- Sam Khan Jr., ESPN Staff Writer
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- The word hasn't been used very often around Aggieland since Texas A&M joined the SEC but when the Aggies met with the media on Tuesday, it was spoken a few times.
It's the home of the Georgia Dome, site of the SEC championship game. It has frequently been the defacto play-in game to the BCS National Championship throughout the last decade. If you win in Atlanta, chances are you're playing for the crystal football.
While players stuck to their talking points of this week being "just another game" or this week being "like any other week," the fact that the Aggies discussed their initial season goal indicates that they understand what's at stake Saturday.
Win and get an edge in the SEC West race.
If the sixth-ranked Aggies truly are to be considered a national title contender, then their chance to prove it is at 2:30 p.m. CT Saturday at Kyle Field against No. 1 Alabama. Last season, the Aggies went 11-2 without much expectation from outsiders. This year, with a preseason top-10 ranking, a Heisman Trophy winner in tow and a level of coverage not seen, perhaps ever, of its program, there is an expectation for success externally.
Internally, there always has been since head coach Kevin Sumlin arrived. Despite what others said, he made it clear to his players last season that they had the talent to win every game on their schedule. The win over Alabama verified that, but the Aggies had slipups against Florida and LSU earlier in the year.
Before training camp began, senior running back Ben Malena approached Sumlin about taking an expanded leadership role in order to help the team get to a "championship level." So how's the progress on that front so far?
"I think we're doing a very good job of taking strides to getting to Atlanta," Malena said. "Correcting some mistakes that we made from Week 1 to Week 2 was very good and we're going to need to correct some more stuff, especially going into this game, because they [the Crimson Tide] will be ready coming into Kyle Field."
Quarterback Johnny Manziel is key for sure, but if the team expects to get to Atlanta, it must be more than just Manziel carrying the load. Offensively, that doesn't appear to be an issue thus far. With four capable running backs (Malena, Tra Carson, Brandon Williams, Trey Williams), a veteran offensive line that excelled in the first two games and perhaps one of the nation's best receivers in Mike Evans, there are plenty of weapons for the Aggies to go to.
Defense is where the question marks are now, though the Aggies have a chance to answer some of those question marks on Saturday. They haven't yet had their full complement of defensive players because of injuries and suspensions, but will have virtually their entire first-team unit intact on Saturday. Though Alabama struggled offensively, and particularly on its offensive line, in its season-opening win against Virginia Tech, the Aggies are still expecting a strong effort from the Crimson Tide running game and offense.
"Coach [Nick] Saban is going to do what Coach Saban does," A&M defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said. "They've won a lot of games doing it. Why change? There's not a dramatic dropoff between last year's team and this year's team. Their left tackle is still really good, their right guard is still really good. They got their feet wet for the first game and now they've had two weeks to kind of prepare and get those things fixed and we're expecting to get their best."
Some have said the Aggies entered the season with a target on their backs, whether it's because of their upstart inaugural season in the SEC or the exploits of Manziel, which have drawn plenty of headlines. In a way, the Aggies almost feel like underdogs though, because of how many around the nation feel that Saban and Co. will successfully redeem themselves with a win on Saturday.
"From last year, us beating them, people didn't expect that," Aggies receiver Malcome Kennedy said. "People probably don't expect it this year. But as I said, we just go week-to-week on a weekly basis and we just try to be 1-0 at the end of the week and that's how we're approaching this game."
No matter what happens, it's important to note that there's a lot of season left after this game. The Aggies have nine more contests, including road trips to Ole Miss and LSU, while Alabama has 10 more games. Despite the buildup, the SEC won't be won or lost on Saturday, though the result could play a critical role in deciding who gets the West division title at the end of the season.
In trying to get the team to a championship level, Sumlin has tried to keep his team focused on the game and not the noise around it while keeping their routine the same. Much like Saban's "The Process" axiom, Sumlin tries to keep his team consistent and avoid allowing them to "ride the wave."
"I'd probably be lying to you if I told you no, [that things haven't changed since last year]," Sumlin said. "In this room, it probably hasn't changed very much just because of our approach day-to-day with the players and our coaches.
“When we leave here, I take out my phone and all you guys are talking about what we're supposed to be and how big this game is and everything else, that's when the problems come,” Sumlin said with a smile.
"I think we're pretty visible right now and because of that, that's what you want as a coach. You come into situations and as things start to progress, you want to be in meaningful games,” he said. “You want your team to have a chance to play in meaningful games -- not just now, but in November."
Or December, in Atlanta.
2dSharon Katz, ESPN Stats & Information
3dEdward Aschoff and Greg Ostendorf