published Wednesday, November 28th, 2012

Two SEC newcomers flip projections

Missouri did not have the impact it desired as a Southeastern Conference football newcomer.

Texas A&M, on the other hand, blew past every preseason projection by winning 10 games under first-year coach Kevin Sumlin and redshirt freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel, a leading candidate for the Heisman Trophy. The Aggies were a mediocre 7-6 in their Big 12 swan song but flourished this season despite being forced to play 12 consecutive Saturdays once their opener against Louisiana Tech was rescheduled due to Hurricane Isaac.

"I don't think I ever really envisioned how big this season would be for us," Manziel said this week. "I don't really think anybody envisioned that we would win 10 games at the beginning of this season."

A good season for the Aggies became great on Nov. 10, when they traveled to Bryant-Denny Stadium and stunned top-ranked Alabama 29-24. Manziel befuddled the vaunted Crimson Tide defense, completing 24 of 31 passes for 253 yards and two touchdowns and rushing 18 times for 92 yards.

That victory has catapulted Texas A&M to its first top-10 ranking at the end of a regular season since 1998.

"Winning that game was significant because this is our first year in the league," Sumlin said. "How we've performed not only in that game but throughout the year was important just to show that we belonged and could hold our own and could compete in the SEC, and that's what being in the first year in the league is all about."

Manziel leads the SEC with 1,181 rushing yards and is second with 3,419 passing yards. His total offense of 4,600 yards through 12 games surpasses the previous SEC standard of 4,327 set by former Auburn quarterback Cam Newton in 14 games during the 2010 season.

Texas A&M lost to Florida 20-17 in the 2012 opener, a game in which Sumlin said he "handcuffed Johnny" because there wasn't the offense available to Manziel that exists now. The Aggies suffered their only other defeat on Oct. 20, when they fell to LSU 24-19 largely because of five turnovers, two missed field goals and a touchdown called back.

While the Aggies await their postseason destination, Missouri can only wish for better days ahead.

The Tigers were predicted to fare better than the Aggies this season after attaining eight or more wins under coach Gary Pinkel in the six seasons leading up to this one. Instead they sustained three season-ending injuries on the offensive line and struggled to a 5-7 finish.

Quarterback James Franklin was the poster child for Missouri's woes, suffering a shoulder setback against Georgia, an MCL injury against Vanderbilt and a concussion against Syracuse. The Tigers were 2-6 in SEC play, routing Kentucky and pulling out a four-overtime win at Tennessee.

"James was 100 percent against Tennessee, which was the first time all year," Pinkel said, "and he only had one time when he had two back-to-back weeks of practice. We've had it tough on our offensive line, but we've tried to battle through it. To have issues with the offensive line and at quarterback has certainly been challenging.

"We had been to eight bowls in the last nine years and seven in a row, so this has been tough for everybody. I've never been through anything like this since I've been in coaching."

Pinkel and Sumlin expected to face great football teams each week, so not much about their new surroundings surprised them. They both appreciate the SEC and are eager to move forward.

"We're a great fit, and when people came to Kyle Field, we got nothing but compliments from the people of Florida, Arkansas and on and on," Sumlin said. "We are happy to be in the SEC, and I think we have proven we belong here."

Said Pinkel: "It's the best football league in the nation, and I don't think anybody will argue that. It's been everything I thought it would be, and we're proud and happy to be in this league."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.

about David Paschall...

David Paschall is a sports writer for the Times Free Press. He started at the Chattanooga Free Press in 1990 and was part of the Times Free Press when the paper started in 1999. David covers University of Georgia football, as well as SEC football recruiting, SEC basketball, Chattanooga Lookouts baseball and other sports stories. He is a Chattanooga native and graduate of the Baylor School and Auburn University. David has received numerous honors for ...

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