Mike Sherman likes boxing analogies.
The Texas A&M coach who showed his team video of the George Foreman-Muhammad Ali fight earlier this season to spark an upset victory over Texas Tech is looking to another pugilistic reference to describe his underdog team’s chances against Texas on Thursday night.
“This is Rocky Balboa versus Apollo Creed,” Sherman said. “It’s one of those types of deals, where we have a chance to play against a top-notch team that certainly has not stumbled one time this year. They've played very well in every ballgame. It's going to be quite a challenge for us, but it's one we're looking forward to."
The Aggies have proved to be difficult for the Longhorns over the years -- particularly at Kyle Field.
A&M has won eight of the last 12 games over the Longhorns there, including the most recent meeting in 2007.
In that game, Dennis Franchione’s team rediscovered the forward pass too late to save his job, but not before beating the Longhorns, 38-30.
The year before that in Austin, the Aggies physically punished the Longhorns in another striking upset, claiming a 12-7 triumph in a game in which they knocked the Longhorns out of the Big 12 South title chase and Colt McCoy out of the game.
Those memories and others through the years have A&M players excited about playing the South Division championships, despite the fact that most prognosticators don’t give them much hope.
“One of our motivations every year is beating Texas along with every other team,” Texas A&M quarterback Jerrod Johnson said. “But for me to say this game doesn’t have a little bit more meaning than the rest, I’d be lying to you. Whatever they do after us, I wish them the best. But when they play us, we definitely like our chances and we’re going to go out there with all we have.”
The 6-5 Aggies qualified for their first bowl game since 2007 with a victory over Baylor last week. But their season has been marked with remarkable inconsistency. They have won games by 35, 37, 22, 25 and 35 points. And they’ve lost games by margins of 28, 48 and 55 points.
But despite that wild variation in performances from game to game, the Aggies are convinced they will be ready for the 11-0 Longhorns.
“Texas is a really good, solid team, but every year when we play them, we feel like it’s even,” Texas A&M defensive end/linebacker Von Miller said. “This year, it’s no different. We’ve got some young guys, but they don’t act like young guys. It’s Texas week, everybody is up for the game and it’s the biggest game of the year for us.”
The Aggies are the only Big 12 South team to have a winning record against McCoy during his career with the Longhorns. Those two earlier losses have marked him with determination to even his mark against the Aggies in Thursday’s game.
“We've got a lot of goals ahead of us and we haven't taken care of business like we wanted to in the past in this game,” McCoy said. “We don't really talk about '06 and '07. We don't like to think about that. We talk about being the best we can be and finishing what we started. That's enough motivation for us. We've got a lot at stake.”
Since 2000, the Aggies are only 56-52 and have fallen far behind the Longhorns and Oklahoma in the Big 12 South’s pecking order. In recent years, even Oklahoma State and Texas Tech have lapped them.
But Sherman is making progress in his second season. He’s already played 19 freshmen and six redshirt freshmen this season, including prime playmakers like running back Christine Michael and wide receiver Uzoma Nwachukwu. Johnson has developed into one of the most statistically proficient quarterbacks in the nation.
“To their credit, these guys have responded to the challenge,” Sherman said. “That speaks volumes. I wish we didn’t have to deal with all of the ups and downs this season has presented to us. But I think they’ve done a great job of handling the adversity they’ve faced in the context of the season.”
Texas coach Mack Brown relishes playing in what he calls one of the most historic rivalries in college football.
“It's great," Brown said. "It's loud. It's a rivalry. They've got great fans and I'm sure it's going to be a great environment."
Other Texas teams have tripped up in that environment, even as heavy favorites.
But senior defensive end Sergio Kindle said this Longhorns team is excited about the challenge of staring down the Aggies in their own backyard.
“Playing at Kyle Field, that 12th Man is serious. And when they get going, A&M starts feeding off of it,” Kindle said. “But we’re ready. We’re looking at that game as the only thing that’s in front of us now.”