The landscape shift of conference realignment didn’t start with Texas A&M.
But the fault lines of the Aggies’ move to the Southeastern Conference from the Big 12 stretch across all major conferences, with potentially far-reaching consequences.
This is because Texas A&M sits on the nation’s most fertile ground for prospects: The state of Texas typically produces the most Division I signees, about 350 per year. While the Aggies conducted business in the Big 12, and as Texas and Oklahoma re-established dominance under Mack Brown and Bob Stoops, much of the top talent remained close to home.
But A&M switching conference addresses changes things.
“You can look at it two ways,” said Jeremy Crabtree, senior recruiting coordinator for ESPN. “Texas A&M can sell to Texas recruits that it plays in the nation’s toughest conference.
“And SEC schools can come into Texas and tell kids they can play a game in their own backyard every other year.”
Either way, the recruiting stakes are higher for the Aggies, who have to step up their game to be competitive in the SEC.
Texas A&M seemed to have several advantages in the Big 12: size and scope of the football program, one of the league’s larger operating budgets and proximity to perhaps the largest concentration of great high school athletes in Houston.
But, except for the 1998 Big 12 championship — an upset victory over Kansas State — the Aggies never won at expected levels. Two winning conference records in A&M’s final seven years in the Big 12 spanned two coaches. Dennis Franchione was fired after the 2007 season, and Mike Sherman got the axe after last season.
Enter Kevin Sumlin, who was hired from Houston, where he went 35-17 in four years, including 12-1 last year. He previously worked at A&M as a wide-receivers coach and briefly as the Aggies’ offensive coordinator under R.C. Slocum.
Sumlin is breaking in a new quarterback after first-round draft selection Ryan Tannehill moved on, and sophomore Jameill Showers was the leader after spring workouts. But Sumlin insists a battle will continue through the week of the Aug. 30 opener against Louisiana Tech in Shreveport, La.
That could make this a difficult transition year for the Aggies, coming off a 7-6 season that ended with a victory over Northwestern in the Texas Bowl.
“I don’t care what league you’re in, when you have a new quarterback and a new coaching staff, there’s going to be a period of adjustment,” said Slocum, the all-time victory leader among coaches in A&M history.
But Slocum is convinced that Texas A&M made the right move and that the recruiting advantage will belong to the Aggies.
“The best-case scenario is for a kid to go to a school where his folks can see him play,” Slocum said. “Mama, dad, grandma, little sister, they all come to the games. That’s never changed.”
Sumlin said the early returns have A&M expanding its recruiting boundaries, especially in Louisiana, Mississippi and Arkansas. Schools in those states, like the Aggies, play in the SEC West.
“Our brand at Texas A&M, our history, our tradition, our location, being part of the SEC has not hurt us one bit in the state and moving east, and nationally,” Sumlin said.
Three players from Louisiana are part of the Aggies’ commitment list for 2013. No Texans are part of LSU’s yet. But Tigers coach Les Miles expects his program to have a greater presence in the Lone State State.
“There will be a greater opportunity to go in there and recruit,” Miles said. “I think there will be a little more open-door policy in Texas.”
If Miles is correct, the recruiting heat in Texas will turn up for Big 12 schools. With A&M in the conference, the Big 12 was the only major player in Texas. Sure, Texas fed programs throughout the nation, like former Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck from Houston.
But the Big 12 has worked hard to maintain Texas as a home-conference advantage.
Now, as Miles said, doors are open.
“Suddenly, a Texas kid who was choosing among Texas Tech, Oklahoma State, Kansas State or Kansas now might have Arkansas, LSU, or even Georgia coming in with the same pitch,” Crabtree said.
Coaches who already know the state, who have established trust with Texas high school coaches, will have an edge, according to Crabtree. One of those programs could be the other SEC newcomer, Missouri.
“The Missouri staff has done such a great job in Texas over the past 10 years,” Crabtree said. “They can walk into high schools in Houston and Dallas, and the coaches there know them. That’s a huge advantage Missouri has right now over other SEC schools.”
But the biggest edge in recruiting Texas goes to Texas A&M, and it’s never been more important for the Aggies to cash in.