Always a steep climb in SEC West

COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- By all accounts, Texas A&M's maiden voyage through the SEC West was better than almost anyone outside of College Station expected.

The Aggies finished 11-2 overall and 6-2 in the SEC, including a 29-24 upset of No. 1 Alabama on the road on Nov. 10. Quarterback Johnny Manziel became the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy, and the Aggies capped their breakthrough season by blasting former Big 12 rival Oklahoma 41-13 in the AT&T Cotton Bowl.

With Manziel coming back to lead a team that finished No. 5 in the country last season, the Aggies have to be the team to beat in the SEC West in 2013, right?

Not quite.

The previous time Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin checked the SEC West standings, the Aggies were still staring up at LSU and two-time defending BCS national champion Alabama.

"It's funny to me that people say we'll have a target on our backs," Sumlin said. "We finished third in the SEC West. Alabama has won three out of the last four national championships. We had a great experience at the Cotton Bowl, but we didn't play in a BCS bowl. How do we have a target on our backs? We're still playing catch-up."

As always, the Aggies face a pretty steep climb in the rugged division. Alabama likely will be ranked No. 1 in most preseason polls heading into the 2013 season. The Crimson Tide have to rebuild their offensive line, but quarterback AJ McCarron is back after leading the country in pass efficiency last season.

LSU, which won a BCS national championship in 2008, finished 10-3 last season, including a 24-19 victory over the Aggies in College Station. The Tigers have won 10 games or more in six of coach Les Miles' eight seasons at the school.

Until the Aggies can win consistently as the Crimson Tide and Tigers have in the past eight seasons, they'll still be considered the third-best team in their own division.

"It's kind of hard to have a target on your back when you finished third in your own division," Texas A&M running back Ben Malena said. "I think the reason people would say that [we've got a target on us] is because we had unexpected success. But we're trying to go from third to first. I don't think there's a target on our backs at all. We've still got two teams that finished ahead of us. I think the target would be on their backs more than ours."

At least the Aggies proved they weren't going to be a pushover in the SEC West in their first season in the league. Sumlin said it didn't take him long to realize his team could compete in college football's toughest division. After a 20-17 loss to Florida in their 2013 opener (an Aug. 30 home game against Louisiana Tech was postponed because of Hurricane Isaac), Sumlin knew the Aggies were physical enough and tough enough to go toe-to-toe with the likes of Alabama and LSU.

"I think without a doubt, the SEC is a line of scrimmage league," Sumlin said. "I thought speed-wise we were going to be OK. We have pretty good team speed here. The concern was, could we hold up on the front and could we handle the physical nature of the league?"

Even though the Gators came back from a 17-7 deficit and shut out the Aggies in the second half, Sumlin was impressed with his team's effort. Not only was Manziel playing his first college game, he also was playing in Sumlin's fast-paced offense for the first time.

"As difficult as the Florida game was for us, we felt like we held up against Florida in a pretty physical game," Sumlin said. "We didn't push Florida around, but we didn't feel like we were manhandled. We were able to take confidence out of a loss, as hard as that is to do."

This season, the Aggies will have to do without All-America offensive tackle Luke Joeckel and defensive end Damontre Moore, who left school to enter the NFL draft. Offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury also left to become Texas Tech's new coach.

Nobody else is standing idle in the SEC West, either. Arkansas, which went 4-8 under interim coach John L Smith last season, hired former Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema, who guided the Badgers to three consecutive Rose Bowl games.

Auburn, which went 3-9 last season, fired Gene Chizik and replaced him with former Arkansas State coach Gus Malzahn, who was the Tigers' offensive coordinator during their BCS national championship season in 2011.

Ole Miss landed one of the country's best recruiting classes after going 7-6 in coach Hugh Freeze's first season, and Mississippi State has enjoyed three consecutive winning seasons under coach Dan Mullen.

If anything, the SEC West only figures to get more difficult once Malzahn and Bielema establish their programs.

"It is as advertised," Malena said. "We play in the best conference and best division in college football. You have to bring your A-game every week. If you don't, you're going to risk losing, no matter who you're playing."

The Aggies might end up being a more difficult out than anyone expected.

"It's not one of those conferences that's untouchable," Manziel said. "It's the best conference in the country, no doubt. But we came in with a new staff and a new attitude and had some success. That was the biggest thing for us."

Sumlin will begin to find out how much the Aggies learned from their first season in the SEC when they play the Crimson Tide in College Station on Sept. 14.

"We haven't arrived in this league," Sumlin said. "We're starting to get some respect in this league, but the teams we're behind have been doing this for the last eight years."