ARLINGTON, Texas — Spencer Nealy and some of his Texas A&M teammates were discussing potential bowl games even before their first SEC season began.
“We were like, how funny would it be if we made the Cotton Bowl,” Nealy said. “We were looking at SEC vs. Big 12 teams. That’s what we thought about, that situation.”
Well, Texas A&M’s season of firsts — coach Kevin Sumlin’s first year, quarterback Johnny Manziel becoming the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy and the SEC debut — will end with the 10th-ranked Aggies (10-2) playing a familiar Big 12 foe.
In the only bowl matching the SEC against the Big 12, Texas A&M takes on 12th-ranked Oklahoma (10-2) in the Cotton Bowl tonight. Both teams have five-game winning streaks.
“It’s a little more than a game,” Nealy said. “It’s almost like we had a great season but we have to win this one.”
In their 16 Big 12 seasons, the only time the Aggies won more than nine games was when they were 11-3 their 1998 conference title season. They left the league with a winning record (7-6) last season only after a bowl win over Northwestern.
Once in the SEC, which has six national titles in a row, Texas A&M lost its opener 20-17 to Florida. The other loss was 24-19 to LSU before the current winning streak that includes the Aggies’ first-ever road win against a No. 1 team — at SEC champion Alabama, which plays in the BCS title game Monday night.
“The first thing we did was we didn’t talk about it very much what happened in the past. It seemed to be what everyone wanted to talk about externally, but internally we just didn’t,” Sumlin said. “Any time you have to get over a hump or clear a hurdle, you have got to win a game in a certain fashion.”
Sumlin pointed to a 30-27 win at Ole Miss the first Saturday in October, when the Aggies overcame six turnovers and were down 10 points with 6 1/2 minutes left. They lost to LSU two weeks later, but haven’t lost since.
The Sooners seemed certain of a Bowl Championship Series game after clinching a share of their eighth Big 12 title, even though Kansas State had a tiebreaker giving the Wildcats the league’s automatic BCS slot. But Mid-American champion Northern Illinois then qualified as a BCS buster.
“For sure, yes, we were disappointed. I was pretty upset about it,” Sooners senior quarterback Landry Jones said. “But fortunate enough for us, we got put into this game, which you can rank them right up with those BCS games. ... It’s a really good matchup, so when I heard that we were going to be in the Cotton Bowl, it kind of eased over the disappointment.”
Texas A&M and Oklahoma have both averaged more than 40 points and 500 yards of offense per game. The only losses by both were to current Top 10 teams.
It is only the second Cotton Bowl appearance for the Sooners, but will be the 17th consecutive season they will play Texas A&M.
Since Bob Stoops became Oklahoma’s coach in 1999, the Sooners have won 11 of the 13 meetings. Jones threw five TD passes as a freshman in a 65-10 win in 2009, though the Aggies won the next year before the Sooners won the final Big 12 meeting between the two last season.
“This is another opportunity to put a stamp on that. We figured last year would be the last time we’d play them for a while,” Sooners defensive tackle Jamarkus McFarland said. “It does mean something.”
The series includes a 77-0 Oklahoma victory in 2003 that is the most lopsided loss in Aggies history. That came a year after Texas A&M upset the top-ranked Sooners when Sumlin was the Aggies’ offensive coordinator, though he spent the next five years as a Stoops assistant.
Jones will make his 50th career start where he played his first Oklahoma game, in the 2009 season opener at Cowboys Stadium when he took over after halftime for injured Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford. Jones has since won 39 games, including three bowls and two Big 12 titles, while throwing for a Big 12-record 16,368 yards with 122 TDs.
In his career finale, he’ll go against the 20-year-old redshirt freshman known as Johnny Football.
Manziel set the SEC record with 4,600 total yards, becoming only the fifth player ever with 3,000 yards passing and 1,000 yards rushing in the same season. He accounted for 43 touchdowns, though the Aggies might not have realized what they really had in the youngster.
“Well, based on the fact we didn’t name him the starting quarterback until two weeks before the first game, I don’t think in the spring we had any idea,” Sumlin said. “He is obviously very talented, but there were a lot of things he needed to work on from a ball security standpoint. ... You never really know, especially with a freshman with so many moving parts going into a game.”
When Manziel was asked how he’d try to stop himself, he pondered the question briefly.
“As far as if I’m a defensive coordinator, I wouldn’t know what to do,” he said.
The SEC has won the last four Cotton Bowls, all against the Big 12. That includes Texas A&M losing to LSU two years ago.
Now Oklahoma gets a chance to defend the honor of the Big 12 against the team that left for another league.
“We want to win regardless of who it is and what the circumstances are,” Sooners defensive end R.J. Washington said. “It just adds a little something to it, a little cherry on top.”
Texas A&M (10-2) vs. Oklahoma (10-2), 7:10 p.m. (Fox)
Site: Cowboys Stadium, Arlington, Texas
Line: Texas A&M by 3 1/2
Series Record: Oklahoma leads 19-11
WHAT’S AT STAKE — First bowl matchup between former Big 12 rivals, and both five-game winning streaks. Oklahoma is trying to win 11 games for the 10th time under coach Bob Stoops, who is going for his 150th career victory. The Aggies haven’t had an 11-win season since 1998, the year before Stoops got to Oklahoma. Texas A&M is wrapping up its first SEC season after leaving the Big 12.
KEY MATCHUP — Quarterbacks, young and old, of high-scoring offenses. Oklahoma senior Landry Jones is the steady record-setting veteran making his 50th career start (16,368 career yards passing and 122 TDs). The Sooners are averaging 40.2 points per game, less than Texas A&M’s 44.8 a game. Johnny Manziel, the Aggies’ exciting dual-threat player known as Johnny Football, is the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy. He has an SEC-record 4,600 total yards while accounting for 43 TDs.
PLAYERS TO WATCH —
Texas A&M: Wide receiver Ryan Swope needs 79 yards to break the Aggies’ career receiving record. He has 244 career catches for 3,013 yards and 23 TDs. Swope has four 100-yard games this season, and 13 overall.
Oklahoma: Safety Tony Jefferson has a team-high 113 tackles and is the sixth defensive back in school history with a 100-tackle season. He needs eight tackles to surpass Rodney Rideau’s record for DBs set in 1999. He is 11 tackles shy of the Big 12’s overall leader, Baylor linebacker Bryce Hager (124). No Oklahoma player has ever led the Big 12 in tackles.
FACTS & FIGURES — Oklahoma is playing in only its second Cotton Bowl. The Sooners beat Arkansas on New Year’s Day 2002. ... Texas A&M is 4-8 in the Cotton Bowl, and had lost six in a row since beating Notre Dame 26 years ago. ... The Sooners are 11-2 against Texas A&M under coach Bob Stoops, including a 77-0 win in 2003, the most lopsided loss ever for the Aggies. ... Oklahoma’s two losses this season are to top-ranked Notre Dame and No. 7 Kansas State, while Texas A&M lost to No. 4 Florida and No. 9 LSU. ... A&M is 0-4 at Cowboys Stadium. ... Oklahoma is 4-0 in the state of Texas this season. ... SEC teams have won against Big 12 teams in the last four Cotton Bowls.