Through the pain, mistakes and defeats, McNeal got increasingly better. Now, as a junior, McNeal has blossomed into one of the nation's best quarterbacks.
McNeal's rapid development is largely responsible for the Aggies' transformation under second-year coach Dennis Franchione. McNeal, a prized recruit three years ago out of Lufkin, Texas, has resuscitated a Texas A&M team that went 4-8 last year. The Aggies are 7-4 heading into the Cotton Bowl against Tennessee despite facing one of the toughest schedules in the nation.
Franchione doesn't want to think about where his team would be without McNeal.
''I have said many times that we put a lot, maybe too much, on Reggie too quick,'' Franchione said. ''That happens to heralded recruits sometimes. I think that was a lot to be put on Reggie last year. He handled it well, but he is much better prepared to handle it now.
''He is much better with his team. He absorbed the losses last year, and I think now he is more concerned about his teammates and leading them. There is no area of personality or maturity that he is not improved from last year. He handles the ups and downs of a game and a season much better.''
McNeal's statistics reveal just how important he has been to the Aggies‚ offense. A double threat, he was the team's second-leading rusher with 700 yards rushing and eight touchdowns while passing for 2,550 yards and 13 touchdowns. He set a school single-season record for total offense with 3,250 yards.
One of McNeal's best performances came in a 42-35 loss to Oklahoma. Despite leaving with an injury in the third period, he passed for 213 yards and two touchdowns and added a rushing touchdown.
McNeal's maturity level is reflected in the numbers. After throwing seven interceptions last year, he had just three this year with far more passing attempts.
''Reggie has certainly grown up,'' Franchione said. ''He played a little bit as a freshman, and played a lot last year. He has really come into his own this year. He has really matured and taken over the leadership role on this team.''
Stardom was all but assured for McNeal after an eye-opening performance against the Sooners as a freshman. He came off the bench to lead the Aggies to a 30-26 win over then top-ranked Oklahoma, passing for four touchdowns on 8-of-19 passing.
McNeal was injured soon after and played sparingly the rest of that season, but Texas A&M fans knew they had a player.
''He is just a very talented player,'' Franchione said. ''He is a passer, not a thrower. He is somebody you can build your team around because he can make plays. He is the catalyst for us. He is a great starting point.''
Of course, McNeal can't beat the Vols by himself. He'll need help from teammates who have helped the Aggies' offense remain fairly balanced.
Texas A&M enters the game averaging 185 yards rushing and 263 passing. Running back Courtney Lewis has rushed for 748 yards and nine touchdowns. Receiver Terrence Murphy has 51 catches for 682 yards and three touchdowns.
''We like what we have been able to do,'' Franchione said. ''We have been able to change offensively in the last couple of years, and have gone to a little bit more of a spread offense. We have been far more balanced. We have had some games where we should have been a little heavier one way or the other depending on what was there. But it is pretty much what we have tried to get to.''
The success of the Aggies‚ offense hasn't been lost on Tennessee coach Phil Fulmer.
''Dennis has done a great job there in a very short period of time in turning them into a really dynamic offensive football team, led by Reggie McNeal,'' Fulmer said. ''They put a lot of pressure on the defense with their passing attack and their option offense. It will be a challenge for our defense.''