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Chomp and circumstance: a Gator wades into Aggie-land

Texas A&M vs. SMU
2:30 p.m. Saturday at Ford Stadium, Dallas
On TV: FSN
www.smumustangs.com


Which school within a few hours of DFW creates the best college football gameday atmosphere?
Posted 10:09am on Wednesday, Sep. 12, 2012

I saw my first splash of maroon at about 8:30 a.m. Saturday, driving down Forest Park Ave. in Fort Worth.

The GPS was pointing south toward College Station, three hours away, but I'd already encountered an Aggie fan - a woman walking her dog and wearing a Texas A&M pullover. There were six hours till kickoff, but she already had her game face on.

About 90 minutes later, on an empty stretch of Highway 6 past Waco, a maroon barn with signs painted on it reading "Gig'em Aggies" and "Whoop '15" appeared on the roadside. Another friendly reminder that I was about to go swimming in a sea of maroon.

There was only one problem: My colors are Orange and Blue for the University of Florida -- my alma mater and Texas A&M's first opponent in the SEC.

As a Gator deep in the heart of Aggieland, I was definitely about to enter unchartered waters.

When I asked a longtime Texan and college football fan what to expect at Kyle Field, she just shook her head with a mix of fear and admiration: "Aggies are crazy."

ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit has famously called A&M's "12th Man" student section the best in college football, not only because they stand the entire game - win or lose - but because they cheer the longest and loudest of any fans he's encountered.

Gamedays in College Station are so steeped in tradition, an outsider needs a decoder ring to make sense of all the Whoops! and hollers. I'm still not quite sure who the guys in the Good Humor Man outfits were dancing on the sidelines. And what's the deal with the collie on the field!?!

When college football started doing the Conference Conga the last couple of years - Nebraska shuffled off to the Big 10, Colorado to the Pac 12, TCU to the Big East, er, Big 12 - I didn't pay much attention. I was an SEC guy, and if all those other conferences wanted to toss aside tradition and ruin longstanding rivalries, well, that was their beeswax. The SEC was different, or so I thought.

But then last summer the SEC announced Texas A&M would become the conference's 13th member - only the third new team in its 70-year history (Arkansas and South Carolina are the others). Why the heck we needed a 13th team, I'll never know (ka-ching!), but before I could work up any righteous indignation, I realized that this meant my team would be coming to Texas!

I rolled into town around 11 a.m. Saturday, and the tailgate was already in full swing. So was ESPN's College Game Day. Excitement hung in the air, along with the sweet smell of burgers and BBQ sizzling on the grills.

But there was a whiff of anxiety, too. There was no history between the teams, no animosity, no remember-whens. Fans seemed to be sizing each other up, and keeping expectations in check: "We've got a freshman quarterback, and a new coach," Aggies fans said. "We're just hoping to see how we match up with the big boys in the SEC."

And the famous Gator gravitas was nowhere to be found. Florida fans, many clad in Tim Tebow jerseys, seemed to be hoping for some divine intervention. "God help us, because we do not want to get beat by the new kid on the block."

But that's exactly what happened in the first half. The Aggies whipped my Gators up and down the field. The 12th Man in the stands waved their white towels wildly, and the famed cannon sounded way too many times for my liking (Texas A&M led 17-10).

When the Corps of Cadets band marched onto the field and lined up in formation, spelling out SEC, it was a clear sign they had arrived.

And then something strange and beautiful (for Gator fans) happened in the second half. Almost like a big brother who lets his little bro get ahead just far enough so he doesn't feel bad, the Gator defense reasserted its dominance, and completely shut down the Aggies. World order was restored. And the Gators won 20-17.

As we filed out, I heard the chants of "It's great, to be, a Florida Gator ...," our traditional victory song after a win at the Swamp in Gainesville.

It had to sound like nails on a chalkboard for Aggie fans, who had their share of late-game losses in the Big 12.

"Just like last year," I overheard one student telling her parents on her cell as we walked toward our cars. "Great game," another guy said sarcastically, "the first half, anyway."

Most soul-searching of all, was one woman's lament: "It's tough to be an Aggie .... every day."

But when the dust clears and the disappointment of this near-miss fades, I hope Aggie fans will be able to see a silver, or should I say maroon, lining. Their school delivered proof positive it belongs in the SEC, and not just from a football standpoint. Take it from someone who spent his wonder years in The Swamp: The proud traditions, diehard fans and gutsy football team I got to experience on my first Saturday in Aggieland is exactly what college football should be all about.

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