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Sports

January 3, 2013

Cotton Bowl: A&M is SEC team with Big 12 offense

ARLINGTON —  It may not be the most ideal matchup of Big 12 rivals, but tonight’s 77th AT&T Cotton Bowl may just be the second-most compelling bowl game behind the national championship game.

It features a rematch of former Big 12 rivals in No. 9 Texas A&M and No. 11 Oklahoma. It features the reigning Heisman Trophy winner in A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel and an OU QB in Landry Jones who was supposed to be a Heisman finalist in his senior season.

It’s a return to familiar territory for A&M (10-2, 6-2 SEC), as the Aggies make their 13th trip to the Cotton Bowl, after spending a year of firsts in the Southeastern Conference. For Oklahoma (10-2, 8-1 Big 12), it’s a chance to redeem itself with a victory over one of the three Heisman finalists, after the Sooners lost to Collin Klein and Kansas State and Manti Te’o and Notre Dame.

It’s hard to believe that Manziel wasn’t even named the starter until two weeks before the season. Even Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin admitted he didn’t know exactly what he had in Manziel until the season got going.

“I don’t think in the spring, we had any idea,” Sumlin said. “We talked to him in the spring about taking care of the ball. He is obviously very talented, but there were a lot of things he needed to work on from a ball security standpoint. He continued to work through that in the summer and through two-a-days.

“You never really know, especially with a freshman with so many moving parts going into a game. But the first game, that being a (College) Game Day like atmosphere, with everybody there, playing Florida, how he responded early in that game you had to feel like he had a chance to be a good player.”

The biggest impact first-year head coach Sumlin had was on the Aggies offense. Manziel, nicknamed Johnny Football during the season, became the fifth player in NCAA history to throw for over 3,000 yards and rush for over 1,000 yards in a season. He joins a venerable group that includes former Texas standout Vince Young, Central Michigan’s Dan LeFevour, Nevada’s Colin Kapernick and Northern Illinois’ Chandler Harnish. All five hit the mark since 2005.

But, Manziel wasn’t the only part of the Texas A&M offense that exploded, as redshirt freshman receiver Mike Evans had 75 catches for 1,022 yards and five TDs while running back Ben Malena had 752 rushing yards and seven TDs.

For OU head coach Bob Stoops, that offense was vintage Big 12.

“I think it’s been quite obvious to everyone that they brought a Big 12 offense to the SEC and have lit it up,” Stoops said. “They are third in total offense, also third in scoring offense. The way they have spread it out, they’ve handled those SEC defenses fairly well.

“In the end, this is what you notice: Johnny Manziel, the spread attack, no huddle, throwing the football around and Johnny pulling it down and running it when he doesn’t like what he sees. It is a challenge.”

Oklahoma is in the midst of what some have called a “disappointing” season. If only every coach could have their disappointments be as good as Stoops. The Sooners are poised to win an 11th game after claiming a share of their eighth Big 12 championship.

The disappointments came early, when Oklahoma lost at home to a ranked team (KSU) for the first time 14 consecutive games under Stoops. Oklahoma lost again later in the season to No. 5 Notre Dame. It’s the first time OU has lost two or more home games in a season since 1998.

OU managed to win its last five games of the season, though, including late-game heroics against both West Virginia and Oklahoma State while holding off TCU and Baylor.

The Sooners also have a positive, albeit brief history at the Cotton Bowl, having won their only appearance back in 2002, an 10-3 victory over Arkansas. For the Sooners, a second victory in the Cotton Bowl could redeem the season. For the Aggies, would a loss take away some of the luster of this season?

“We aren’t too focused about what people say,” Manziel said. “We have had a great year. A bowl game is a time where you come have fun. You come enjoy all the things they put out. You come to have dinner and get to be in Cowboy Stadium. You get to have fun. That is what people don’t get. Football is a game of fun.”

The Aggies have had a different relationship with the Cotton Bowl. A&M hasn’t won there since 1988 and has lost six straight. The Aggies are 4-8 all-time at the Cotton Bowl.

More than that, A&M has only won two bowl games in the last 20 years. The last time A&M had a reigning Heisman Trophy winner in a bowl game was in 1957 with John David Crow. A&M lost in the Gator Bowl to Tennessee 3-0 in Bear Bryant’s final game coaching the Aggies.

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