Does that mean the dangling carrot now has a maroon tint?
"Any time you have a team that hasn't been successful against one team for a long time," LT Tony Hills said, "that team can be dangerous."
In other words, six years of frustration makes for a mighty intangible against a rival for whom victory has been a foregone conclusion. The Horns are also in the middle of a stretch where they face two (possibly three) consecutive coaches who have the added incentive of needing a signature win against a storied program. Kansas State's Ron Prince's 45-42 shocker on November 12 was bracketed by losses to Baylor and Kansas, Nebraska's Bill Callahan has yet to rubberstamp his program while Aggie coach Dennis Franchione's topsy-turvy tenure is well documented.
The $2 million coach has a 24-22 record during four seasons in Aggieland and is 1-10 against Big 12 South foes Texas, Texas Tech and Oklahoma. That leaves the Aggies battling it out for fourth place against the Oklahoma States of the world. It also leaves even the most sunshine pumping of Aggie fans wondering when they will get some return on their investment. Statistically, A&M is markedly improved in several areas (particularly rushing offense). One can also pinpoint progress even in narrow losses to OU, Nebraska and Texas Tech (the Aggies held late fourth quarter leads against the Cornhuskers and Red Raiders).
"They're playing with a lot of confidence," Co-Defensive Coordinator Gene Chizik said. "They lost two close ones, but they're in every game with a chance to win."
But big-time college football is a bottom-line business. Close-but-no-cigar is still the same as so-close-but-yet-so-far, especially when your head guy gets paid more than at least 109 other Division-I coaches.
On Friday, Aggies everywhere will be looking for confirmation that things are going to be okay on Fran's watch. Meanwhile, the Horns will be looking to hook a share of the Big 12 South for the sixth time in the 11 years of the league and book passage to the conference championship game in Kansas City on December 3. Texas players insist that, for the first time in years, post-season possibilities have been put on the back burner. This week, it's all about the Aggies. Seems like old times, even if current Horns can scarcely remember a time when Texas lost to its ancient rival. With 113 meetings between them, the Texas-Texas A&M family feud is the third most-played series in NCAA history. Freshman QB Colt McCoy, cleared this week to make his first appearance in this series, will bring a sense of that history to the field.
"It's a game that everybody in the state of Texas watches because it's the day after Thanksgiving," McCoy said. "It's always the morning after. I grew up watching this game. It's just a dream to play in a rivalry game like this."
When Texas A&M surprised everyone with QB Stephen McGee running the option against Texas last season, many thought the scheme was just a one-afternoon stand. Many envisioned McGee operating some sort of spread passing attack when the sophomore took over the reigns this season. Eleven games later, the Aggies remain an option-oriented offense characterized by zone plays and the old 'Frog Draw' that Oklahoma ran successfully against Texas in 2002.
For what it's worth, the Aggies are one of only two Division-I teams that average 200+ yards rushing and 200+ yards passing per ballgame (the other is Oklahoma State). But it speaks to a balanced unit that can move the ball on the ground or through the air. The Aggies lead the Big 12 with 207.5 rushing ypg while McGee is Colt McCoy-efficient by completing 170-of-274 passes for 2,060 yards (187.3 ypg). He has thrown 11 TDs against just two INTs.
"In this day and age, you don't know what they're going to do," Chizik said. "They may run more than they pass, or they may pass more than they run. It depends on what they see."
Chances are, they'll see a Longhorn run defense that ranks No. 1 nationally (42 ypg) and a pass defense ranked No. 111 nationally (249 ypg).
Remember RB Courtney Lewis? Just wondered. The senior has battled some injuries but yielded his starting spot to Jorvorskie Lane the third game of the season. The sophomore Lane has netted 629 yards on 143 carries, and is the kind of short-yardage back that Texas fans hoped Henry Melton would be. Lane's 19 rushing TDs ranks second nationally, and he has converted on 24-of-27 short-yardage or goal-line situations this season (which makes Franchione's decision not to use Lane on 3rd-and-goal in consecutive losses to OU and Nebraska all the more inexplicable). Lane is the primary reason why A&M leads the Big 12 with a 50 percent success rate (75-of-150) on third-down conversions.
Freshman RB Mike Goodson has 699 yards on 99 totes. The offensive jewel of the 2006 recruiting class has led the Aggies in rushing the past three contests, averaging 101 ypg and 10.5 ypc.
McGee has found a school-record 16 different receivers this season. His favorite target is Austin Westlake product WR Chad Schroeder. The senior has grabbed a team-high 36 catches for 561 yards and three TDs.
TE Martellus Bennett is a legend in his own mind, but backs some of the smack with 487 yards and three TDs on 35 grabs.
One year after he was shown the door at Western Michigan, former Texas Defensive Coordinator Gary Darnell inherited an Aggie defense that was more of a wrecked crew than a Wrecking Crew. He installed a 4-2-5 scheme intended to counter today's spread offenses and (no surprise to Horn fans) a bend-don't break defense.
"From what I've studied of A&M, they're not going to let you make a big play," McCoy said. "They're going to cover well. They're going to make you make mistakes. They're a different team than we've faced all year because they don't blitz as much and they play their base defense most of the time."
"They're liable to change it up completely," McCoy said, "because everybody we've played has done something differently."
The Aggies ranked dead last in pass defense last season and currently rank No. 48 (189.3 ypg) in that category. Senior Melvin Bullitt has triggered the improvement and thrives after moving this season into a hybrid SS/OLB. He is the team's second-leading tackler (69), including six TFL and seven PBUs. Bullitt is the only senior scholarship DB on the Aggie roster. There are four sophomores on the two-deep chart while RS-freshman CB Jordan Peterson (God love him) gave up the game-winning TD toss in the closing seconds against both Texas Tech and Nebraska this season.
The Aggie run defense still has a little more work to do before reclaiming its Wrecking Crew status, yielding 127.8 rushing ypg (No. 51). Senior MLB Justin Warren is a four-year starter who leads the team with 82 tackles. Junior DE Chris Harrington is the team's top pass-rusher with 6.5 sacks and leads the defensive front with 52 stops.
The Aggies are giving up 19.5 points-per-game.
"They're definitely better in scoring defense," said Brown, whose Horns are yielding 18.4 ppg. "They're keeping people out of the end zone better than they did last year."
Arguably, the biggest area of defensive improvement is the Aggies have put the clamps on opponents during the second half. The Ags have allowed just 68 total points after intermission all season, allowing the offense to get back into the ballgame. In fact, A&M has either been tied or trailed at halftime during six ballgames this year.
"When you watch the tape, you don't see a whole lot of different things in the second half," Offensive Coordinator Greg Davis said. "They just play better. Part of it is they get the speed of the game and see what's happening."
Now, Franchione's Aggies just want to get over the hump.