Texas A&M’s transition to SEC has been smoother than Missouri’s

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COLUMBIA, MO -- The debate may seem outlandish now, given how the season has gone for Texas A&M and Missouri. But it wasn’t that long ago — just last summer — when there was a legitimate debate about which SEC newcomer would initially fare best in its new conference.

Missouri had a compelling case. Not only had the Tigers beaten Texas A&M on the road in each of the previous two years, but they also returned a star quarterback in James Franklin. And with coach Gary Pinkel entering his 12th year, there was a level of stability at Missouri thought to be absent at Texas A&M, which was set to face the nation’s toughest conference with a new head coach.

Oh, those shortsighted observers of great vision. When Missouri, 5-6, heads into College Station to face No. 9 Texas A&M, 9-2, on Saturday, the Tigers will be doing so as 22-point underdogs — a nod to MU’s injury struggles and A&M’s brilliant first season under Kevin Sumlin, which includes a signature road victory over then-No. 1 Alabama.

“They’re healthy. Their quarterback is playing well,” Pinkel said, when asked why A&M has had such early success in the SEC. “They were always close, you know?”

Missouri offensive coordinator David Yost agreed.

“I remember playing them the last few years. … I thought they were a really good football team,” Yost said. “They just had tough fourth quarters.”

Whatever struggles the Aggies had under former coach Mike Sherman, who got the boot last year after a 7-6 record in his fourth season, have surely been forgotten. A big reason for that has been the play of redshirt freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel, a Heisman contender who has guided Sumlin’s explosive Mike Leach-style spread offense with gusto and style.

“This is a Mike Leach system, (which features) a lot of drop-back QBs who aren’t great on their feet,” said Missouri defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski. “This guy is, so it really adds a whole new dimension to this system.”

Manziel, who has earned the nickname “Johnny Football” for his play, was praised by several members of MU’s staff for his ability to ad lib. Manziel, who has rushed 172 times for 1,114 yards and 17 touchdowns, is dangerous on the zone-read and is not afraid to take off and run if nothing is open.

But Manziel, who has completed 67.7 percent of his passes for 3,047 yards, 21 touchdowns and seven interceptions, can hurt you with his arm, too. While Pinkel compared him to Chase Daniel — both were good very early in their college careers — Kuligowski sees another comparison.

“He’s more of a Brett Favre kind of guy where, if he feels (the throw) is there, he’s going to sling it in,” Kuligowski said. “He’s a gritty kind of guy, a tough player. You don’t see him getting up slow from hits. He certainly is a handful to prepare for.”

It’s certainly worth noting that while Yost has drawn criticism for his reliance on four- and five-wide sets, to hear MU’s coaches tell it, A&M uses the same amount of spread sets. The difference is, while Franklin and his offensive line have been banged up all year, the Aggies — who feature two high-level tackles in juniors Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews — have been relatively injury-free, which has helped Manziel perform at a high level.

“They have a really good offensive line that’s been intact the entire season,” Pinkel said. “That’s certainly helped him out a lot.”

Added Yost: “When your quarterback is playing at a high level in that spread offense, he makes everything work. When James Franklin has a great day, he makes our offense look really good.”

The problem for Missouri has been that for whatever reason — largely the injuries — those days have been few and far between, hence the Tigers’ 2-5 conference record, which includes a loss to Vanderbilt. And while some of A&M’s conference success (it enters with a 5-2 record) can be attributed to the unexpected downfall of Arkansas and Auburn, two SEC West stalwarts who are a combined 2-12 this year, there’s doubt the Aggies have made some of their own luck.

“There’s a lot of similarity to what we all do,” Pinkel said of the spread. “But they’re executing very well, blocking well, throwing and catching.”

While Missouri hasn’t been the beneficiary of much fortune this season, to hear senior left tackle Elvis Fisher tell it, the Tigers — who can qualify for a bowl for the eighth straight season with a win Saturday — just might be motivated enough to beat the Aggies and show everyone that the preseason debate about which SEC newcomer would fare the best wasn’t so far off, after all.

“It would make a lot of people feel a lot better if we go down there and get a ‘W,’” Fisher said.

“It’s (been) a tough season, I’m sure some guys are burnt out. … We’ve just got to keep guys in it. I don’t really see a problem with that with this year’s team. I know nobody on this team is going to give up.

“We’ve got a one-game season right now. We’ve just got to draw a line in the sand, as our coaches say, and go out there and play this last one.”

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