COLUMBIA, Mo. -- It wasn't the ending Texas A&M envisioned.
The Aggies quickly headed to the visitor's locker room on Saturday night as thousands of Missouri fans, most of them clad in black for the stadium "blackout," rushed Faurot Field to celebrate the Tigers' SEC East Division championship and berth in the SEC Championship Game.
It was the kind of ending A&M would have loved to experienced for itself. Coming into the season with a preseason top-10 ranking, those were the goals the Aggies set for themselves.
The primary goal was simple: Get to Atlanta.
After the impressive 11-2 debut season in the SEC that the Aggies put together in 2012, you probably would have been hard pressed to find anyone predicting that Mizzou would be getting to the Georgia Dome before Texas A&M. But that's how quickly things can change in college football.
Rather than play for a championship, the Aggies finished a somewhat underwhelming 8-4 overall and 4-4 in SEC play. They didn't beat a single ranked team this season. They lost their final two games, both on pretty big stages. That's the cold reality of the situation. Now they're simply left to play in whatever bowl game they wind up in, possibly the Chick-Fil-A Bowl, but not quite a BCS bowl like they once hoped.
"We're going to have one more opportunity with this group of guys to go out and win a football game, and we're not happy about what happened the last couple of weeks, obviously," head coach Kevin Sumlin said late Saturday. "But we've still got one more opportunity and it's probably going to be [against] another really, really good team."
There are a few reasons why the Aggies faltered at certain points this season. The young defense, which was inconsistent and downright bad in several games, made the offense work in losses to Alabama and Auburn.
However, in the past two weeks, the unit began to make some strides. Considering how high-powered the Aggies offense has been the past two seasons, the defense played well enough -- at least in the first half of the past two games -- to give Texas A&M a chance to take control of the game. But the offense sputtered, having an ugly showing at LSU and simply being inconsistent against Missouri.
Johnny Manziel's health status didn't help. The Heisman Trophy winner is not 100 percent -- though many players aren't at this point in the season -- and even Missouri players noticed that he was hurting. With a nagging thumb injury on his throwing hand and a pair of taped ankles, Johnny Football looked human the past two weeks, not like the magician that has captivated the college football world for two seasons. If he was too hurt, Sumlin wasn't saying it.
"If he wasn't healthy enough to play, he wouldn't have played," Sumlin said.
A player as talented as Manziel can help mask deficiencies. Seemingly unable to do so these past two weeks, it uncovered several issues against two talented defenses. LSU and Missouri were certainly quality defensive teams that made life difficult for Manziel.
"He's had better performances, he's had worse performances," Sumlin said. "There's a lot of pressure on him to perform at a high level all the time. I've said before, quarterbacks are like the head coach. You get too much credit when you win, you get most of the blame when you lose. Whenever you don't win, everything focuses on that. There's a lot of people out there playing besides him. For us to be effective, there has to be more than one guy that's going to have to make plays. We made some, we didn't make some, and that was across the board."
It would have been impossible to make this statement a season ago when the Aggies were all the rage and Missouri was getting through a 5-7 season, but the Tigers are where the Aggies want to be. Across the sideline they saw a savvy, veteran group, led by strong seniors and playmakers on both sides of the football. The Tigers, who lead the SEC in sacks and interceptions, have an athletic front seven and a solid secondary.
Offensively, senior quarterback James Franklin provides a steady hand and gets the ball to the myriad playmakers around him, running back Henry Josey and receivers L'Damian Washington and Dorial Green-Beckham among them. Coach Gary Pinkel has provided stability as the head coach, having been with the Tigers for 13 years now. They won three division titles in their final five years in the Big 12, so Saturday's victory is just continued success under Pinkel, albeit in a new league.
The good news for the Aggies? The fact that finishing 8-4 is a disappointment speaks to the progress that the program has made in a short time under Sumlin. Expectations have been raised significantly in Aggieland, and that will continue after Sumlin agreed to a new six-year contract on Saturday. The last time the Aggies even won eight games in back-to-back seasons was 1998 and 1999.
Sumlin's on the way to signing his second consecutive top-10 recruiting class. The school has begun work on a $450 million renovation of Kyle Field, and the Aggies continue to improve facilities. So the commitment to getting where they want to be is there.
Now, it's simply a matter of making it happen. But for now, Missouri gets the bragging rights among the SEC newbies because it's the Tigers who will be playing for a championship in the Georgia Dome on Saturday.
It will take some time for the Aggies to write the ending they're looking for.