers and before some freshmen were born.

“Guys like Darian Claiborne couldn’t even walk the last time we went to Tiger Stadium. Think about that,” Sumlin said, reflecting on A&M’s freshman middle linebacker. “We’ve played LSU one time. And that was at home. These guys haven’t been over there for a game. In order for it to feel like a rivalry to a player, you’ve got to play in the other guy’s building.”

A&M will cross that threshold Saturday. Because the Aggies will do so with nine Louisiana natives on their defensive depth chart, including six projected starters, the rivalry factor may hit them faster in Tiger Stadium than in other venues. At least that is Sumlin’s hope.

“I’ve got a feeling as soon as we try to get into Tiger Stadium [on game day], I think they’ll figure out what kind of an atmosphere we’re playing in and what kind of a rivalry it is,” Sumlin said.

During Tuesday’s news conference, multiple players attempted to assign a value to the LSU rivalry in A&M’s fresh SEC pecking order.

“The LSU game is up there in the top three,” defensive back Toney Hurd Jr. said. “Of course, Alabama is one. Florida would be one. And LSU as well.”

Let the record show “rival” Florida, an SEC East Division school, is not on this year’s schedule and may not surface again for several seasons as league officials decide how to administer a 14-member league. So it’s clear some Aggies have a little learning to do about prioritizing their angst against their new neighbors.

But not the guys from Louisiana. Defensive end Julien Obioha, a New Orleans native, said Saturday’s game is one he’s had circled for months.

“It didn’t really matter if Texas A&M chose it as a rivalry, it already was a rivalry in my book,” said Obioha, who did not receive a scholarship offer from LSU. “Whenever I see LSU as the next opponent, I know I have to work a little harder and know my assignment a little more. I’m going to be more fired up because we’re playing LSU.”

Asked about the rivalry’s status to most teammates, Obioha said: “It’s definitely becoming a rivalry.”

But it needs more time, as well as more heart-stopping and heart-breaking results for both schools, to reach the level of late-season passion you’ll see Nov. 30, when Alabama plays at Auburn. Or Ohio State visits Michigan.

Unlike in past seasons against Texas, when pregame trash talk flowed between players from both schools, Tuesday’s closest brush with bulletin-board material came from offensive tackle Cedric Ogbuehi. The junior from Allen, who said he plans to explore the possibility of entering the 2014 NFL Draft in January, expressed pleasure that Saturday’s game in “Death Valley” will not be played at night because that means the team plane can return to College Station by evening.

“I’m happy we’ll be back here in time to celebrate the win,” Ogbuehi said.

By trash-talk standards, that’s pretty tame. But given time, this rivalry could morph into one of the SEC’s best. It just needs more shared history with conference titles on the line. A few more snarky T-shirts might help, too.

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