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Could Texas A&M have won the national championship in 2012 as a member of the Big 12?

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Texas A&M transitioned to the SEC in 2012 and had a huge first season, winning 11 games, upsetting Alabama, and watching freshman QB Johnny Manziel garner a Heisman trophy. But what more might have been had the Aggies been in the Big 12 for even just one season more?

AT&T Cotton Bowl - Texas A&M v Oklahoma Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

When I think back on the 2012 season, which Bill Connelly has been profiling recently with his updated S&P+ rankings, it’s hard for me to think of anything other than what might have been for Texas A&M. No doubt moving to the SEC has been lucrative for the Aggies and put them in strong position as a University to field relevant football teams that engender interest and promote the school. But what if they’d made the move even one year later?

The 2012 Aggies finished no. 3 in the updated rankings, with the 6th best offense in the country and perhaps more importantly the 13th best defense. They were 11-2 on the year with a narrow opening season loss to Florida (three points), another narrow loss to LSU (five points), and then a narrow win on the road against the eventual champion Alabama Crimson Tide (five points). Then they finished the season in the Cotton Bowl against the co-Big 12 champion Oklahoma Sooners, whom they obliterated 41-13.

The great what-if goes as such: What if the Aggies (and Missouri Tigers) had still been a part of the Big 12 in 2012? Might they have avoided teams of LSU or Florida’s caliber, finished the season undefeated, and then perhaps pulled off their shocking upset of Alabama in the title game rather than a road trip in conference play?

The prospective 2012 Big 12

The Big 12 went to the round robin format in 2011 after losing Nebraska and Colorado. When they lost A&M and Missouri they replaced them with TCU and West Virginia. So we have two hypothetical worlds here, one in which A&M and Missouri are still in the league but they add those two programs to get back to 12 and another in which TCU and WVU aren’t a factor here. A&M’s chances at claiming the 2012 B12 title doesn’t substantially change in either hypothetical but the latter scenario is more likely. The Big 12 probably would not have added TCU and WVU before A&M and Missouri left since it would have forced them to split the revenue 12 ways with a weaker sell for TV markets than they'd had with Nebraska and Colorado.

The 2012 Big 12 wasn’t a particularly tough one. The championship was split between the best second-era Bill Snyder team and the first second-era Mike Stoops OU squad, although that split title was largely derided by commentators since K-State beat the Sooners in Norman that year. The Wildcats lost their shot at being sole champions either when the league opted against a title game or tiebreaker or when they lost starting safety Ty Zimmerman for the Baylor game and were run over to the tune of 342 rushing yards.

Texas was decent that year, boasting a retooled and Bryan Harsin-coordinated offense but also a partially collapsed Manny Diaz defense that was repeatedly victimized by the league’s explosive spread offenses. Oklahoma State was trying to “reload” without Justin Blackmon or Brandon Weeden and cycled through three different QBs en route to an 8-5 year. That concludes our summary of teams with winning records in league play that year.

The “swing” teams in alternative hypotheticals were largely unthreatening as well. Missouri was 5-7 in 2012 while TCU went 7-6 and West Virginia did likewise. The Mountaineers had an explosive offense featuring Geno Smith, Tavon Austin, and Stedman Bailey but a terrible defense. The Frogs had an opposite dynamic with a typical Gary Patterson defense but a mess of an offense that started with Casey Pachall and then moved on to an unprepared Trevone Boykin when the former was arrested and suspended.

The biggest challenge for A&M in the 2012 Big 12 would have been in surviving either a round robin without a misstep or a eight game slate that then added a title game (maybe a rematch) against one of the more solid teams. It was mostly a matter of whether A&M had the personnel to generate overwhelming matchups against the league’s slate so that they weren’t in too many close contests that could have threatened a perfect record.

The 2012 Texas Aggies

The Aggies made a new hire heading into the SEC season and they adopted very well to their new systems on both sides of the ball under new head coach Kevin Sumlin. Mike Sherman had ironically recruited some truly dynamic spread weapons out of the Texas high schools only to waste them in his pro-style offense. There were amazing players just waiting around when Sumlin took over, even beyond Johnny Manziel. Their OL was filled with future NFL draft picks like Luke Joeckel, Jake Matthews, and Cedric Ogbuehi who’d all gained valuable experience in the 2011 season. WR had lethal slot Ryan Swope and then freshman wideout Mike Evans.

On defense, new coordinator Mark Snyder was inheriting a group that had been recruited for a 3-4 defense but that meant it was stocked with big, pass-rushing OLBs Sean Porter and Damontre Moore and also had versatile senior DT Spencer Nealy, and veteran inside-backer Jonathan Stewart. The secondary was largely rebuilt from 2011 and would have been the biggest sticking point for them in getting through the Big 12 unscathed, but Moore finished the year with 12.5 sacks and the team had some nickel sub packages that would have been useful.

