Stakes are high at Kyle Field on Saturday

When the sun rose on Stillwater, Okla., the Friday morning following last season's dramatic 38-35 Oklahoma State victory over Texas A&M, the conference spotlight had quickly shifted to the league's premier rivalry -- Oklahoma versus Texas in the Cotton Bowl -- which was just more than 24 hours away from kickoff.

Sure, that Cowboys and Aggies game was fun. But eight turnovers? Neither team was begging to be taken seriously.

Neither team was ranked.

The Aggies returned a six-win team that just lost its first real test of the season. Oklahoma State was picked to finish fifth in the league and nearly lost to Troy at home weeks earlier.

You know what they say about hindsight.

Nobody knew it until months later, but the Big 12 race hinged on that game. Both teams shared a Big 12 South title with Oklahoma, one finishing higher in the division than ever (OSU) and the other having its best showing since 1998 (A&M).

There are no such problems this year. The stakes are monumental.

"It has explicit implications into who takes the early lead in the conference," Texas A&M coach Mike Sherman said. "It’s huge."

Both teams are ranked in the top 10, and through three weeks both have looked deserving of top-10 rankings, 10-win seasons and hopeful BCS berths. This time, it's the undeniable game of the week in the Big 12, if not the game of the year.

"I don’t think you have to make a big deal," Sherman said of approaching a game of Saturday's magnitude. "You don’t have to beat it into their head. They hear things. They see things. They’re not stupid. They understand how important this game is for us."

Texas A&M has a new quarterback this time in Ryan Tannehill. Last year quarterback Jerrod Johnson, who wasn't his normal self in 2010 because of a bum post-surgery shoulder, pulled the Aggies even with Oklahoma State in the fourth quarter with a pair of pressure-packed touchdown passes. But he handed the game back to OSU with a costly interception -- one of his four on the day -- that set up OSU's game-winning field goal as time expired. Three games later, he had been replaced by Tannehill.

This year's Aggies -- more sure of themselves after a late-season run saw them reach the top 15 and become a factor in the Big 12 race with wins over Oklahoma and Nebraska -- are armed with an additional burden: a future in the SEC.

The voices questioning Texas A&M's seemingly imminent move to the SEC have grown loud, and the best way for the Aggies to silence them is to leave with a crystal bowl tucked under their arm.

"Thanks for this. Adios. Here's an S-E-C chant for the road. See y'all in the Cotton Bowl."

Two games on Texas A&M's schedule will decide if that dream becomes reality.

This is the first. The second is Nov. 5 at Oklahoma.

Managing that pressure and expectation begins with preparation.

"[Players] feed off the head coach and the staff," Sherman said. "If the head coach and staff are tight and feel the pressure of the game, then the players certainly will feel the same thing. I think they have to see that we’re confident in our preparation and on game day that we’re ready to play."

Kyle Field will be rocking. A network broadcast audience will be watching. It's put up or shut up time for the Aggies.