TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin's shoulders hunched a little, his hoarse voice losing all exuberance as he stood in front of a gaggle of media members in the underbelly of Bryant-Denny Stadium.
Coming off of a 33-14 loss to No. 1 Alabama can leave a man with little to say and even less enthusiasm.
But as his sub-10-minute postgame press conference neared its finish, Sumlin, now in his fifth year as the Aggies' head coach, was asked why this team was different. After a loss to the best team in the country, why was this team not going to go down the gloomy roads past teams did after their first defeats of the season?
“All you have to do is watch us play," Sumlin said, his voice rising back to life.
While the lopsided outcome might not have shown it to the world, Sumlin said he saw a team on Saturday that didn't quit, even as the Tide swelled. He saw a team clawing its way to take a third quarter lead that marked the first time this season that Alabama had relinquished a lead. Yes, Alabama's defense was a terror all day and the offense finally found its footing late, but Sumlin and his players repeated as if almost planned that they will not let one game -- one loss -- define their 2016 season.
“We don’t regret anything," linebacker Claude George said. "We played well, we fought, never gave up. We just played a great, great team, so we really can’t be down about that.”
And as the Aggies look ahead to overmatched New Mexico State on Saturday, they'll do so knowing that there is still a lot for this team to play for. A reasonable November schedule features three SEC games against Mississippi State (road), Ole Miss (home) and LSU (home). For a team still trying to regroup from the Bama blasting, this is a favorable way to end the year. The Aggies essentially control their own destiny for a shot at a New Year's Six bowl, and while unlikely, the SEC title game is still a possibility.
But this team isn't worried about what could be. It's worried about what is, and that's New Mexico State. Texas A&M is now thoroughly in one-game-season mode, and as cliche and boring as that sounds, it's that mentality that's different from the past two squads that rushed out to 5-0 starts, only to falter to 8-5 finishes. It's that mentality that has this year's locker room rid of the toxins that infected the past two teams and saw them buckle at the first sign of adversity.
“I feel like it’s more of a brotherhood [within this team]," safety Justin Evans said. "Yeah, we just lost, but there ain’t no fussing, arguing going on in the locker room. We know how to stick by each other’s side, we have each other’s back.”
A team that has lost three starting quarterbacks in two years and has been at the unfortunate center of too many off-the-field issues, has gone through a baptism of sorts in 2016. With better leadership, character and resolve, this team vows to stay grounded after Saturday's loss.
“We’re not happy about the loss, but we’re fine," offensive lineman Avery Gennesy said. "We’re just focusing on our next game.”
“We’re a [more] together team than last year.”
Sumlin and his players reflected on the costly mistakes that impeded their upset hopes against Alabama. There was the foolish roughing the passer penalty on Shaan Washington on third down early in the third quarter that took Alabama's paltry drive and helped lead it into the end zone. There was Keith Ford's fumble at the exchange with Trevor Knight that led to a 30-yard scoop-and-score by Jonathan Allen late in the third. There was the sack-fumble of Knight to start the fourth. There was Knight's interception directly after Jalen Hurts handed a pass to the Aggies in the second quarter.
But there was also the utter domination of Alabama's lines. A&M entered the day registering at least 200 yards in every half this season. It left with fewer than 300 total yards. Defensively, the Aggies surrendered a season-high 287 yards, with 238 of those yards coming after contact. There's no getting around the simple fact that A&M was outmatched by the nation's best.
The mistakes came a critical times, but A&M just plain lost to a better team. The Aggies acknowledge that and are ready to move on. Going unscathed in college football is a rarity, and Knight, a major leadership upgrade at quarterback, made that a point of emphasis when he addressed his team Saturday night. He recalled Ohio State's national championship run two years ago after an early-season loss to Virginia Tech. He relived his own team's 2015 playoff turnaround by recounting Oklahoma's rebound from a loss to Texas.
There's still a lot for this team to play for and college football has a funny way of working out sometimes. The Aggies believe that, so maybe others will too.
“Hopefully by now, the country is starting to realize that we just play for each other and we keep battling and battling and battling," Knight said. "When adversity comes, we look our brothers in the eyes and say, ‘Let’s go do this.’
“We’re only going to get better from here."