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Cotton Bowl Preview: Texas A&M Ends Up Where It Started

It's been an unlikely return journey to the Cotton Bowl for Texas A&M. But will it end happily?

Scott Halleran

AT&T Cotton Bowl: Texas A&M Aggies vs. Oklahoma Sooners, 8 p.m. ET, FOX

The last game that Texas A&M played as a member in good and seemingly permanent standing in the Big 12 was the Cotton Bowl in January 2011. By then, the realignment frenzy of 2010 had died. If anyone was seen as likely to bolt their current location after the game, it was Les Miles.

Texas A&M returns to the Cotton Bowl as a member of the SEC and facing a member of the Big 12 after having spent most of the summer of 2011 trying to get out of that conference. It faces, ironically enough, another team that spent some time in 2011 looking for another arrangement (though you could now say that for practically every member of the Big 12).

The Aggies' presence here is also a surprise. A&M entered the 2012 season with a new coach in a new league after a 7-6 record the year before. The consensus was that Kevin Sumlin's offense would need some time to find its footing in the SEC, and that the learning curve was steep in a division that included three teams that had won national titles in the last five years.

It wasn't clear until at least October how wrong that was. The Aggies scored just 17 points in their first SEC game, against Florida at College Station; their first SEC win was an annihilation of Arkansas, which was that point spinning out of control. The first glimmer that the team might be very good was a two-point win at Louisiana Tech, though even that only meant so much.

The whole time, the offense continued racking up pretty solid numbers. Texas A&M would average 552.3 yards a game in 2012. And the team kept moving up the rankings, but was still outside the Top 15 when it lost to LSU. It notched a few more wins to be No. 15 when it faced Alabama -- a game several people saw as a potential trap game for the Tide, but likely only in the sense that it would rouse Bama to actually have to play for a few quarters.

Instead, the Aggies ground out 418 yards of total offense, second only to LSU among Alabama's opponents, and removed the last serious hurdle to finishing the season with 10 wins. The win propelled Johnny Manziel, perhaps the best first-year starter in America, to the Heisman.

About the same time, Oklahoma was winning at West Virginia and very close to doing the same thing. The next two weeks would bring a rivalry game against Oklahoma State and a contest at TCU; both those teams would likely be underdogs against the Sooners. But even with a 10-win season, the Sooners were something of a disappointment, coming into the season as the consensus No. 4 team before losing to Kansas State and Notre Dame. So perhaps it's a surprise that Oklahoma is here as well.

The Sooners can put up some numbers as well, powering for nearly 506 yards a game in 2012. The majority of that comes from the passing attack led by Landry Jones, who threw for 500 or more yards twice this season and had a solid passer rating.

Which means it might come down to which defense can slow the opposing offense down more. Oklahoma holds opponents to a meager 104.43 passer rating and less than 200 yards a game through the air. A&M is not terrible in either aspect of defense, but it's a middling team in the SEC in most of the statistical categories.

Part of me wants to play to the crowd here, and choose A&M to win its first bowl game as a member of the SEC against a member of the Big 12. And there's not a ton of difference here. I hope I'm wrong, but I've just a feeling this one slips away from the Aggies late. But if there's anyone that can prove me wrong here, it's Johnny Football.

Oklahoma 21, Texas A&M 20