As is the case in any divorce, Texas A&M's separation from the Big 12 left plenty of bitter feelings to go around. As a result, public sniping flying between Austin and College Station seemed to focus the narrative of the Aggies' departure through the lens of bickering with in-state rival Texas.
Not surprisingly, A&M’s move was written off by many as probably the greatest example of the school’s supposed inferiority complex. It also generated plenty of skepticism about the long-term prospects for the program and predictions of dire on-field results from the jump.
These days, the Aggies' start in their inaugural season in the vaunted Southeastern Conference is being pointed to as a sign that they belong in America's biggest, baddest conference. A&M fans are rightfully taking the opportunity to serve up heaping helpings of crow to their detractors. Freshman phenom Johnny Football is garnering breathless comparisons to Cam Newton and Tim Tebow.
The hype for the Aggies seems to have hit a fever pitch this week as they travel to Tuscaloosa for a match-up with No. 1 Alabama.
Funny thing: My eyes tell me that this A&M team really isn't much better than last year's squad.
Oh, sure, the way the Aggies are playing definitely looks different under first-year head coach Kevin Sumlin. Yet, is 2012 A&M a better team than the 2011 version? I don’t see it.
The nerds who do those fancy statistical power rankings agree.
Texas A&M Power Rankings, 2011 vs. 2012
The consensus among the geeks: A&M of today is, at best, slightly stronger than A&M of a year ago. Yet, based on records, you'd think we're talking New York Giants versus Little Giants. The Aggies currently sit at 7-2 and should finish the regular season no worse than 9-3 (remaining games: at Alabama, Sam Houston State, Missouri). A&M had a 7-6 record in ‘11 and needed a win over Northwestern in the illustrious Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas to get north of .500.
Along with the attending buzz, what has changed dramatically for A&M is the schedule.
Texas A&M Strength of Schedule, 2011 vs. 2012
(*Note: The SOS rankings for 2012 don't account for the three regular season games yet to be played. I'd argue that even with 'Bama coming up, the totality of the level of competition in those three final games is pretty consistent with the previous nine.)
And what has changed dramatically about A&M’s schedule? Three letters.
A&M’s first season in the SEC has actually given us a nice little test case to judge the top-to-bottom strength of the conference. Put simply, a team of relatively similar quality as the one that played in the Big 12 last season is winning more games this year in a new league.
None of this is to say that A&M isn’t a good team. It also doesn’t mean that the program won’t have a bright future under Sumlin’s leadership. Personally, I don't see how you can't be impressed by what A&M is doing this year.
But A&M's fast start does suggest that we give some consideration to the commonly held perception of the grueling grind of SEC play. Even though the league may have elite teams at the top, the Aggie experiment indicates that the SEC has the same wobbly middle and lower tiers of teams as everyone else. A&M wasn't housing Texas Tech and Missouri a year ago, after all.
It could be that the true revealtion this season isn’t A&M, but the SEC.