After just three years, realignment has already fundamentally altered the trajectory of Texas football. The Texas A&M Aggies are surging like never before and they’ve done what many long considered to be impossible — they’ve passed Texas to become the preeminent program in the state. That’s not my opinion, that’s a fact buttressed by the most important data out there — recruiting rankings. Take a look at Rivals recruiting rankings in the state since A&M joined the SEC. Right now Kevin Sumlin has the nation’s third best recruiting class. Right now the Texas Longhorns under Charlie Strong are tied for the 29th best class in the nation. They’d be ranked higher, of course, if A&M didn’t keep taking all the recruits the Longhorns wanted. One top recruit after another is considering the Longhorns and Aggies, and time after time these top players are picking the Aggies.
In fact, since the Aggies joined the SEC the recruiting rankings have flipped. In the 11 years before A&M joined the SEC, the average Aggie recruiting ranking on Rivals was 20.5. The average Texas recruiting class ranking, on the other hand, was 8.7. In the three years that A&M has been recruiting in the SEC, the average Aggie recruiting ranking is 6.6, while the average Texas recruiting ranking is 24.3. (The third season is incomplete, but reflective of the past two season’s patterns.) Now Longhorn fans may say that’s a function of a coaching change, but the numbers don’t bear that out. Even with Mack Brown tossed to the wayside the Longhorn class in 2014 was ranked higher than the 2013 and 2015 classes. Plus, let’s be honest here, the reason Mack Brown got fired was because Texas was falling further and further behind the Aggies.
As if that wasn’t enough, most coaches arrive on campus and immediately put together their best class in the first year they spend on campus. New coaches can sell energy and excitement and playing time. It’s a whole new world. So why isn’t that happening with Texas? Why are recruits still lining up to play for Texas A&M while spurning Texas even with its new coach? It’s simple: When the Aggies joined the SEC, everything changed in the state of Texas.
How did this happen so quickly? How did a perennial little brother in the lone star state suddenly reverse decades of history and steal a march on the big brother? Because right now the top college football program in the state isn’t in Austin, it’s in a small sliver of east Texas, College Station. Part of A&M’s rise was undoubtedly the holy trinity of Texas A&M athletics — the combination of Kevin Sumlin, Johnny Manziel and the SEC coming together in 2012 at the perfect time. But that wasn’t it entirely. After all, while Johnny Manziel was exciting as hell on the field and Kevin Sumlin’s offense is great fun to watch, the Aggies have just gone 10-6 in their 16 SEC games. Indeed, that’s what should be scariest of all to Texas. The Aggies are dominating them in recruiting and prestige and they haven’t even started to win big yet.
Mostly, it was A&M joining the SEC.
A&M was like a card counter who sat down at the table and immediately hit two straight blackjacks with Sumlin and Manziel. It’s a great result, but it’s not the reason you sat down at the table. If you’re a card counter you know you’re going to win the game long-term, but you don’t count on getting incredibly lucky in the meantime. Sumlin and Manziel immediately made A&M’s decision makers and the SEC’s leaders look brilliant. They were the lucky blackjacks, but the long range strategy of A&M in the SEC was bound to pay off eventually. The Aggie braintrust card counters surveyed the college football landscape and realized they weren’t going to beat the Longhorns by going toe-to-toe in Texas. They needed back-up. So they brought the SEC branded cavalry.
While Longhorn fans were snickering about how A&M would perform in the SEC, the Aggies branded themselves as the SEC in Texas. I noticed it the moment I got to College Station for the first time. Sure, there were Aggie signs galore, but Texas A&M wedded itself to the SEC too. The stadium was covered in SEC logos, and t-shirts prominently featured the Aggie brand joining the SEC. Aggie leaders knew that once they started to sell the top conference in football to Texas high school kids, they were going to have a product that no one else could match in the state.
Not even the Longhorns.
While A&M was wedding itself to the best brand in football other than the NFL, Texas’s leaders made the opposite decision, deciding the Longhorn brand was strong enough to stand alone. That was the entire business proposition behind the Longhorn Network — “We’re Texas, we don’t need to worry about anyone but us.” That line of thinking killed the Big 12, subtracting four decent-sized foes in the process — Nebraska, Texas A&M, Colorado and Missouri all fled for better pastures. TCU and West Virginia replaced those programs, devaluing the Big 12’s football brand. At the exact moment when who you played mattered the most to building your brand, the Longhorns decided the opposite. The problem was, Texas did need to worry about everyone else too; they just weren’t smart enough to realize it. To put it into historical terms, Texas was the Mexican Army under Santa Ana, taking a siesta while Sam Houston’s Texas A&M Aggie rebels snuck up on the sleeping Mexican army. The result was a rout, both in regional power and in national perception.
Don’t believe me that conference branding matters? Texas’s record in the Big 12 over the past two seasons is 12-6. Meanwhile, Texas A&M is 10-6 in the SEC. So the Longhorns have a better record in the Big 12 over the past two seasons than A&M does in the SEC. Yet Texas fired its coach and is scrambling to rebuild its program, meanwhile Texas A&M gave its coach a massive extension and is in the process of building the biggest stadium in the nation’s best conference. If that isn’t a great example of two college football ships passing in the night, I don’t know what is.
That’s because in college football today, you’re only as strong as your surrounding partners. Texas decided that playing Iowa State and Kansas and Kansas State every year wasn’t going to hurt its brand. Operating from a position of strength, the Longhorns chose poorly, believing that nothing would ever change in the state, that their position of prominence was unassailable. Now Texas isn’t in the SEC or even playing their former top rival anymore. They’ve been passed both regionally and nationally by the Aggies. What’s more, now they have direct competition in the state of Texas. Hell, you can make the argument that right now Texas is the third or fourth best program in the state in the Big 12. Baylor and Art Briles are running circles around the Longhorns, Texas Tech has the most charismatic coach in college football and plays an exciting brand of football, and TCU plays the style of football that Charlie Strong wants to play, only they’re better at it.
In less than five years Texas has gone from the premier program in its state to, potentially, the fifth best football program in the state. With the torrential downpour of money that is soon to surge into Texas A&M athletics from the SEC Network — a number that will make the Longhorn Network look like chicken feed — the Aggie ascension and Longhorn decline isn’t just a short blip on the radar that headed for a correction. It’s a fundamental alteration of generations of Texas football power.
A&M was smart enough to realize the value of the SEC’s brand. Texas wasn’t. And in the end, that made all the difference.