By Scott Crumbly
SEC Digital Network
The 2012 season was a year of firsts for Texas A&M.
It marked the first year that A&M played as a member of the Southeastern Conference; it was the first year since 1915 that the Aggies would not square off with in-state rival Texas; and it was the first year under the leadership of head coach Kevin Sumlin.
As the Aggies entered their first season in the nation's premier football conference - the league that has won six consecutive national titles and will go for number seven on Jan. 7 - many media pundits were not expecting A&M to make much noise.
Despite the fact that Sumlin was taking over a team that returned 17 starters, TAMU's 7-6 finish in 2011 led many to believe that it would not turn many heads this season. A&M's 4-5 finish in Big 12 play a season ago insinuated that the 2012 Aggies would be in for a rough transition in year one in the SEC.
Well, as the saying goes, hindsight is 20/20.
Sumlin and Texas A&M surprised everyone but themselves in 2012, entering the SEC with quite a bang en route to finishing in a tie for second-place in the Western Division along with LSU. The Aggies ripped off a 10-2 regular season record - 6-2 in conference play - and have secured a spot in the Cotton Bowl next month against old Big 12 foe Oklahoma.
After such an impressive showing this season, Sumlin has earned the distinction of SEC Co-Coach of the Year alongside Florida's Will Muschamp. Sumlin, who made the jump to College Station following four seasons at the helm at Houston, has done a magnificent job with his new team and answered some significant questions along the way.
Under coach Mike Sherman in 2011, Texas A&M gained a reputation as a team that could not finish the job in the second half. The Aggies lost four games in which they led by double-digits after the break, and one couldn't help but wonder if an inability to close out ballgames would only be magnified in the SEC. After giving up a 10-point halftime lead in a 20-17 loss to Florida in the first game of the season, it appeared that A&M was still battling the same issue.
But after the Aggies fought their way to close wins on the road against Ole Miss (30-27), Louisiana Tech (59-57) and Alabama (29-24), that issue appears to be a thing of the past. Sumlin developed a team that became known not only for starting quickly (A&M outscored its opponents by 244 points in the first half), but also for finishing strong - after the season-opening hiccup against the Gators, who would gain a reputation as a second half team as the year progressed, TAMU never surrendered another second half lead. Seven of A&M's 10 wins came by 19 points or more, including three of 42-plus and one of 56.
Another big question facing Sumlin entering the year was whether or not his air raid offense would fare well against the elite defenses in the SEC. Houston finished either first or second in Conference USA in total offense in each of Sumlin's four seasons in charge, averaging 551 yards per game over the course of his tenure. But defense reigns supreme in the SEC, and many outside the program were skeptical of how effective the Aggies would be in their new league.
That question also seems daft at this point, however, because Sumlin and the Aggies answered it emphatically.
Behind coordinator Kliff Kingsbury and a phenomenal redshirt freshman quarterback, Sumlin's attack led the SEC in total offense, averaging 552 yards per contest. The Aggies were No. 1 in the league in rushing, passing and scoring, averaging over six points per game more than second-place Alabama. Quarterback Johnny Manziel was the SEC's individual leader in total offense and would go on to win the Heisman Trophy after racking up 4,600 yards and 43 touchdowns.
The only losses that TAMU incurred on the season came at the hands of Florida and LSU, two teams that are now ranked in the top 10 nationally. The two defeats came by a combined eight points, and the Aggies were in the thick of things until the final whistle in each instance.
In fact, six SEC squads are currently in the Bowl Championship Series top 10, three of which were on A&M's schedule - a testament to just how treacherous of a road Sumlin had to navigate on his way to TAMU's first 10-win season since 1998.
Kevin Sumlin inherited a monumental task when he took over as the head man in College Station, but one thing has become abundantly clear after Texas A&M's first year of SEC play: The Aggies fit in very well in their new league.
And so does their coach.