Friday, January 7, 2011

Aggies Seek Reversal of Fortune

I don't know if you've noticed, but — with a few noteworthy exceptions — this year's crop of bowl games has turned out to be somewhat disappointing.

Oh, there have been a few games that lived up to whatever hype there was prior to kickoff — but let's be honest, there really hasn't been much to hype, beyond the still–to–be–played BCS championship game.

Frankly, that hasn't surprised me. When this year's bowl lineup was announced, I pinpointed a handful of games that intrigued me — and decided I might watch parts of the others if I had nothing better to do.

If you knew how long I have been a fan of college football, you would be astonished by that.

One of the games that intrigued me from the start, though, is the one that will be played here in north Texas tonight — the Cotton Bowl between Texas A&M and LSU.

It's an old rivalry that has lain dormant since 1995, when the Aggies opened the season with a 33–17 win over LSU at College Station, Texas. (Since that day, by the way, A&M has lost five straight games to Southeastern Conference schools.)

That was totally in character for this series. If one of the teams is playing on its home field, that team usually wins. When the game is played at a neutral site, as it has been seven times (including their only previous bowl game encounter, the Orange Bowl that was played on Jan. 1, 1944), it's been even. Literally. Their record at neutral sites is 3–3–1.

This will be their 50th meeting so, clearly, most of their games have been played at College Station or Baton Rouge. In fact, you have to go back more than half a century to find the last time the teams played on a neutral site.

It was right here, in Dallas, on Sept. 24, 1955 (the same day that President Eisenhower suffered a heart attack), and the Aggies won, 28–0. Bear Bryant was coaching A&M in those days.

It was also the first season that Paul Dietzel was LSU's head coach. Modern football fans may not recognize that name, but, in the next few years, Dietzel led the Tigers to their only national championship in the 20th century, and he coached the school's only Heisman Trophy winner to date.

Before that, their last neutral–site meeting was that Orange Bowl game on New Year's Day 1944. That 1943 season was an anomaly in the history of this series. The teams met during the regular season, too, in Baton Rouge, and the visiting Aggies won, 28–13. But the Tigers won the rematch in Miami, 19–14.

The other five neutral–site games were played before or during World War I.

At various times, LSU has been a fixture on A&M's schedule, most recently in the decade covering the late 1980s and early 1990s. The Aggies lost four of five games between 1986 and 1990, but they won all five games played between 1991 and 1995, which also happened to be a period of virtually unparalleled success for the A&M program.

LSU, on the other hand, went from being a perennial SEC contender in the mid– to late 1980s to enduring a string of sub–.500 finishes from 1989 to 1994. The Tigers' loss to the Aggies in September 1995 did not prevent them from eventually earning a bowl bid for the first time since 1988. By that time, they were on their way back to the top.

In the last decade or so, both schools' fortunes have been reversed from what they were in 1995. LSU hasn't had a losing season since 1999; in fact, the Tigers have posted 10 wins or more in six of the last 10 seasons (including this one).

But the last two years were not particularly good for the Tigers. After beating Ohio State for the national title, LSU slumped to 8–5 in 2008 and rebounded slightly to 9–4 in 2009 — numbers that many programs would envy but hardly what LSU fans have been accustomed to.

Meanwhile, 2010 has been, by far, the Aggies' best year since they lost the 1999 Sugar Bowl to Ohio State and finished 11–3.

The numbers will tell you that the 9–3 Aggies have only matched their best single–season victory total since that time, but that isn't the whole story.

They went 9–3 in 2006 as well, but their reward for a campaign in which their only significant win was against Texas was a trip to the Holiday Bowl.

Don't get me wrong. Beating Texas always means something, and it did have more value in 2006, coming less than a year after Texas won the national title, than it did this year, when Texas was coming off a loss in the national championship game last January and, more recently, had been beaten to a pulp in six of its last eight games.

But the Aggies of 2006 didn't have any other truly quality wins (or "statement games") that year. They lost to the three best teams they faced other than Texas — Texas Tech, Oklahoma and Nebraska. Besides UT, the only winning teams the Aggies beat were Missouri and Oklahoma State — and, when they took the field in San Diego for the Holiday Bowl, they were hammered by 9–3 California.

(If you're an aficionado of A&M trivia, that was Dennis Franchione's last bowl appearance with the Aggies. He was gone after the 2007 season.)

