Prior to the rocky Jimbo Fisher era of Texas A&M football, in which one of five teams has had a realistic chance of making the College Football Playoff, a different coach unknowingly entered the 2012 season with the Aggie squad most capable of competing for a title throughout their time in the SEC.
Enter Kevin Sumlin.
The Alabama native was just four seasons into his head-coaching career in 2012 but had already made a name for himself with what he accomplished at Houston. Through four seasons, Sumlin had coached the Cougars to three winning seasons, one of which had them in position to make a BCS Bowl in 2011.
Sumlin’s final season with the program was one to remember, with Houston finishing the regular season ranked No. 7 in the country and with a 12-0 record. Led by quarterback Case Keenum, its prolific passing attack put up nearly 53 points per game during the regular season and had Sumlin at the top of the coaching carousel heading into 2012.
Even after suffering a three-score loss in the Conference USA title game to fall out of BCS-bowl talks, Sumlin bounced back with a 16-point victory over No. 24 Penn State in the Ticket City Bowl. Just four days later, it was announced that he would be taking over the vacant head coaching job at Texas A&M, replacing fellow four-year head coach Mike Sherman.
Sherman hadn’t done much to improve the program in on-the-field success or recruiting, but he did leave Sumlin with two gems that would heavily influence his first few years with the program. Its 2011 class, ironically Sherman’s worst in terms of composite ranking, contained two three-star recruits that would finish their college careers as all-time Aggie greats:
Receiver Mike Evans and quarterback Johnny Manziel.
Each player watched from the sidelines in 2011 as A&M imploded during the latter half of the season, likely realizing the team’s lack of depth at both positions meant their time was coming. Each player entered the 2012 season performing as if they already had two seasons under their belts.
Sure, there were iffy performances, especially early in the season.
After jumping out to a 17-7 lead in its opener versus Florida midway through the second, the Aggies would fail to score again through the rest of the game as they went on to lose 20-17. The defense nearly cost them another loss to a ranked Louisiana Tech just a few weeks later, allowing 41 second-half points and coming one successful two-point conversion away from going to overtime. A potentially costly Manziel interception thrown into double coverage put them in a bad position against Ole Miss in the game prior, down ten early in the fourth quarter.
But the Aggie defense held firm and Manziel led back-to-back touchdown drives, rushing one in from 29 yards out and connecting with Ryan Swope on an incredible, tear drop of a throw in the back-left corner of the endzone. Those touchdowns not only displayed what consistent observers were already familiar with, referring to talent, they also showed he could effectively operate under pressure, a crazy trait to have as a redshirt freshman sporting four games of college experience.
Through the weeks, Manziel would slowly climb the Heisman rankings before skyrocketing to No. 5 after his performance against Louisiana Tech, where he totaled 576 yards (395 passing, 181 rushing) and six touchdowns. This marked the fourth straight game against FBS competition where he rushed for over 100 yards. Unfortunately for the freshman, that streak was fixing to be challenged by one of the best rushing defenses in the country.
No. 6 LSU entered its Week 8 matchup with No. 20 Texas A&M harboring a top-five rushing defense headlined by linebackers Kevin Minter and Lamin Barrow, safety Eric Reid and a front-four featuring Bennie Logan, Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo. In its previous game, the Tigers took down No. 3 South Carolina, with a key factor in the win being the shutdown of star running back Marcus Lattimore.
But through the first quarter and a half, Manziel and the Aggie offense showed little signs of struggle, scoring on three of their first five possessions and picking up at least one first down on each of those. With a 50-yard field goal midway through the second, Texas A&M went up 12-0 and looked to be on its way to picking up its first marquee win of the season.
It would get the ball back with no new changes to the scoreboard. But that’s when the cracks began to show.
On third down and six, Manziel launched a deep pass off his back foot, which was easily intercepted by cornerback Jalen Collins. That marked turnover one.
LSU responded by punching it in from 20 yards out with running back Michael Ford, narrowing the deficit to five.
Turnover two for A&M came five offensive plays later, this time not involving Johnny Football. On a second down run, safety Ronald Martin wrapped up running back Ben Malena before Lamin Barrow landed a second hit on the back to jar the ball loose and recovered the fumble.
Despite receiving the ball with less than a minute to go in the half, quarterback Zach Mettenberger would catch the A&M secondary lagging, finding Kadron Boone with a step on the corner covering him, who made an acrobatic, diving catch in the end zone to give them the lead going into halftime.
Through the third quarter, Manziel would show flashes of brilliance, such as a 14-yard run on third-and-long that secured a first down for the offense. But each time the LSU defense bent, it readjusted and shut the Aggies down.
Rather than being able to keep up because of its offense, A&M relied heavily on their defense, which kept them in the game through most of the second half. Even after committing a third turnover, an interception off the hands of a normally reliable Mike Evans, which placed the Tiger offense close to midfield, it forced a deep field goal from Drew Alleman, which he missed.
Neither team scored in the third quarter, as each defense continued to hold its opposing offense at bay. Even when the Aggies received the ball in opposing territory, including one possession that began on the LSU 16, their scoring drought continued. That wasn’t all on Manziel, as A&M kicker Taylor Bertolet missed back-to-back field goals that would have had them up by one midway through the fourth, but he didn’t do the team any favors.
Their supposedly endless number of chances were finally exhausted with just over three minutes remaining in the game.
On a first down play near midfield, Barkevious Mingo pressured Manziel into making an ill-advised pass with LSU defenders blocking his line of vision, which was picked off by cornerback Tharold Simon, the fourth turnover of the day for the A&M offense. One play later, Jeremy Hill would break free for a 47-yard touchdown run, finally putting the game out of reach.
On the day, Manziel completed just over 50% of his passes for 276 yards, zero touchdowns and three interceptions. He would also rush for just 27 yards, which was by far his lowest total throughout the season.
The loss didn’t faze him at all, as he followed it up by going on a five-game tear where he averaged 293 passing yards and 96 rushing yards and led his team to five straight victories, including an upset over No. 1 Alabama. Those performances were good enough to earn him the Heisman trophy, as he became the first to do it as a freshman.
He’d conclude the season by ripping the Oklahoma defense to shreds, passing for 287 yards and adding a modest 229 on the ground, as the Aggies defeated the Sooners 41-13. Had Texas A&M defeated LSU back in October, it would have secured an appearance in the SEC title game, and likely would have made the national championship if it defeated No. 3 Georgia.
On October 6, 2012, LSU ended Texas A&M’s best chance at a title in recent memory before it was fully realized. Now the Aggies get their best chance at revenge a decade later, against first-year Head Coach Brian Kelly no less.