Texas A&M is 6-0 with home wins over UCLA and Tennessee and away-from-home wins over Arkansas and an Auburn that is stronger than it gets credit for. The Aggies are 11th in S&P+ and sixth in the polls. In a year in which Sumlin was supposed to be on the hot seat, A&M now has a 70 percent chance of finishing 10-2 or better.
At least, as long as the Aggies respond well to the Bama game, win or lose.
This is the fifth time A&M and Alabama have met as conference mates. Three of the other four meetings served as tipping points for the Aggies, and the fourth was an incredible shootout. (Bama leads the overall series, 6-2.)
And in general, when these two teams interact, significant things occur.
2012: Led by a frenetic Johnny Manziel and a late-game interception, A&M upset unbeaten Alabama in Tuscaloosa, 29-24. The win all but sealed Manziel’s Heisman win, and the Aggies hit fifth gear. They finished with a 30-point win over Missouri and 28-point Cotton Bowl win over Oklahoma and in the AP top 5 for the first time since 1956, when Bama great Bear Bryant was their head coach.
We’ll come back to him.
2013: The teams put on a show in week 3, and both continued to play well after. Alabama would win its first 11 games before the famous Kick Six loss to Auburn, while A&M would win their next three games to move to 5-1 before, yes, a memorable loss to Auburn.
So this game is remembered for simply being amazing. A&M went up 14-0 seven minutes in, Bama responded with a 35-0 run, then A&M capped a 21-7 run with a 95-yard pass from Manziel to Mike Evans. After 1,196 total yards, Bama survived, 49-42.
2014: A&M began its first post-Manziel season 5-0, but got thumped by two peaking Mississippi schools. A demoralized, young Aggie squad headed to Tuscaloosa and got obliterated, 59-0.
A&M would lose five of its final seven of the regular season, prompting Sumlin to shake up his defensive coaching staff.
2015: A&M began 5-0 again and ranked higher than Alabama (No. 9 vs. No. 10) when the Crimson Tide came to College Station. But the Tide bolted to a 28-6 lead midway through the second quarter, and when the Aggies rallied with a 17-6 run, Bama finished off with a 55-yard Minkah Fitzpatrick pick six.
A&M proceeded to lose five of eight games, prompting a shakeup on the offensive staff.
The game was a springboard in 2012, a track meet in 2013, and a booby trap in 2014 and 2015. All four were memorable for their own reasons.
That describes the schools’ relationship overall. These rivals have made the most of their minimal time together.
They played only four times before A&M moved to the SEC, but they created five classic interactions in the process.
1941: The Aggies were denied a potential claim of the mythical national title — it would have been their second in three years — when Homer Norton's unbeaten squad was upset, 29-21, by Frank Thomas' 8-2 Crimson Tide in the Cotton Bowl. Bama picked off seven passes and raced to a 29-7 lead on a blocked punt return and pick six, but two late scores got A&M within striking distance.
1957: With Bama bombing under Jennings Whitworth, it was clear the Tide would be hiring a new head coach. Rumors swirled that an alum by the name of Paul Bryant would be the No. 1 choice.
The Bear was busy leading A&M to an 8-0 start, however. Notre Dame ended Oklahoma’s 47-game winning streak, and No. 1 A&M, led by eventual Heisman winner John David Crow, was primed to take advantage. But on Nov. 15, reports emerged that Bryant would “definitely succeed” Whitworth in Tuscaloosa. On Nov. 16, the Aggies lost to Rice, wrecking the title dream.
On Nov. 28, A&M lost to Texas, and on Dec. 2, Bryant took the Bama job. A&M hasn’t been back to No. 1 since.
1967: The two met again in the Cotton Bowl, and this time the tables were turned. Alabama, led by Ken Stabler, was 8-1-1 and ninth in the country, while Aggies were 6-4 and unranked. In a battle of teacher (Bryant) and former pupil (Gene Stallings), A&M took a 20-10 lead midway through the third quarter and held on, 20-16.
It was only the second time that Alabama had lost more than one game in a season under Bryant, and it was a harbinger: Bama would go only 20-13-1 over the next three seasons before rallying.
1985: By comparison, there wasn’t much significant about the teams’ first in-season battle. It was a 23-10 Alabama win at Legion Field in Birmingham that sparked a decent rebound season (they improved from 5-6 to 9-2-1 in Ray Perkins’ third year succeeding Bryant), and A&M would respond by winning 10 of 11 to finish the season in the Cotton Bowl. But it was still a showcase of legs: Bama’s Van Tiffin made field goals of 40, 51, and 57 to power the win.
1988: In the return trip to College Station — a Thursday night game held on Dec. 1 after getting postponed by Hurricane Gilbert — Alabama handed Jackie Sherrill his final loss as A&M head coach. The Aggies’ season had been clouded by NCAA sanctions and an 0-3 start, and Sherrill would resign in December. A&M turned the ball over three times, and two David Smith touchdown passes paced a 30-10 win.
This the most efficient rivalry in the country. When they collide, something memorable is going to unfold.
And more often than not, that has meant bad things for the Aggies.
Maybe we will end up seeing the same vibe in 2016 as we did in 2014 and 2015. Maybe A&M’s confidence will be done in by a Bama thumping (just as Miami’s has potentially been done in by a loss to Florida State for the third consecutive year), and Sumlin will end up on the hot seat yet.
But this is Sumlin’s first experienced, mature Aggie team since maybe 2012, and the Aggies have a couple of key matchup advantages they might be able to exploit.
Maybe that ends up making this game memorable for another reason.