The biggest factor in their favor was undoubtedly their depth at receiver and the fact that no one in the country was prepared to handle Johnny Football in the Air Raid. Football had scarcely seen anything like it. The Aggies’ best play was a stick/draw concept, an RPO comparable to what the 2012 Big 12 teams were using to abuse each other but with even more spacing and even more deadly components.

Oklahoma was nearly undone by the Mountaineers when Dana Holgorsen would use trips formations with the three receivers bunched wide, only to run inside zone for Tavon Austin, whom he’d recently moved to RB:

But even in this deadly play, Geno Smith is mostly a bystander and Austin usually had to deal with one of OU’s safeties either dropping into the box or playing downhill from about eight yards deep like Tony Jefferson did here. The Aggies’ stick-QB draw plays or QB scrambles would force man coverage and extreme spacing across the field before asking teams to tackle the comparably quick Johnny Manziel.

You couldn’t play the run downhill too easily from any position. The fact that Manziel was so good at improvising, was playing in a ton of space, and was playing behind a group with three eventual NFL first round tackle selections made it all too easy for the Aggies to impose their tempo and strengths on a game. You had to be able to deal with Manziel in space to beat them.

No one really had any answers on how to prevent Manziel from operating in space because those answers didn’t really exist. The best you could do was load the field with athletes and try to mix things up. It should be noted that LSU had multiple NFL players on their defense and talent beyond anyone in the Big 12 that season, and even still they gave up 19 to the Aggies and beat them with nickel and dime sub-packages that generated quick interior pressure.

None of the offensively oriented teams in the Big 12 were well equipped to hold up against Johnny Football in a shootout. There wasn’t enough talent on the D-lines to beat the Aggie OL and corral Murray, nor enough athletes to match up on defense. Many of the B12’s teams may have struggled to generate a shootout against the Aggie defense regardless. The Aggies were clever about taking advantage of Moore’s pass rush and the blitzing ability of their linebackers to drop DBs and double troublesome wideouts while leaning on a four man rush. They would have likely shut down some of the league’s spread offenses, or at least limited their ability to try and keep pace with Johnny. On both sides of the ball the Aggies had superior play in the trenches and the means to make you come to grips with their talent.

The worst case for A&M would have been to face Kansas Stater early in the season before Collin Klein was slowed down by his absurd workload and then to face Baylor late in the season when they were on a roll with Lache Seastrunk at RB, and then also to face both on the road. Even in those settings, it’s hard to imagine either of those teams beating the Aggies. Neither had the means to defend Manziel.

Endgame: Showdown with Saban in an alternate universe

Nick Saban had two huge advantages against A&M in the actual 2012 season’s contest that took place. First, he played them at home in the friendly confines of Tuscaloosa rather than in Florida where the title game was hosted. Secondly, he played them after seeing film of how other defenses had successfully slowed Manziel down. Particularly the LSU and Florida defenses that were among the best in the country. That would not have been the case had the Aggies come off a rampage through the Big 12, which probably would have failed to ever really slow Manziel down.

He’d also have one extra advantage he would not have had, extra time and practices that could have been devoted to working out a gameplan to stopping Manziel. However with about a decade of games to glean from, I’m inclined to think it wouldn’t have helped him. The Tide, having a big team that wasn’t recruited to stop the spread, struggled with the Aggies tactics and tempo and extra time wouldn’t have changed the composition of their roster.

What’s more, Saban then had an offseason to study up and try to evolve his defense and build a package for Manziel. In the 2012 matchup Johnny Football would end up throwing for 464 yards and rushing for 98 more as the Aggies poured on 42 points. Alabama won the game but they did so by scoring 49 points and essentially out-dueling Johnny and feasting on a depleted defense that had graduated or sent to the NFL the strong front that carried the 2012 unit.

This last year we saw Saban take on a Manziel facsimile in Kyler Murray and get gashed again after years of recruiting and evolving to better handle HUNH spread opponents. Once more they won only because of offense, had the Sooners fielded a good defense the Tide might have been toast as they were the following week against Clemson. There’s simply little reason to believe that Saban was ever going to get the better of Manziel on a big stage regardless of how much time and preparation he put into the game.

We’ll never know what might have been. At the time it didn’t seem as though the Aggies had missed such a big opportunity. Manziel had at least one more year of eligibility, Kevin Sumlin was translating the success into high level recruiting, and the Aggies were thriving in the SEC. Even now there’s hope that Jimbo Fisher could get the Aggies into the playoffs at some point in the not too distant future. But it’s crazy to reflect on the fact that a Texas A&M that had made the transition to the SEC even one year later might have been perfectly situated to win the school’s first national championship since 1939.