COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Almost two years ago, Texas A&M walked into Alabama’s Bryant-Denny Stadium with boundless confidence and impetus to make a statement.
The Aggies possessed college football’s best player at the time and a 7-2 start to their debut SEC season but still lacked the signature win that would validate their first-season success in college football’s biggest, baddest league.
After 60 intense minutes, the statement was made. The Aggies beat then-No. 1 Alabama 29-24 and officially announced their SEC arrival in Tuscaloosa.
“It just proved a point,” said senior receiver Malcome Kennedy, who caught the Aggies’ final touchdown that day. “It gave us so much confidence as a team and as a unit. We knew what we set out to do could be accomplished.”
Saturday, for the first time since that seminal victory, the Aggies return to the scene of the crime. Both teams are vastly different and neither enters with the type of momentum they’d like to have: the Aggies have lost two straight; Alabama squeaked out a 14-13 win at Arkansas after a loss to Ole Miss the week prior.
For Texas A&M, the game is pivotal for reasons much different than 2012. By starting 25-8 in their first two-and-a-half seasons as SEC members, the Aggies no longer need validation. They’ve produced a Heisman Trophy winner and proved they can hold their own in the league, though they’re still trying to move up the ladder to prove they can win at the highest level of this league, or more specifically, the SEC West.
The Aggies (5-2, 2-2 SEC) need this win to help a young team regain full confidence, as two convincing losses to Mississippi State and Ole Miss has provided a wake-up call to this group in the post-Johnny Manziel era.
"I think this is very big and important,” sophomore linebacker Jordan Mastrogiovanni said. “These last couple weeks have been disappointing for us and the fans. We're trying to get back on track and prove to people that we're a really good team and these last couple weeks don't define who we are.”
Kennedy, considered the vocal leader of the Aggies’ offense, missed each of the losses with a separated shoulder but is expected back Saturday. Prior to Monday’s practice, the veteran could sense some uncertainty among his teammates and decided to speak up to the team to help restore any shaken confidence.
“Just trying to stay positive,” Kennedy said. “I just told them there will be a lot of outside voices trying to tell you how things go, but nobody knows how this team works best but us. We have to fix the problems we have, look at each other, look at ourselves and figure out what we have to do.”
Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin isn’t concerned about his team losing confidence based on its recent performances.
"Coming into this thing, nobody said this was going to be easy,” Sumlin said. “This is a difficult league and there's no doubt, that based on the last two weeks against the type of opponents that we're playing, that we've got to coach better and we've got to play better. That's our expectation within the building, to win games. Confidence is something you don't gather overnight and I don't think you lose it overnight. It's something you build and that's who you are. I don't see that waning.”
The team has a handful of veterans that saw significant time and have positive memories of 2012. Kennedy caught the Aggies’ final touchdown, senior cornerback Deshazor Everett intercepted A.J. McCarron near the goal line to deny Alabama’s final scoring chance. Senior safety Howard Matthews, junior cornerback De'Vante Harris and junior defensive end Julien Obioha are also among those who were a part of that program-changing night.
It’s likely impossible for a victory this time around to have the kind of impact the 2012 one did. That one changed the national perception of Texas A&M's program, was a catalyst in Manziel’s Heisman Trophy campaign and the Aggies reaped the benefits in recruiting as well. A win would be critical to this season though, to keep the Aggies from going on a three-game losing streak, restoring confidence in young players like sophomore quarterback Kenny Hill and perhaps serving as a springboard for a strong finish. The Aggies have an open date coming up followed by a nonconference game and three SEC contests in the final month.
Kennedy feels the veterans will draw on the images from their last time there. If they can recapture some of the magic from that blissful November night, it would be big for the current Aggies.
"Going to Alabama, having those positive memories from two years ago, I think the guys will walk into a more welcoming environment,” Kennedy said. “I know there will be a lot of Aggies there. It'll be noisy, loud. I think that's when we play best, when it's loud and noisy.”