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SEC FOOTBALL: THE CURIOUS CASES OF TEXAS A&M AND MISSOURI

Texas A&M and Missouri have been in the SEC for only half a decade.

It seems that the two football programs have lived in their current conference for a much longer period of time.

Say this much for the Aggies and Tigers: They quickly achieved both significance and irrelevance, becoming conspicuous in moments of both prominence and obscurity.

The SEC's longtime members, and even medium-length members such as early-1990s arrivals South Carolina and Arkansas, can't quite match the stories A&M and Mizzou can tell. The Aggies and Tigers wear many masks, leading the SEC to wonder what the "real" versions of each program in fact are. In many ways, the journeys of Texas A&M and Missouri this decade magnify the point that while two parties expect to thrive as a result of a transaction, the exchange doesn't guarantee positive effects... for either side.

In 2011, Kevin Sumlin coached the Houston Cougars within one win (in the Conference USA Championship Game against Larry Fedora and Southern Mississippi) of C-USA's first-ever Bowl Championship Series bid. The Cougars could have become the first team from a Group of 5 conference other than the Mountain West (or the now-defunct WAC) to crash the BCS party. Northern Illinois hadn't yet done so in the MAC (2012). The American hadn't yet been born. The Sun Belt is still waiting on its first BCS representative.

Sumlin and Houston lost, but the mere fact he made it that far caught the eyes of administrators not too far away from Houston... in College Station. Sumlin became A&M's coach after Houston's loss to Southern Mississippi. A&M had what seemed to be one of the rare "it" coaches in college football, the visionary who could recruit well and then cultivate quarterbacks.

In 2012, every positive perception of Sumlin was validated. Alabama won the division and eventually the national title, but A&M defeated the Tide in Tuscaloosa. The Aggies were led by quarterback Johnny Manziel, who proceeded to become the first freshman winner of the Heisman Trophy since the award began in 1935. A&M blasted the team it had left behind in the Big 12 -- Oklahoma -- in a lopsided Cotton Bowl. A&M didn't win the SEC West or reach a BCS bowl that season, but it accomplished as much as a team could without securing those two more exalted prizes.

Since then, A&M hasn't won more than eight games in any subsequent regular season.

Stagnant, unimaginative, even paralyzed, the Aggie program has been unresponsive and ordinary in the face of not just the Bama juggernaut, but the Ole Miss ascendancy and the talent of LSU. Even when Ole Miss failed to make a bowl game last year, the Rebels won in College Station. Even when Les Miles' job was on the line at the end of the 2016 season, the reeling Tigers handled A&M.

Not beating Bama? That's no sin. Not being a 10-win regular season team with a steady stream of January bowl appearances, with at least some New Year's Six games to point to? That's not what the Johnny Manziel years were supposed to herald in College Station.

The hard-to-answer question -- in light of Sumlin's fall from success to the hot seat in a five-year span -- is whether Kliff Kingsbury, a lieutenant on Sumlin's 2012 staff, made Johnny Manziel and Sumlin, or whether Manziel made Sumlin... or whether former coach Mike Sherman's offensive line recruits made everyone at A&M in that 2012 season. Regardless, the Aggies landed punches in the SEC West in 2012, raising the hopes they could stand their ground in the conference's tougher half... only to fade away.

Missouri's journey is at times both similar and very different when put against A&M's path.

The Tigers needed 2012 as a transitional year, but in 2013, they found themselves, going 7-1 in the SEC and owning legitimate national championship-game aspirations when they met Auburn in the SEC title game.

Whereas A&M lost the plot following its one superb SEC season, Missouri maintained its place in the face of challengers in 2014, replicating its 7-1 SEC record and returning to Atlanta to play Alabama. Coach Gary Pinkel didn't come to Mizzou with the fanfare which accompanied Sumlin's arrival at A&M, but he quietly and patiently built the Tigers into a formidable outfit.

Then, what happened in Columbia, Missouri, spun away from anything the A&M story involved. Campus unrest in CoMo, combined with Pinkel's health problems and abrupt retirement, put the brakes on the MU program. This was not an internal failure at a program which expected to rule the roost in a football-mad state (Missouri does not fit that description) as much as it was a series of calamitous events reasonable people could not have prepared for. Just the same, though, Missouri's moment -- while sustained one season longer than A&M's rise -- evaporated rather quickly.

The Tigers have fallen to a very low point -- near rock bottom -- so in that sense, they're much worse off than A&M, but the Aggies suffer when they win no more than eight games in a regular season. Missouri fans would generally love such an outcome on an annual basis. On a relative scale -- measured against the extent to which football MATTERS at each school -- A&M and Mizzou aren't as distant from each other as the won-loss records might immediately suggest.

What happened with each program in these first years of SEC life? In many ways, the effects are attached to a plot twist which -- while probably anticipated by some -- certainly evaded the radar screens of others.

It is quite evident that the Big 12 is in bad shape right now. While Missouri was not a "giant" in the conference, it did come within one win of playing in the 2007 national championship game, and it did win multiple Big 12 North Division titles under Pinkel. While A&M did not rule the Big 12 South, the great Oklahoma and Texas teams of the past decade frequently had to grind out hard-earned wins against the Aggies. The Big 12 figured to lose some value by shedding these two programs, but missing two of the first three College Football Playoff showcases represents a harder fall than what many in the conference were expecting.

The popular -- or prominent; the two aren't necessarily one and the same, but often are -- refrain in 2012 concerned the ability of A&M and Mizzou to hang with the established big boys in the SEC. Accordingly, most SEC fans wondered how the SEC would -- or wouldn't -- be improved by the new kids on the block. Yet, lost in the tumult and intrigue of that entirely reasonable discussion was the fate of the Big 12.

With the benefit of hindsight, the story of Texas A&M and Missouri is not how they've affected the SEC. Their value on the field has been a mixed bag of successes and failures, the failures slightly outstripping the successes to this point. The real revelation offered by the Aggies and Tigers is that their presence in the SEC has expanded the region's recruiting footprint (especially into Texas), which has in turn taken Texas recruits out of the Big 12, thereby weakening the former conference more than strengthening the new one.

It's not the angle most were emphasizing or studying in 2012... but it's the angle which offers the clearest explanation for what has happened in the exchanges between the Big 12 and SEC in recent years.

Texas A&M and Missouri are very much mysteries... but what they've indirectly done on the recruiting trail this decade sheds light on a conference the SEC wants to subdue.

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