As motorists approach College Station, Texas, heading northbound on State Highway 6, there is a large billboard on the right hand side. It greets those heading toward the hometown of the Texas A&M Aggies with a simple message in bold letters:
“This is SEC Country.”
Texas A&M’s entrance into the Southeastern Conference has been a source of excitement for the Aggies, their fans and the College Station community. Becoming part of college football’s premier conference has brought with it a wave of change: a new athletic director, head football coach, even new uniforms. It's the dawn of a new day for the university.
Senior linebacker Jonathan Stewart is aware of the positive buzz surrounding the Aggies’ new league membership, but for the players, association isn’t enough.
“Everybody is just happy about us being in the SEC and don’t think we can do anything,” Stewart said. “Our goal is to win every game we can play. We worked too hard this offseason and in the summer, everything that we’ve done, to just be happy in the new conference.”
The Aggies have heard the whispers. Honestly, they haven’t been whispers at all. The questions have been asked so many times that the Aggies are well aware of the perception that they’re going to struggle during their inaugural season in the SEC.
They know that’s what many across the country are thinking as the Aggies step foot into the big, bad SEC, the consensus top conference in college football, home to the last six BCS champions.
LSU coach Les Miles even said it earlier this year, telling The Birmingham News that Texas A&M and Missouri better "strap it up," and that the teams were "going to really not enjoy their welcoming into this conference."
"Based on the video I watched, he wasn't too far from being right," Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin said at SEC media days. "I don't think that was any kind of derogatory statement at all based on the fact that he was the head coach at Oklahoma State and was in the Big 12 for a number of years. So I think he understands the physical nature of this league.”
Sumlin, the Aggies' first-year head coach who spent the last four years leading Houston, hasn't denied that the SEC will be a challenge. However he has walked the fine line of giving the league its proper respect while also maintaining a public level of confidence that has seemingly carried over to his players.
“Just because we’re new doesn’t mean they’re going to pick on us,” senior linebacker Sean Porter said. “We’re not going to back down from anybody."
For seniors like Porter and Stewart, this year carries a sense of urgency.
"Us as a senior class, this is our last go-round, so there’s no, ‘Oh in the future, you’ll be better,’" Stewart said. "Our motivation is to go in and win every single game that we play in because there’s no other option."
And while many are curious as to what impact the SEC will have on the Aggies, the Aggies feel like they have some things to bring to the table themselves.
"We bring the same kind of atmosphere, I believe," junior tackle Luke Joeckel said. "Kyle Field is a lot like the SEC schools and brings the same kind of excitement to football and it’s a great atmosphere. (The) 12th Man is certainly the best (group of) fans in the country, so I think we’ll fit in really well there and I think we have a pretty good football team also."