A finish like the one Texas endured this year was probably the kind of finish that most people envisioned for the Aggies when they went 3–3 in the first half of the season, but then wide receiver Ryan Tannehill was switched to quarterback and the Aggies averaged 30.6 points in the five games he started (which included victories over Oklahoma, Nebraska and Texas Tech).

And their reward is a trip to the Cotton Bowl.

Longtime A&M fans — the ones whose memories go back to when the Aggies competed in the old Southwest Conference — remember when going to the Cotton Bowl was the prize for a great season. For those of us who were raised in the Southwest Conference, I guess it always will be.

Personally, I feel the city of Dallas made a serious mistake in not actively promoting the Cotton Bowl for BCS status when it had the chance. Yes, the Cotton Bowl stadium has been around for 80 years. Yes, the city would have needed to make a substantial financial commitment to make it acceptable to the BCS.

But I believed then — and I believe now — the investment would have been worth it.

Well, that's really a topic for another time, I suppose.

This will be the Aggies' 12th Cotton Bowl, but it's been nearly a quarter of a century since they've won one. They've lost five straight since.

In all, they have played in 15 bowl games since their last victory in the Cotton Bowl, and their overall record is 3–12.

Can they end their skid?

I think they can — and the reason is as simple as the old adage that "defense wins championships."

Well, in this case, defense can't win a championship — but it definitely could win a bowl game.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the defense was known as the "Wrecking Crew." In recent years, I've heard Aggie fans criticize the defense, saying — and not without justification — that it didn't meet the standards of the defenses that R.C. Slocum used to put on the field.

(That has always seemed like a rather odd criticism to me, given that Slocum was run off because he wasn't winning. Slocum is the winningest coach in school history.)

But, in spite of all the talk about Tannehill's exploits this season, coach Mike Sherman's achievement in reviving the Aggie defense might be the story of the year in Aggieland. They had the best run defense in the Big 12 (#15 in the country), and that could make for some interesting plays against an offense that had the 31st run offense in the nation.

The passing game really doesn't seem likely to play a prominent role in LSU's game plan unless the Tigers find themselves having to claw back from a deficit. LSU's aerial attack was 107th in the nation — and I'm guessing that suits the Aggies just fine. They were 93rd in the nation against the pass.

When the Aggies have the ball, of course, they will be putting it in the apparently capable hands of Tannehill, who was 33rd in the nation in passing efficiency despite starting fewer than half of the team's games.

He does figure to be challenged when he throws the ball — LSU's pass defense was ninth in the nation, and the Tigers had to face three of the country's top four passers so you know they've been tested — but if LSU emphasizes pass defense, its 40th–ranked run defense could well be rendered vulnerable to Cyrus Gray, the Aggies' top rusher.

Gray didn't have eye–popping numbers, but he contributed about what LSU's top rusher, Stevan Ridley, did on the ground — roughly 86 yards and one touchdown per game. He didn't carry the ball as frequently, though, so his per–carry average was much better (5.74 to 4.63).

The numbers tell me this could be a scrap, a real backyard brawl, and that always makes for interesting television.

But let's examine the motivations.

The Aggies are on a six–game winning streak, hungry to return to national prominence. To outsiders, they may seem to be taking baby steps in that direction, and the Cotton Bowl may not seem like much of a seaon–ending reward.

But, as someone who grew up in the Southwest Conference, I know the Cotton Bowl is hardly a consolation prize to the Aggies. It is certainly preferable to the Holiday Bowl. I know they relish the opportunity to end their Cotton Bowl losing streak, even if it isn't in the actual Cotton Bowl stadium.

And, for a team whose last bowl championship came nearly a decade ago in the Gallery Furniture Bowl, the label "Cotton Bowl champions" sounds pretty good.

The Tigers have enjoyed a lot of success in recent years. Coach Les Miles is wrapping up his sixth season at the helm, and the Tigers have won at least 10 games in four of them.

There may be a certain amount of motivation for LSU in that. If the Tigers win tonight, they will have their fourth 11–win season since 2005.

My thinking is that the Tigers and their fans may be complacent. They may be inclined to see the Cotton Bowl as a consolation prize after all their recent BCS appearances. They may not appreciate a trip to Dallas.

But the Aggies, even though their campus is only about 150 miles away, won't feel that way.

And I think they will not only cover the two–point spread the oddsmakers have given to LSU. I think they will win the game. Texas A&M 27, LSU 21.

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